Three Institutions for South Asian Art History


A review of
– Delhi Art Gallery (New Delhi, India)
– P.C. Joshi Archive of Contemporary History, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi, India)
– Archive of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (Kolkata, India)

In this installment of the Fresh from the Archives series, I will review some collections in India that I used for my doctoral dissertation on aesthetics and politics in early and mid-twentieth century India (Sanjukta Sunderason, The Nation and the Everyday: The Aesthetics and Politics of Modern Art in India, Bengal c. 1920 – c. 1960. History of Art Department, University College London, 2012) . Research in this field poses a particular problem of the “archive”: artworks, both of iconic artists or less-celebrated ones remain beyond access in most cases, lacking as they do, a stable repository or organized cataloging. Research access, moreover, remains a problem, even with public collections, where the absence of a proactive bureaucracy facilitating the academic use of primary material from their collections is a significant hurdle. Exhibition catalogs from this period are almost invisible in the public domain, either due to lack of collation and preservation, or apathetic holders unresponsive to the research potential of such material. Artists’ private papers remain elusive in most cases, and when incorporated in museum collections, they retreat into a rarefied domain beyond the researcher’s access. My own research on artists and art practices in Bengal between the 1920s and the 1960s, with its diffused terrain of artistic styles and initiatives without a dominant aesthetic, and in some instances, sparse visibility in the narratives of modern Indian art, had to negotiate this quandary around an equally diffused sense of the archive. In the past few years, however, there have been some positive directions in archiving visual art from South Asia, particularly in initiating documentation and access options that make historical research in the field more viable. My research in India in the past five years has witnessed and benefited from the directions that have emerged, and I will share here some insights from collections and archiving initiatives that are current in the field.

A primary problem in working in this area is access to images from the period – paintings, prints or sketches, with a substantial part only accessible in reproductions from contemporary periodicals from the 1920s-1940s. While works of the more celebrated artists like Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Gaganendranath Tagore (1867-1938) or artists from Santiniketan can still be viewed in public collections like that of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, access to the wider holdings on these artists, their practice works or diaries in some cases, remains a difficult negotiation with the administration. For less-celebrated figures like the Communist Party artist Chittaprosad Bhattacharya (1915-1978), or early works of a collective such as the Calcutta Group, access to a cross-section of images from the period poses a problem. This brings me to some of the new efforts in collecting, collating and documenting hitherto “marginalized” artists or a wider spread of artists not represented in the display sections of collection like that of the NGMA. This process can be said to have begun with the boom in the Indian art market since the late-1990s and a more active involvement of private galleries and art collectors in creating repositories, whether dedicated to paintings and prints or catering to a wider ensemble of visual culture, including posters, memorabilia, catalogs etc.

The Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) (Address: 11, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110016), situated in the Haus Khas artist village in South Delhi provides an interesting example. The collection, built up in a steep curve over the past decade or so covers an eclectic range of nineteenth-century prints, rare academic realist oils, some iconic artworks from the celebrated Indian artists from the twentieth century, but most importantly, a substantial collection of “private papers” of artists, hitherto unrepresented in the public domain.  The Chittaprosad collection of the DAG merits particular attention.  Collected from the artist’s family in the mid-1990s, the material covers a conglomeration of notes, diaries, letters, sketchbooks, draft sketches, objects, prints, paintings, a range of bric-à-brac belonging to the artist, which this gradually fledgling private commercial gallery started acquiring since the mid-1990s. The collection soared over the past decade by gathering Chitttaprosad’s artworks scattered across little-known holdings all over India, and beyond, particularly from the Middle East and Eastern Europe. The artist, hitherto unnoticed beyond his more iconic sketches of famine victims from the 1940s, became gradually visible in glossy, illustrated catalogs (in most cases, auction catalogs), catering not only to the art market but drawing academic attention to new kind of visual imagery, in this case, a strong rhetoric of “political art” and a defined Socialist Realist iconography that could now be identified in an Indian artist’s repertoire. Similar initiatives were taken for a host of other artists, and researchers can now be encouraged to approach the archiving and documentation division of the gallery for research use of artists’ private papers thus collated, and the host of artworks that the gallery possesses.

The gallery is easily accessible through public transport and access to the archiving division can be secured through prior appointment via telephone or email. It is advised to proceed with establishing contacts with the documentation division at least a month in advance, using the e-mail addresses provided in the gallery website, and thereafter contacting the curator, preferably with university recommendation letters and student identity proofs. It is useful to set out a research agenda and exact artists under review in advance.  The collection catalogs need to be accessed on-site, and it is better to keep a day in hand to navigate the material first before focusing on the exact collection to review. While artworks are cataloged well in digitized formats, the scanned documents and private papers of artists will need to be accessed hands on. In some instances, photographic rights can be negotiated with the gallery, as there are no provisions for photocopying. The gallery is open to research use of its images, though for publication purposes separate copyright issues need to be addressed. The flipside of being a commercial gallery remains: artworks that are collected and documented are sold again, making a stable, accessible collection a chimera in a fluid art market. But all artworks are documented and scanned copies can easily be accessed. It is, however, a work-in-progress, and while such initiatives are indeed a positive start, research access options need to be more formalized. The best time to work in the gallery is noon onwards, as the gallery is open until 19:30 in the evening, and researchers can be allowed to continue work through the lunch hour.

