Treasures dating back 10,000 years: a look inside the encyclopedia of Indian art – 71Bait

Khujasta had to be prevented from leaving her house at night to meet her lover, and her husband’s parrot devised a way to do this. A moral tale of heroism and intrigue would begin just as she was about to exit, and Khujasta would stay behind to hear more.

Khujasta and the Talking Parrot was written in Tutinama (Persian for parrot tales) by Sufi author Ziya al-Din Nakhshabi in the 14th century. Two hundred years later, Khujasta and the Wise Parrot was revived by the Mughal Emperor Akbar when he commissioned a richly illustrated manuscript of the literary work, first in the 1560s and again in the 1580s. The paintings that make up the first manuscript are considered some of the earliest examples of Mughal miniature art.

Four centuries later, these works—painted on thin, light-ivory paper, accompanied by text in the Nastaliq script—were re-margined and bound. In the 1960s they entered the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art in the USA. And on April 21, a concise entry about Tutinama, tracing its importance in Indian art history, will be part of the soon to be launched Encyclopedia of Indian Art, an ambitious digital resource developed by art collector Abhishek Poddar’s Museum of Bengaluru art & photography (MAP) is financed.

A page from a 16th-century manuscript of the Tutinama commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. (Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art)

“Tutinama is considered one of the earliest examples of Mughal miniature painting, but scholars suggest it was commissioned at a time when that style was still taking shape. The distinct color scheme of the Tutinama illustrations has backgrounds of deep solid red, canary yellow or pink and the lighter tone of (rough) ultramarine, which was markedly different from the subsequent Hamzanama paintings,” reads part of the entry.

MAP, which houses Poddar’s large, eclectic private collection, is scheduled to open towards the end of 2020. Amid lockdowns during the pandemic, it launched digitally in December 2020 instead. (The physical museum is scheduled to open on December 9-10.) At the same time, the MAP Academy, an independent team of editors and researchers, began work on the encyclopedia. This team is spread across India, Dubai, San Jose and New York, with MAP Academy Director Nathaniel Gaskell based in Singapore.

Though Poddar’s plans to set up an endowment fund were delayed, it was only during the pandemic that the MAP team grew, he says, from 26 members to almost 70 today done over a longer period of time would have been more expensive than getting a larger team to do the work over a shorter period of time. ‘ Poddar says.

(Top left) Woman riding two Brahman bulls, a bronze sculpture from 2000–1750 BC.  (Top right) A Harappan sculpture of a reclining mouflon, a wild sheep.  (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
(Top left) Woman riding two Brahman bulls, a bronze sculpture from 2000–1750 BC. (Top right) A Harappan sculpture of a reclining mouflon, a wild sheep. (Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The initiative itself seems enormous. Because how do you create a compendium of 10,000 years of history across regions, practices and art forms? Where do you start and, more importantly, where do you stop? These were some of the questions Gaskell faced when he first came up with the idea just over three years ago. He began by opening a few books on Indian art history and going through their indexes and glossaries to create a “master list” of entries.

“We ended up with this incredibly long list, and while it was pretty exhaustive, there was no logical reason for it [was included] and not that,” says Gaskell.

He hired a senior editor for the encyclopedia, Shrey Maurya. Together, Maurya and a few teammates began “hacking” the list. Eventually, other research collaborators joined in, and a template was designed: a style guide to ensure a consistent tone; Approvals first by in-house editors and then by MAP’s academic review board of subject matter experts; a feedback form for readers; a certain number of sources to cite; Hyperlinks to other articles in the encyclopedia.

The entries are cross-category: architecture and archaeology, living traditions, narrative painting, pre-modern art, modern and contemporary art, textiles, photography. The encyclopedia starts with almost 2,000 entries covering not only works of art but also movements, ideas, people and dynasties. It’s not comprehensive yet, says Gaskell, but there is a critical mass of information, and it will continue to grow.

Krishna's Longing for Radha, from the epic Gita Govinda.  (Courtesy of Howard Agriesti / The Cleveland Museum of Art)
Krishna’s Longing for Radha, from the epic Gita Govinda. (Courtesy of Howard Agriesti / The Cleveland Museum of Art)

View more artwork and artifacts at the Encyclopedia of Indian Art

“[The categories] are more of an organizational principle, not a user-centric principle. The encyclopedia was designed to allow people to go down a rabbit hole because everything is connected,” says Gaskell. For example, the Tutinama entry might introduce the reader to the Nastaliq script, the Hamzanama paintings that arose as a courtly style after the Mughal miniatures, the Persian artists that Akbar brought into his studio.

Unlike the Encyclopedia Britannica, where entries were once written by subject matter experts (in the 1920s, for example, Sigmund Freud wrote the entry on psychoanalysis), the Encyclopedia of Indian Art’s entries are written by the internal team and reviewed by a panel of experts. The position of expert is voluntary and by invitation, says Maurya. The panel currently includes Rosemary Crill, former Textiles Curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Shukla Sawant, Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University’s School of Arts and Aesthetics.

“When we say encyclopedia, that’s different than focused art history. What is also needed is that the research draws on older existing sources – directories of the Lalit Kala Akademis, for example, where non-metropolitan artists sent their works, or even newspaper articles from the dawn of print journalism, where a number of artists were considered became important at the time, was written about,” says Sawant. “An encyclopedia is not a canon, but an archive. It’s easier to create something like that in the digital space, because by its very nature, an archive is always an unfinished task.”

Both Gaskell and Poddar were aware that building a Great Wall of China was necessary: ​​the encyclopedia takes images from open-source websites and does not reference the MAP collection. “It’s an encyclopedia of Indian art, not an encyclopedia of the MAP collection,” says Poddar. “It is very important to keep that distinction so that there is no agenda whatsoever. The idea is to make Indian art known, accessible and entertaining for anyone who is interested in it.”

If we’re going to build a museum culture and art education, we need to start with the basics, adds Poddar. “We have 10,000 years of history and culture in India, but we don’t have a single comprehensive encyclopedia of Indian art. Yes, it’s an ambitious project, but it’s also one that needed to be done and I’m surprised it hasn’t been done sooner.”

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