India’s new museum makers

Meet the people who are helping build a thriving museum-going culture in India, with spaces that focus on experiences, embrace technology and connect with young audiences

January 24, 2020 06:33 pm | Updated January 25, 2020 04:57 pm IST

“India mein museum kaun jata hai ? (who goes to a museum in India),” asks a public awareness initiative, #chalomuseum, rolled out by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art last year. Not many, despite having over 170 museums across the country. We’d rather plan visits to the Louvre, the MET or the Guggenheim. But that is slowly changing.

Fresh approaches are making a difference: like The Heritage Lab’s 2019 campaign, These Mughal Women , where people were invited, through contests, to share an object from a museum related to women in the Mughal court. Or new spaces, such as the interactive Indian Music Experience museum in Bengaluru, where you can tap, hum into and interact with musical installations. “World over, museums have been colonial projects, categorising and organising subjects in different ways. But new museums are designed as experiences rather than a collection of objects because they’ve come up in the technology-driven, social media age,” says Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Lab.

Today, a pop-up museum can be as deep and meaningful as a permanent one, he asserts, reflecting the times we are living in, where Instagram stories are no less important than posts. “Both pop-up and permanent museums are re-imagining subjectivity, agency, and democratising the idea of a museum — through exhibition design, architecture and their participatory nature,” he adds, pointing to their own three-day ‘Museum of Memories: Remembering Partition’ pop-up in Mumbai, which had packed in collaborative exhibitions (including one with crowd-sourced objects).


The birth of private museums is also a welcome change in a landscape dotted with government-owned institutions, says textile designer and curator Mayank Mansingh Kaul. “The latter offer limited opportunities to a new generation of curators. And they often have their own permanent collections, restricting their ability to host travelling exhibitions. New museums can help fill these gaps,” he says.

Moreover, at a time when the country’s rich, multi-layered history is being bulldozed by a saffron agenda, and people’s very identities are being called into question, museums are the ideal spaces to look back at our shared yet diverse roots, and celebrate how India is a mix of many.

Here are some of the country’s new and upcoming museums and their makers.

Wendell Rodricks

Moda Goa Museum & Research Centre, Goa | Opening: March 28

There’s a new destination to add to your Goa checklist of beaches and the Basilica of Bom Jesus — India’s first costume museum. Housed in a 450-year-old Goan mansion, Casa Dona Maria, in Colvale, with ochre yellow walls and a red tiled roof, it will showcase 800-plus artefacts — from a 1913 wedding dress to a gold coin minted by the Knights of Malta in the 16th century — across 15 themed galleries.

One of the designer’s favourites: an exquisite set of 24-carat gold bangles, studded with spinels, dating from Portuguese India over 300 years ago. “The gold is so pure that when you hold them, you can feel them crunch,” says Rodricks. The fine filigree work highlights the craftsmanship of Goan goldsmiths (belonging to the Daivadnya Brahmin caste) — the first Indians to be taken across the seas to Lisbon to make jewellery for the Portuguese court.

Rodricks has been procuring objects, photographs, costumes and jewellery since 1998, from auctions, jewellers and private donations — like the swimsuit worn by former model Reita Faria when she won the 1966 Miss World or a pano bhaju (worn by women performing the Goan folk dance, Mando) from Lisbon. In fact, an entire gallery is dedicated to the latter, tracing the blouse-jacket-sarong costume’s origins along the Silk Route. “It was adorned with jewellery, influenced perhaps by the Peranakan Chinese ladies who came to Goa. I have a 200-year-old one,” he says. Another gallery, named Celebration, features Kunbi saris, the weave Rodricks revived.

Page turner

Page turner

The museum grew from Rodricks’ 2012 book, Moda Goa: History and Style , which packed in his 10-year research and experiences at two internships (The Museum at FIT, New York, and National Costume Museum, Lisbon). The idea of a costume museum came to him while pursuing the latter, but he “had no idea about the logistics”. His desire to leave behind a legacy and “an obscenely grand offer” for Casa Dona Maria — where he’d lived with his partner, Jerome Marrel, their four dogs and three cats — led him to move into a smaller space and repurpose the house.

Currently, curators are being trained to offer private tours and, after the launch, the Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI) will host four temporary exhibitions through the year.


