Treasures going back 10,000 years: A peek inside the Encyclopedia of Indian Art
How did a country with so much ancient art and culture have no encyclopaedic repository of it? Collector Abhishek Poddar and curator Nathaniel Gaskell asked and answered the question. Their ambitious digital encyclopaedia goes live on April 21.
Khujasta needed dissuasion from leaving her home at night to meet her lover, and her husband’s pet parrot devised a way of doing that. It would start a moral tale filled with heroism and intrigue just as she was about to step out, and Khujasta would stay back to hear more.
Khujasta and the talking parrot were written into existence in the 14th century by Sufi author Ziya al-Din Nakhshabi in Tutinama (Persian for Tales of a Parrot). Two hundred years later, Khujasta and the wise parrot were resurrected by the Mughal emperor Akbar, when he commissioned a lavishly illustrated manuscript of the literary work, first in the 1560s and again in the 1580s. The paintings that make up the first manuscript are seen as some of the earliest examples of Mughal miniature art.
Four centuries later, these works — painted on thin, light ivory paper accompanied by text written in the Nastaliq script — were re-margined and bound. By the 1960s, they had made their way to the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art in the US. And on April 21, a succinct entry on the Tutinama, tracing its significance in India’s art history, will form part of the to-be-launched Encyclopedia of Indian Art, an ambitious digital resource funded by art collector Abhishek Poddar’s Bengaluru-based Museum of Art & Photography (MAP).
“Tutinama was seen as one of the earliest examples of Mughal miniature painting but scholars conjecture that it was commissioned at a juncture when this style was still taking shape. The distinct colour scheme of the Tutinama illustrations has backgrounds in deep solid red, canary yellow or pink and the lighter tone of the (coarse) ultramarine, which was markedly different from the Hamzanama paintings that came after,” part of the entry will read.
MAP, which houses Poddar’s large, eclectic private collection, was slated to open towards the end of 2020. Amid pandemic-era lockdowns, it was launched digitally instead, in December 2020. (The physical museum is slated to open over December 9 and 10.) Simultaneously, the MAP Academy, an independent team of editors and researchers, began work on the encyclopaedia. This team is scattered across India, Dubai, San Jose and New York, with MAP Academy director Nathaniel Gaskell based in Singapore.
Though Poddar’s plans to put together an endowment fund faced delays, the MAP team only grew during the pandemic, he says, from 26 members to nearly 70 today. “We’ve taken on more people in the MAP academy — if we kept the same team doing this work over a longer period of time that would have been more expensive than getting a larger team to do the work over a shorter period of time,” Poddar says.
The initiative itself seems enormous. After all, how does one create a compendium of a 10,000-year history across regions, practices and art forms? Where does one start and, more importantly, finish? These were some of the questions that confronted Gaskell when he first struck upon the idea a little over three years ago. He started by cracking open a few books on Indian art history, and rummaged through their indexes and glossaries to create a “master list” of entries.
“At the end, we had this impossibly large list and even though it was quite exhaustive, there was no logic to why this [was included] and not that,” Gaskell says.
He hired a managing editor for the encyclopaedia, Shrey Maurya. Together, Maurya and a few teammates began to “hack away” at the list. Eventually more research associates joined, and a template was designed: a style guide to ensure uniform tone; approvals first by the in-house editors and then by MAP’s academic review panel of subject-matter experts; a feedback form for readers; a certain number of sources to be cited; hyper-linking to other articles in the encyclopaedia.
The entries are across categories: architecture and archaeology, living traditions, narrative paintings, pre-modern art, modern and contemporary art, textiles, photography. The encyclopaedia launches with nearly 2,000 entries that cover movements, ideas, people and dynasties, besides artworks. It’s not comprehensive yet, Gaskell says, but there’s a critical mass of information and it will keep growing.
“[The categories] are more of an organising principle, not a user-facing principle. The Encyclopedia is designed to allow people to go down a rabbit hole, as everything is interrelated,” Gaskell says. For instance, the Tutinama entry could take the reader down avenues relating to the Nastaliq script, the Hamzanama paintings that emerged as a courtly style after the Mughal miniatures, the Persian artists Akbar brought over to join his atelier.
Unlike Encyclopaedia Britannica, where entries were once written by subject-matter experts (in the 1920s, for instance, Sigmund Freud wrote the entry on psychoanalysis), the Encyclopedia of Indian Art entries are written by the in-house team and vetted by a panel of experts. The position of expert is voluntary and by invitation, Maurya says. The panel currently includes Rosemary Crill, former textiles curator at London’s Victoria and Albert museum and Shukla Sawant, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics.
“When we say encyclopaedia, it’s different from focus-based art history. What’s also needed is for research to go back to older existing sources — directories of Lalit Kala Akademis, for instance, where artists from non-metro spaces would send their works, or even newspaper articles since print journalism began, where a number of artists considered important at that time, were written about,” Sawant says. “An encyclopaedia is not a canon but an archive. It’s easier to create something like this in the digital space because an archive is, by its nature, always an unfinished job.”
Both Gaskell and Poddar were clear that it was necessary to put up a Chinese wall: the encyclopaedia takes images from open-source websites and does not reference the MAP collection. “It’s an encyclopaedia of Indian art, not an encyclopaedia of MAP’s collection,” Poddar says. “It’s very important to maintain this distinction so that there is no agenda whatsoever. The idea is to make Indian art known, accessible, enjoyable, to anyone who cares to know about it.”
If we are looking to build a museum-going culture and an education in the arts, we have to start with the basics, Poddar adds. “We have a 10,000-year-old history and culture in India, but we don’t have a single comprehensive encyclopaedia of Indian art. Yes, it’s an ambitious project, but it’s also one that needed to be done and I’m surprised it was not done before.”