India's long-awaited MAP Museum of Art and Photography, a major new cultural institution in the southern city of Bengaluru, welcomed its first visitors this month, offering a glimpse at a 60,000-item collection that may help reframe the subcontinent's art history.
Set across a new five-story building, the private museum focuses — as its name suggests — on pre-modern, modern and contemporary art, as well as photography. But its rich archive of textiles, crafts and print advertising speaks to a wider mission: eroding the distinction between "fine" art and what the museum describes as "everyday creativity."
"The entire differentiation between 'high' art and 'low' art, decorative arts and fine arts, is not an Indian concept," said Poddar, who is among the country's most prominent art collectors, in a video call. "It's a very Western construct. That's how we've grown up looking at it in museums, but not that's not how it is in life."
Making the collection accessible — and sidestepping perceptions that art galleries are elitist institutions — is part of Poddar's goal of fostering what he calls a "museum-going culture" in India. Much of MAP is free to the public, with fees for ticketed exhibitions waived one afternoon per week. The museum said it welcomed over 1,000 people on each day of its opening weekend.
MAP is also explicitly targeting young people in a country where over a quarter of the population is aged 14 or under. Its open-access digital offerings (which became a focal point after Covid-related delays pushed back the museum's opening by over two years), include video workshops, webinars and an online encyclopedia of South Asian art with over 2,000 entries overseen by expert scholars.
"India has some of the most amazing art, both in terms of what was made in the past and what's being made today," said Poddar, who founded MAP with 7,000 works from his private collection and has since donated "a few thousand" more. "Why is it that we don't go to Indian museums, but every time we travel overseas, one of the first things we do is go to a museum over there?"
Over the centuries, females have been depicted as goddesses and mothers, as nurturers and commodities. Yet, barring rare exceptions like painter Amrita Sher Gil, they were until recently viewed exclusively through the eyes of men, explained the show's curator and MAP director, Kamini Sawhney.
"India women are deified as goddesses and, at the other end of the spectrum, they are looked at as objects of desire," she said in a video call shortly after the show's opening. "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?"
"Visible/Invisible" partly aims to present, then deconstruct, this male gaze. The 130 works on display range from what Sawhney called the "big-breasted, tiny-waisted, wide-hipped goddesses" depicted in 10th century statues to a poster for the 1957 Bollywood epic "Mother India," which imagines its heroine as a plough-wielding nationalist symbol of post-colonial India.
As the 20th century progressed, women began "taking hold of the narrative," Sawhney added. As such, later works include the female artists whose rise reflected women's changing status and the wider feminist art movement. A brooding 1991 painting by Nalini Malani imagines mythical women as figures of both nurture and violence; Nilima Sheikh's "Mother and Child 2" depicts a maternal bond that millennia of male artists could only guess at.
The exhibition also features six original works commissioned to help fill gaps in the canon, including a quilt by non-binary artist Renuka Rajiv and a video work by LGBTQ collective Payana that was created in collaboration with transgender people aged 50 and above.
At a time when museums are expected to be more than just vessels for art, Sawhney's curatorial approach seeks to counter biases. Future exhibitions, she said, will draw on the craft traditions of marginalized communities and indigenous art that has not, traditionally, been "seen as worthy of entering a museum."
A museum is not "just objects on walls," Sawhney said, adding: "Whose narrative are we telling all the time? Or whose perspectives are we presenting? I think it's a loss for our audiences if they're not able to hear multiple voices. So, we see MAP as a space not just for dominant voices, but for everyone's voice in the community."
With a 44,000-square-foot building designed by local architecture firm Mathew & Ghosh, MAP features four galleries, an auditorium, a conservation center and a research library. It also enjoys a central location in what is essentially the museum district of Bengaluru, a city often dubbed "India's Silicon Valley."
Early proposals faced opposition from some local artists, who expressed concern about — among other things, the prominence of business figures on MAP's board. But the museum, like much of India's art sector, relies on private funding. The Indian Ministry of Culture's entire annual budget for the coming year is, at 30.1 billion rupees ($362 million), only 46% more than the operating budget of the USA's largest art museum, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Beyond Poddar's personal contributions, and in lieu of an acquisition budget, the rest of MAP's collection comprises gifts from philanthropists and other donors. The founder estimates that ticket sales will cover "barely 10%" of the museum's costs, with sponsorship and donations making up much of the shortfall.
But while Poddar recognizes that arts and culture hardly register on what he calls India's "hierarchy of needs," he sees investment in the sector as essential for preserving cultural heritage. He compared the loss of India's artistic traditions to "an animal going extinct."
"I think it's time we started looking at this a lot more seriously, as a country and as a people," he said. "This is not one person's, one group's or community's domain — it's for all of us."