Abhishek Poddar

Museum of Art and Photography, Bengaluru | Opening: End of 2020

Industrialist and art collector Abhishek Poddar’s new project is touted to be the ‘museum of the future’, with interactive touch screens, smart tablets, holographic tables, VR technology, digital art galleries and more.

“Being in Bengaluru, it is only right that the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) aims to make itself the most technologically-advanced museum in the country,” says the founder-trustee. The 42,000-sq ft space, scheduled to open by the end of the year, aims to break the notion that museums are dull and, instead, show that art is “fun, hands-on and not elitist”.

Under the directorship of curator Kamini Sawhney, its five galleries will host permanent and temporary exhibitions. “MAP isn’t just a museum of objects but a space for ideas and conversations that will be initiated through these objects. So, art becomes a tool to connect with people,” says Sawhney, adding that the artefacts range from pre-modern, modern and contemporary, to textiles and craft, and folk and tribal, “so as to reach out to every section of the audience”.

A mid-20th century brocade skirt

A mid-20th century brocade skirt

Spread across five floors — with an auditorium, research library, restoration lab, a museum store and cafe — a ₹10 crore grant by tech company Mphasis is also helping the museum take on a 360-degree approach. The plan to make the space inclusive and accessible goes beyond ramps and wheelchair-friendly restrooms, to include tactile tiles for the visually-impaired, hearing enhancement systems, and a quiet room for those who struggle with being in crowded places.

A part of Poddar’s collection now rests at MAP, which has over 18,000 artworks, largely from the subcontinent and spanning from the 12th century to the present. Unusual objects include a mid-20th century brocade skirt (“the lower section depicts the tricolour”), and a Hindu mobile shrine that can be operated with a key. Donations by other collectors include Asian Silk Route jewels — headdresses and earrings to gaus (small amulet cases) from Afghanistan, Tibet and Bhutan — and 82 vintage textiles from Gujarat. What’s drawing Poddar’s eye now? “I find myself gravitating more towards classical art; this is what is anchoring me more these days.”

A ‘Making of the Museum’ tour is available on invitation. Details:

Pavithra Muddaya

Museum of Living Textiles, Bengaluru | Opened: Last July

Every week, textile designer Pavithra Muddaya, 61, receives donations: half-a-century-old saris that were family heirlooms. The latest is a luminous silk with the chinar leaf motif woven in regular and jamdani weaves. “The dual technique is interesting,” she says.

Launched last July, the 1,300-sq ft space — above her residence in Victoria Layout — is an extension of Vimor, a heritage sari label co-founded by Muddaya and her mother, Chimmy Nanjappa, in 1974. “Most museums focus on textiles commissioned by royalty. This honours a common man’s living memories [from two generations back to today],” she says. The collection includes not only silks and cottons from the bigger states such as Tamil Nadu and Varanasi, but also unidentified designs from smaller regions (sourced from Muddaya’s personal archives and donations by customers). Highlights include a datthi seere — a 3.15 metre drape woven for children — a Chanderi that’s 64-inches wide, and a pre-Partition phulkari.

Many saris also reflect a marriage of two states: a fish motif from Madhya Pradesh woven in Andhra or a Manipuri puja sari with roots in Tamil Nadu. This reflects “our robust trade and migration, and help the younger generation understand that saris are our shared heritage”.

The museum also has an interactive wall for visitors to share crafts knowledge and textile memories. “I recently learnt that the palanquin tassels from North Karnataka were once exported to Germany,” she concludes.

250. Open from 11 am to 5 pm (Thursday to Sunday). Details: 9886820082

Tarang Arora

Amrapali Museum, Jaipur | Opened: 2018

Two weeks ago, Tarang Arora came across a pair of 19th-century jhumkas . Their fine workmanship caught his eye and he picked them up. “The jewels you see today aren’t as exquisite as [those from] earlier times,” he says. The vice president and creative director of Amrapali Jewels is merely following in the footsteps of his father, Rajiv Arora, and friend, Rajesh Ajmera — the brand’s co-founders — who often returned from their travels across India with beautiful artefacts such as a jade book stand (below) or a gem-studded back scratcher with a hidden blade. They had worried that they wouldn’t see such workmanship for much longer, “as people were getting rid of it at pawn shops and with bullion dealers”.

