Kamini Sawhney on Bengaluru's Museum of Art and Photography, and how it aims to foster inclusivity

  • Bengaluru is scheduled to play host to the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) by as early as next year.

  • On the museum's board of trustees are industrialist Abhishek Poddar, theatre veteran Arundhati Nag, former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, and art and design patron Radhika Poddar.

  • MAP announced its appointment of Kamini Sawhney as its first museum director. Sawhney is known for her curatorial accomplishments at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation.

If all goes as per schedule, the city of Bengaluru will play host to the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) designed by architect Soumitro Ghosh, occupying a 42,000 square feet of space by as early as next year. Located in the city's nerve centre on Kasturba Road, the museum will be in proximity to the Government Museum and the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum, making this neighbourhood a small museum hub.

On the museum's board of trustees are industrialist Abhishek Poddar, theatre veteran Arundhati Nag, former Indian Foreign Secretary (2009-2011) Nirupama Rao, and art and design patron Radhika Poddar. MAP will be spread across five floors and include multiple galleries, an auditorium, a research library, restoration lab, classrooms, and a museum store and cafe. Its self-identified mission is “to build, manage and sustain a new museum to exhibit, interpret and preserve a growing collection of art and cultural artefacts, motivated by a belief that museums should play a positive role in society. It seeks to bridge art and community, and serve as a catalyst for greater public exposure to the important cultural history of the visual arts in the country.”

In August 2019, MAP announced its appointment of Kamini Sawhney as its first museum director. Sawhney is known for her curatorial accomplishments at the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF), the modern and contemporary wing of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), whose overall functioning she oversaw, while managing its relationships with partnering institutions.

Firstpost caught up with Sawhney to talk about her plans for the upcoming museum.

 Kamini Sawhney on Bengalurus Museum of Art and Photography, and how it aims to foster inclusivity

'Krishna Eating the Fire', by Manjit Bawa. c 1980. Image courtesy: Museum of Art and Photography

Do you have a vision for MAP? What could be its relevance within the country's cultural infrastructure?

Today we need to rethink the idea of museums — they cannot be just repositories of objects. The Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) will not just be a collection of objects, but a space for ideas and conversations that we initiate through our collections. The collection becomes the tool through which we connect and engage with our audiences in multiple ways. We are looking to provide a unique cultural experience, where MAP will be the first choice for the local community when they are looking for an enjoyable, stimulating experience — a place where they discover new things and have fun doing it.

We hope to see MAP set the standards for museums both within the country and across the world, particularly as an inclusive, accessible space. The museum is being designed to be accessible to people who are physically challenged, including those with visual and hearing impairment. But we are also looking at people with intellectual challenges, and how we can make the museum experience accessible to them as well.

You’ve actively used the curatorial platform at JNAF to encourage more public discussions on feminism and art. Would you say that feminism forms a part of your managerial ideology? Can we expect a feminist stance in MAP’s programming?

I would like to think of MAP as a space for all voices across the country that struggle to find a platform. One of them is certainly women. In fact, our first permanent exhibition at MAP will be exploring themes of gender. If you remember my very first show at the JNAF — 'Voicing a Presence' — discussed the inbuilt systems of patriarchy that women artists had to struggle against even in the art world of the 1950s and ’60s, and how they were gradually able to establish their presence in the following decades.

Kamini Sawhney

Kamini Sawhney

Moving from a space within a government institution to a more privately run domain, what are the challenges you foresee, and what are you most excited about?

The CSMVS, within which I previously worked, is actually an autonomous body created by an act of state legislature. This allows it many benefits, and at the same time, certain constraints, given that it is a public institution. As the head of the JNAF, with the collection on long-term loan to the CSMVS, it was one of the best models of private/public partnerships through which both institutions and the public benefited. While MAP may have fewer regulations to worry about, I think there are pluses and minuses that both kinds of institutions have to weather, which is why I think the best way forward is for organisations to come together and pool their resources, not only in terms of collections but personnel, ideas and skills. What is most exciting is to be part of a founding team. It is a unique opportunity to be part of the growth of an institution and help build the identity, the culture and structure of MAP. It's a young, lively team that is buzzing with ideas on the road ahead for MAP.

What do you think is the role of a museum in contemporary India? Can a museum be more inclusive of various discourses as well as identities?

Our entire focus is on how do we make MAP a space that is welcoming to people from different backgrounds, cultures and languages. The museum very deliberately includes six categories of artefacts — pre-modern, modern and contemporary, textiles, design and craft, folk and tribal. The idea is to be able to reach out to every section of our audience either in terms of their interests or in terms of a cultural connect. People should be able to enter the museum and feel that some part of their life is reflected here — the engagement is then enhanced. We hope to build a sense of belonging and ownership with the local community.

MAP wants to be a platform for all of society, not just certain pockets. We plan to do this through a whole series of programming and events that give multiple voices and identities a space where they feel empowered to express themselves. Beyond the physical space, our education strategy aims to take art, through the collections of MAP, to villages and schools that are unable to come to us. Learning kits that use art to teach basic concepts will make education easier and exciting for children.

'Woman and Four Horses', by MF Husain. c 1976. Image courtesy: Museum of Art and Photography

'Woman and Four Horses', by MF Husain. c 1976. Image courtesy: Museum of Art and Photography

If funds weren't an obstacle, what would your dream show look like?

An exhibition that has a [Pablo] Picasso in conversation with a [Maqbool Fida] Husain, or an African mask, an Australian aboriginal work talking to a Madhubani painting, Michelangelo's David in dialogue with a bronze Hanuman — an exhibition that celebrates the fluidity of thoughts and ideas between cultures and peoples; a show that dissolves borders and understands that no one culture can claim an art, a style or an idea; that art is a river which we are constantly drawing from, evolving as it comes into contact with new places and people, sometimes morphing into a new form far removed from the original, but valuable nonetheless.

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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2019 09:49:21 IST