A major new museum in India confronts partiality in the world of art

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  • Published on February 27, 2023
  • Last Updated May 15, 2023
  • In Places

In an effort to combat sexism and misogyny in the art world, Bengaluru, India’s MAP Museum of Art and Photography opened to the public this month.

The Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, India finally opened to the public this month, providing a first look at a 60,000-item selection that has the potential to rewrite the art history of the subcontinent.

According to CNN Style, the private museum, housed in a brand-new five-story building, is dedicated to works from the pre-modern, modern, and contemporary periods, as well as photography. The museum’s stated goal is to eliminate the gap between “fine art” and “everyday creativity,” and the extensive collection of textiles, crafts, and print advertising is evidence of this goal being achieved.

Alongside ancient bronzes and carved deities are items from Bollywood and traditional weavings. Abhishek Poddar, a businessman and philanthropist who founded MAP, said that the archive creates “one level playing field” for all topics.

“The entire differentiation between ‘high’ art and ‘low’ art, decorative arts and fine arts, is not an Indian concept,” Poddar, one of the most well-known art collectors in the country, explained in a video chat. “It’s a very Western construct. That’s how we’ve grown up looking at it in museums, but that’s not how it is in life.”

Poddar wants to promote what he calls a “museum-going culture” in India by opening up access to the collection and dispelling the notion that art galleries are exclusive clubs for the wealthy. Ticketed exhibitions at MAP are free on Thursday afternoons, and the museum itself is open to the public for free six days a week. According to museum officials, over 1,000 visitors attended each day during the opening weekend.

The opening program for MAP also demonstrates how important narratives are for the organization. Consider its featured exhibit, “Visible/Invisible,” which examines how women have been portrayed throughout Indian art history.

Women have been portrayed throughout history as goddesses, mothers, nurturers, and commodities. However, Kamini Sawhney, the curator of the exhibition and director of MAP, noted that they had previously only been seen through the eyes of men, with a few notable exceptions like painter Amrita Sher Gil.

“India women are deified as goddesses and, at the other end of the spectrum, they are looked at as objects of desire,” Sawhney elaborated via video call just after the show’s debut. “So where is the space in between for women to just be normal mortals with the ambitions, desires and frailties that all of us have?”

The purpose of “Visible/Invisible” is in part to display and then dismantle this male viewpoint. Included among the 130 pieces on display is a poster for the 1957 Bollywood epic “Mother India,” which envisions its heroine as a plough-wielding national socialist signifier of post-colonial India and was inspired by the “big-breasted, tiny-waisted, wide-hipped goddesses” featured in statues from the 10th century.

Sawhney’s curatorial strategy aims to combat biases at a time when museums are expected to be more than just inventories for artwork, notes CNN. Future exhibits, according to her, will incorporate indigenous art that hasn’t typically been “seen as worthy of entering a museum” and the craft traditions of underrepresented groups.

Four galleries, an auditorium, a conservation center, and a research library are housed in MAP’s 44,000 square foot building, which was designed by local architects Mathew & Ghosh. It is also conveniently situated in the heart of Bengaluru, also known as “India’s Silicon Valley.”

Local artists opposed the initial proposals due to MAP’s board’s business leaders. The museum receives private donations like most Indian art institutions. The Indian Ministry of Culture’s entire budget for the coming year is 30.1 billion rupees ($362 million), 46% more than the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the largest art museum in the US.

Instead of an acquisition budget, philanthropists and others fund MAP’s collection beyond Poddar’s donations. The museum’s founder says admission fees will cover “barely 10%” of operating costs, with grants, sponsorships, and donations covering the rest.

Poddar acknowledges that arts and culture are low on India’s “hierarchy of needs,” but he believes it’s important to invest in the sector to preserve cultural traditions. He compared India’s artistic traditions to extinction.

The Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru is hosting “Visible/Invisible: Representation of Women in Art through the MAP Collection” until December 1, 2025.