In 2018, over 3,000 of these pieces, collected over 35 years, found a permanent home at the museum, with a focus on tribal jewellery. “Indian jewellery is much more than what the Maharajas wore,” says Arora, picking out artefacts like a waistband from Calicut (above), studded with coins, that tells the story of how nomadic tribes wore wealth on their body because they were always on the move.

The museum’s collection is pan-Indian, and includes everything from silver and gold jewellery to “numerous inspirations for design that have been available to Indian craftsmen”, such as silver objects. Highlights include chuskis or wine flasks from 19th century Jaipur modelled on dancing figures, gold earrings worn by tribal women in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, and a collection of mukhnaals or gold and silver hookah mouthpieces used by maharajas. Arora now plans to document the collection in a series of books.

600 (includes a free audio tour guide). At Ashok Marg; open from 11 am to 6 pm. Details:

Vikas Khanna

Museum of Culinary Arts, Manipal | Opened: 2018

For a New York-based Michelin-star chef to curate a museum on Indian kitchens is no mean feat. Overcoming procuring challenges, and “booking over a dozen flights to India”, Vikas Khanna has managed to populate the Museum of Culinary Arts with nearly 2,000 objects. “Many families email me when they wish to sell their old utensils or if they discover something,” he says.

Housed in the premises of his alma mater, Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration in Karnataka, and spread over three floors, the museum offers insights into how food was stored and cooked, and the metals used to make the vessels. The items include a 21-piece metal royal picnic set, weighing scales from Kochi and Kashmir, seed sprinklers, etc. The artefacts also reflect ancient wisdoms. In Khajuraho, he found utensils made of clay mixed with neem leaves to protect grains from insects.

The museum’s pieces will travel overseas — on loan to international museums (much like he carried his grandmother’s iron kadhai when he first travelled to the US in 2000). His 2018 book, Patra , was published to document the exhibits here. “This museum is helping utensils get a second chance to live,” says Khanna, who hopes to house 10,000 objects in the museum.

Entry by prior appointment. Open from 9 am to 5 pm (Monday to Saturday). Details:

Museums in the works

Humayun’s Tomb Site Museum, Delhi | Opening: October 2020

Designed as a sunken building inspired by the traditional baolis of North India, the museum connects Humayun’s Tomb, Sundar Nursery and the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti. The temporary and permanent exhibits — like the restored copper finial from Humayun’s Tomb — aim to offer insights into Mughal architecture, pluralist Sufi traditions, etc.

Antiques museum by ASI, Delhi | Opening: April 2020

The Archaeological Survey of India is expected to set up a museum at Purana Quila to house tools, pottery, terracotta, sculptures and other objects excavated from across India. The site will also have a gallery to display confiscated and retrieved antiquities.

Tibet Museum, McLeodganj | Opening: 2020

About two kilometres from its current site near the main Dalai Lama Temple, a bigger Tibet Museum will open later this year. The exhibition themes include Tibet’s culture, the Chinese Occupation, escape journeys and a new generation of Tibetans re-defining their identities. On showcase will be photographs, documents and donated objects such as army robes and metal helmets.

KNMA’s new museum, Delhi | Opening: TBA

The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is planning to set up a public museum of contemporary art and a cultural centre for dance and music. Announced at the 2019 Venice Biennale, it will be designed by Sir David Adjaye, who’s behind the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.

Galleries at CSMVS, Mumbai | Opened: January

After launching Mumbai’s first Children’s Museum last year, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya is opening two permanent galleries this month – Money and Jewellery – featuring its large collection of coins as well as Harappan beads and unique pieces of hair ornaments. Jewellery scholar, Usha Balakrishnan, has co-curated it.

Drishyakala Art Museum, Delhi | Opened: 2019

Last year, the DAG collaborated with ASI to launch this designated space that’s currently showcasing four exhibitions, including one on Thomas and William Daniells’ colonial landscapes and aquatints, at the historic Red Fort’s Barrack No 4. This year, it is working with ASI for its Mumtaz Mahal (on Mughal antiquities) and India War Memorial museums in Red Fort.

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