The art of archiving

Critical Collective came up as an answer to the acute loss of writings around art, and moved the process of preserving online

June 25, 2016 04:20 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:40 pm IST

Gayatri Sinha remembers one of the first triggers that set off the idea of Critical Collective. “Two students from Shantiniketan brought me a photocopy of a book I’d written and asked me to autograph it.” For Sinha, this was heart-breaking; to see how art books in India circulate because of how expensive they are.

Sinha’s extensive work as both an art critic and curator had also made her privy to the obstacles of art publishing in India. “It costs several lakhs to bring out a book on art, and the print runs are small too — an average of 3,500 copies. Once this run is exhausted, the publishers almost never have enough money for another.” This meant an acute loss of important books, journals, essays and articles, which kept slipping through the cracks without a strong “book reading culture around art”. With space shrinking in mainstream print media, and the absence of any extensive publishing in art, Sinha felt the need to create an alternative space that would work as a “meeting place of thinkers around art”. In December 2014, after a year of planning, work and preparation, the online portal titled Critical Collective was launched.

The internet, says Sinha, “transgresses borders and is simultaneous. There is no time lag, and it both retrieves and preserves. The internet can act as a mobile, dynamic, growing archive for us. At the same time we have a section called ‘notice board’, which is really about what is happening in the here and now. So, it has both contemporary criticism and older criticism. As the stories stack up, the older ones slip into the archive. I like the idea of something so dynamic and alive, at your fingertips.”

It is a year and six months since the launch of Critical Collective, and today Sinha works with a team of three, running the office from her home in South Delhi. The collective has written over 350 articles, involved 112 artists and 174 writers from India and abroad, and reached out to a user base across India and the world, finding subscribers in artists, museums, universities, auction houses, scholars and curators. The platform, with its mine of detailed information, analyses, essays and prints, becomes an especially useful tool for students of art. It uses its newsletter to reach out to subscribers such as Sotheby’s New York and London, Duke University, USA, and Tate Modern, UK.

Since it was born of a sense of responsibility towards text, Critical Collective turns its prime focus on building a corpus of essays, reviews, interviews and long form writing on art, in the form of both original work written for the website and existing material. “The texts we work with are tilted towards the academic rather than journalistic style of writing. They have to have a certain sense of overview, a stability of perspective, instead of just being located in the review domain,” explains Sinha.

In terms of research, archiving and preserving, Critical Collective pays special attention to documenting Indian art history in depth. “We are looking at material from 1900 onwards; we go back to the first writings by and around Abanindranath Tagore and Rabindranath Tagore, and the writings of Sister Nivedita,” says Sinha. In tracking the changes, Critical Collective allows you to notice and appreciate “the many cross currents that flow through art and make it so rich”.

The archival work hasn’t been easy, and the lack of these texts being anthologised means that Sinha and her team have had to go directly to the sources still available, or access the existing, but neglected archives. “This month, we are very happy to be able to publish writings of K.B. Goyal. He is a very important critic, one of the sharpest minds from the 1960s, but there is no major publication of his work.”A fair amount of work also goes into making texts user and internet friendly, something that rules out plain old scanning. “We need to format, arrange, design, select visuals,” says Sinha.

While it is important to track what exists, Critical Collective also commissions original content for its various sections. “Before we launched, we wrote to about 100 writers and they all responded. We have more than 150 artists on board today.” In the mix are special projects as well, one of which is a nine-part series on the history of photography in India. With text and rare images, the project is extensive and minutely detailed and Sinha hopes it will become a book soon.

For now, Critical Collective partners with Goethe Insitut, Max Muellar Bhavan and receives support from organisations such as Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation and the Raza Foundation plus individual donors. “In India, the institutional crisis is very deep, so it’s smaller organisations like ours that tie up with similar ones and try to create a temporary mobile platform.”

While the website gives users free access to most of its material, it does charge for 30 per cent of the content, which becomes another way of generating revenue. “We charge because we need to pay writers and the team on board. We are commissioning and we try to pay decently. At the core of this is respect for the writer.”

It is the writer and text that is the weakest but most enduring link of the entire art ecosystem. “When an exhibition is over, or a glitzy event is dissolved, what remains is only the text, and it becomes important to the process of history making”.

The website is

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