An online platform spans millennia of South Asian art

An ambitious new platform aims to centralize the history of art in India and South Asia from prehistory to the present in a single digital resource. The MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Art, launched last Thursday by the Bangalore Museum of Art and Photography, features over 2,000 articles and definitions on topics spanning pre-modern art, photography, design, popular culture and architecture. .

Nathaniel Gaskell, founder of the project, told Hyperallergic that he noticed “There was very little scholarship or material on South Asian art history online,” and most writing on the subject was extremely academic and obtuse, and even then accessible only to those with institutional affiliations.

While the subcontinent has long enjoyed a rich visual culture, represented by everything from lush manuscript paintings and long traditions of textile production to contemporary multimedia conceptual art, the process of classifying and studying this knowledge through the discipline of the history of art is more recent.

“Shah Jahan Hunting Black Antelopes with Trained Cheetahs” (1710-15), ink, gold, and opaque watercolor on paper (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Most of the platform’s content currently focuses on the art of India, but the resource will expand to include “broader stories from South Asia.” Some articles focus on recurring motifs in South Asian art (see “Beetle-wing embroidery”); others cover emblematic publications or works (see the People of India, Volume 1-8). Some describe sophisticated craft techniques (see Varak); still others summarize important artistic movements (see Bengal School). The interface encourages the curiosity of a generalist, who can digest various art history topics by endlessly scrolling from one related article to the next, or by clicking on randomly generated topics in a sidebar. Gaskell intended to launch the encyclopedia with an initial pack of articles and anticipates that it will grow in the coming years.

Anirudh Kanisetti, the research editor at MAP Academy, told Hyperallergic about the frustration he experienced firsthand while searching for “reliable information on various aspects of South Asian art history online.”

“It is difficult to learn about Indian history through online resources; One of the things people I know ask me most often is to recommend good books for them to read, because they can’t find more than two or three very dense academic writings online, which is a stark contrast to the way I what the story is about. written and taught in the United States and the United Kingdom,” Kanisetti said.

“Indian Art history is even more poorly understood: it is very difficult to find accessible and objectively researched materials on something as ubiquitous as, say, the Tanjore painting,” he continued.

Jyoti Bhatt, “A Lady and Children Gathered Before a Pithora Ritual Mural” (1992), gelatin silver print (image courtesy of MAP)

Gaskell doesn’t care if traffic to the site is driven by users searching Google for specific chapters of South Asian art history and visiting the platform briefly before clicking. By collecting authoritative information, he also hopes that the MAP Encyclopedia will help improve the substance and rigor of Wikipedia pages on the same topics. Visitors can feel relatively confident about the integrity of the entries: a team of about 20 full-time researcher-writers wrote each one before they were subject to review by an academic panel of senior scholars. Managing editor Shrey Maurya, who studies subjects in South Asian art including miniature painting, Buddhist art and jewelry, joined Gaskell two years ago as the second member of the team; Varun Nayar, a writer, editor and researcher from Delhi, served as senior editor for a year before leaving for the Aperture Foundation.

The social context that prompted Gaskell to start this project, as he put it, was the lack of a museum-going public and the absence of general interest in the discipline of art history in India.

“Even at the undergraduate level, there are hardly any courses,” Gaskell said, adding that despite there being some 1,600 art schools in the country, few offer art history.

“About three years ago I realized that if we really wanted to generate a larger audience and more interest [in the museum], we needed to look more at education. What was missing in education was the arts,” he said.

This was the impetus for MAP Academy, which in addition to hosting a fledgling encyclopedia also publishes online courses such as “Visual Literacy: How to Read Images,” “Sculpture: Archeology and Architecture,” and “Modern and Contemporary Indian Art.” The short version of each course, which takes about four hours to complete, will be released soon; long versions will be released in 2023. These online courses are intended to meet the interest of self-learners and support teachers and schools who want to develop an art history syllabus.

“Woman Riding Two Brahman Bulls” (1750 BC), bronze (image courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

While democratizing art history and expanding its scope to counter its Eurocentrism is a noble project, it is not without its pitfalls. As South Asian art historian Frederick Asher pointed out in an introduction to a compendium on Indian art from prehistory to the present, the same concepts of “art” and “art history” applied to South Asian expression they imply the imposition of a western and extractive form. to look

“Only in modern times, when the Western notion of collecting art took hold in South Asian visual culture, did the works take on a new meaning,” he wrote. “To a large extent, South Asian art collections, both public and private, were the result of European colonialism.” Aesthetic judgment systems such as feel have long guided Indian sensibilities, but the art history enterprise remains one with colonial legacies.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Refugees Exercising in a Camp to Drive Away Lethargy and Despair” (1947), gelatin silver print (courtesy MAP)

South Asian art history cannot avoid its colonial past, and entries such as one in a taxonomic ethnographic study of Indian “tribes” or another in an essentializing photographic exhibition that represents Indians but underrepresents Indian photographers They are clear examples that what counts as art is synonymous with the exercise of violence and power. And while the online encyclopedia represents an equal point of access to art, a recent New York Times The article also emphasized what a good resource it could be for collectors and dealers, those who normally benefit from the exploitation potential of art history.

Gaskell said he hopes the encyclopedia will be used by “regular people who want to engage with the content,” people without access to formal curricula or simply people with an avid interest in popular history.

“The work we’re doing here has the potential to be one of the first things people will read when trying to learn about Indian art in the future,” Kanisetti told Hyperallergic. “The fact that it is based on critical research and written for the general public will ensure that it is one of the most influential Indian public history resources of this decade.”

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