Two other documentation exercises and archival holdings that have been useful to my research are parts of academic collections. Given my specific focus on left-wing aesthetics in the 1930s-1940s, a collection I found particularly useful was the P.C. Joshi Archives on Contemporary History (Address: Archives of Contemporary History, 6th Floor, Library , Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi 110 067), housed in Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Possessing a rich collection of documents, periodicals, photographs, images and memorabilia from the undivided Communist Party of India, the archive offers a possible resource base to researchers in the humanities who are interested in this period, as it does to researchers from the social sciences. The archive can be accessed very easily through the Centre for Historical Studies of the university. The collection is in the process of being formalized from what used to be a motley collection of uncataloged material half a decade back, and can serve as a viable base for thinking about cultural histories of twentieth century India. Students and researchers are advised to carry the usual official recommendation letter, a student identity and passport (for non-Indian researchers) and application letter for securing photocopying services. In some instances, photography and scanning permissions can be secured through direct consultation with the archivist. Like the Delhi Art Gallery, Jawaharlal Nehru University too is located in South Delhi, and being a much familiar landmark in city, is easy to access for the first-timer. It is advisable, however, to have prior email contact with the archive in-charge before visiting, and providing, for instance, an idea of material to be accessed as the catalog, particularly of visual resource, is currently being produced. It is worthwhile to remember that these are not established public collections and require alternative modes of exploring the archive. For instance, a ready online catalog for remote access will not be available, and even if a basic sample in provided on the website, on-site access of the catalog always promises exciting possibilities of material. For both the Delhi Art Gallery and the P.C. Joshi Archives of Contemporary History, it is best to seek accommodation in South Delhi (this is also closer to the Indira Gandhi International Airport). The Jawaharlal Nehru University has subsidized guest house options, and at least two months prior to field work in Delhi, it is best to contact the university via the P.C. Joshi Archives (which is tied to the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU) to secure accommodation within the university. There are also guest houses around the campus, with short auto-rides to both the gallery and the university archive. Being in the university area, both food and accommodation options are cheaper compared to other parts of an otherwise rather expensive city.

The second academic holding I would like to introduce is based at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta (Address: R-I ,Baishnabghata Patuli Township, Calcutta-94, West Bengal, India), a research institution affiliated with the Indian Council of Social Science Research and housing a long-standing archiving initiative in Eastern India, previously funded by the Ford Foundation in India. The archive possesses a wide cross-section of digitized nineteenth and twentieth-century vernacular periodicals, scanned copies of paintings, prints, book illustrations, record covers, film posters, catalogs, and photographs, both old and contemporary, alongside an expanding collection of rare books, periodicals, and old newspapers. It also initiates documentation of private collections, drawing together an eclectic pool of visual resources from photographers, illustrators, commercial artists and painters, as well as covering digital documentation of institutional collections across eastern India. The archive maintains carefully documented, detailed catalogs, and scanned copies of visual and print material in DVD formats. An invaluable aid for researchers working on early twentieth-century art practices and visual culture at large, the archive also allows easy access to a wide cross-section of nineteenth and twentieth-century print culture. Its substantial digitized periodical collection is open to all researchers and has a regular access, reproduction and copyright system at work. Researchers can have both photocopying and digital reproduction options on subsidized cost, though copying in bulk requires some time, and can always be arranged for delivery by post. The archive is slightly off the center of the city, but can be accessed easily with public transport, for instance, by private taxis, which are cheap transport options in Kolkata as opposed to Delhi. Also, accommodation options in Kolkata are cheaper than in Delhi, and the CSSSC can be asked to suggest either its own guest house or nearby accommodation options, as there is usually a steady pool of out-of-station researchers who use the collection and require accommodation. The archive is open from 10:00–17:00 (lunch hour is between 13:00–14:00 although researchers can continue work or use a good canteen attached to the institute), and access to digitize collections is only by prior booking, though the staff are very friendly and make room for extra hours/slots for out-of-station researchers. It is best to contact faculty or archive staff roughly a month and half in advance to initiate the process of booking slots. This can be done over telephone (+91 33 2462-7252), but it is in any case, a good idea to visit the Centre’s equally good library collection and make bookings for further archival access!

Sanjukta Sunderason
Lecturer, Leiden Institute for Area Studies
Leiden University


Image: Chittaprosad, Untitled, People’s Age (1946). Delhi Art Gallery.

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