Subjects

Experiencing a Museum : A Photographic Essay by Dashrath Patel through the Galleries of the Calico Museum of Textiles and the Sarabhai Foundation, Ahmedabad

Introduction and Selections from the Catalogues of the Museum by B.N. Goswamy, Sarabhai Foundation, 1998, 217 p, plates, ISBN : 8186980016, $88.00 (Includes free airmail shipping)

From the Introduction by B.N. Goswamy: "In perfect awareness of the fact that museums have, across time, never truly been a part of Indian life, there has always been some discussion of whether there are, or can be, museums in India that yield a different 'experience', what we call here an anubhuti, to the viewer. The matter came up again, in the course of the recent workshop on museum practice held at the Sanskriti premises in Delhi. Dashrath Patel was making a slide presentation on 'Indian design', showing wonderful photographs taken in bazaar and country side of ordinary objects, rather arrangements of objects: dyed textiles spread out to dry in dazzling array on the sandy banks of the Sabarmati, delicacies displayed in rising rows of colours and shapes in a sweets-shop, Vegetables neatly stacked in seeming awareness of mutual relationships on a vendor's cart, garlands of glass bangles glistening on a hawker's pole, elegant jali-windows piercing the expanse of coarsely plastered mud-walls, ample turbans quietly hanging on carved pegs. The projection and the commentary over, there was animated discussion. Inevitably, questions were raised about coincidence, self awareness, intentionality; about whether the design was integral to the arrangements or was imposed upon them by the photographer's frame; whether there was justification in taking things out of their original context and fitting them into another. There was also the question that if it was possible to identify and expereinces an Indian sense of design was it reflected, or possible to reflect it, in an Indian museum? This question interests me.

I am persuaded that in many ways the Calico Museum of Textiles is the most Indian of all museums in India. To be sure, there are others that possess a distinctive air; and virtually all museums in the land are Indian in the sense that the objects they house and place on view are almost exclusively from India. But it is not easy to think of another Indian museum that succeeds in shaking itself free of western models in the decisive manner that the Calico Museum does. I am not sure that the intention here necessarily was to subvert an idea only because it was an import from outside; nor do I believe that it is a matter simply of finely carved wooden facades and mud-plaster and indigenous materials. With the magnificent collection that it has at its core, somewhere I think the Museum sets out to do something else; it taps into a rich Indian vein, and embodies ways of seeing, and of establishing relationships, that are most appropriately rooted in the culture from which the objects it houses come.

It is possible of course to overstate these things, or to remain unspecific while making assertions of this order. But there are at least three features quite obviously one speaks here not of the collection but of the arrangement, the way in which the museum displays are 'composed' that need to be noticed, for these one encounters, like subtle presences, everywhere.

One, what can only be described as a certain density of sequencing: object succeeds object, section follows section in the Museum, seemingly without break, one thing leading to and merging in another. The effect is that of richness, not excess; of everything being related to and coming from a matrix where there is, or was, more. It is like seeing some stream in majestic. Continuous flow.

Two, the manner in which the objects on display stay invitingly close to the viewer. There seem to be no areas that are isolated; nothing, barring the necessary protective coverings, comes between viewer and artefact; no cold distances are created. One is encouraged on the other hand to move between objects: the overwhelming sensation is of being surrounded by them, not oppressively but so as to be able to feel the warmth that emanates from them.

Three, there are no predetermined angles from which the displays as a whole are meant to be viewed. Regardless of where one stands, the field of vision gets quickly filled to the brim but, even as he senses this, the viewer becomes aware that the slightest shift in position will bring other things, other views, suddenly within his ken. Floor levels change, wide openings swing into view, other partially seen objects gleam in the distance.

Quite clearly all this makes for a difference in the feeling that one gets that is in fact consciously aimed at in many another museum. Here, the formality of objects is whittled down; nothing is singled out for special attention; there is no sensation of being in a special, nearly alien, space as one moves through court and hall and gallery, in hushed admiration of the objects but also breaking occasionally into conversation with them. Add to this the low doors and the very softly lit corridors through which one initially passes before the display suddenly bursts upon one, the riches taking one's breath away, and we are close to having what explorers and archaeologists refer to as "the cave experience". Once the eyes adjust to the light inside the galleries, all that one has to do is to stand there and soak in the sensation, allow oneself to be laved in colour and pattern and honest texture, while those wonderful tents and awnings, saris and patkas, pichhavais and 'Palampores', phulkaris and soznis and rumals, whisper softly about the past and keep picking up resonances from one another. Quite suddenly one is an enhanted world that once was and, in some ways, still is, if one has the eyes to see and the vision to recover what is about to be lost.

Dashrath Patel does not belong to that steady stream of visitors whom the Calico Museum and, with it now, the galleries of the Sarabhai Foundation, take completely unawares--he knows the places well; but here, in this volume, he too enters, in a way, that 'Dream Time' of which an aficionado of this Museum has written: the time in which, according to Australian bushmen, 'Gods made the universe, the heroes and demons of legend have their actuality, and in which our ancestors have been gathered even as our 'rites of passage' celebrations of birth, marriage and death are enacted'. With his camera, Dashrath takes a slow, ruminating walk through the galleries of the Museum and the Founation, capturing with the gaze of innocence not so much views and angles as sensations. There is no drama that one is made a witness to in his photographic essay; no 'effects' are sought to be achieved. It is a simple, honest walk that he takes, quietly registering what every viewer is likely to register, though not necessarily linger over in such detail. But the honesty is moving, and through it alone Dashrath is somehow able to catch the very essence of the place: the warmth, the spaces, and those sahaja, un-laboured, 'arrangements'. It is as a sahrdaya, "one of the same heart", that he records and evokes what he sees.

Designedly, and with clear intent, Dashrath does not focus upon or single out objects even though there is scarcely a frame here that does not include them. Doing this could not have been easy, given the quality of the objects, but it was the atmosphere, the air inside the Museum and the Foundation galleries, that he had set out to capture. The objects themselves have received the most close attention from a different group of people: internationally acknowledged subject experts completely dedicated to the task of studying, and documenting, these extraordinary collections.

For nearly as many years as the Museum has been in existence, this work has been in progress, remarkable scholarship having gone into the series of publications that the Museum has steadily brought out: a journal, a series of books on contemporary textile crafts, monographs on aspects of technique, above all, several volumes aimed at cataloguing to date five of these have come out the Historic Textiles of India in the Museum. These plans have been well made. For, while there is obvious truth in the statement that most of the objects in museums were not originally 'treasures' made to be seen in glass cases but rather, as Coomaraswamy says, "common objects of the market place that could have been bought and used by anyone", they are deserving of the closest possible study. Attention has been drawn to these publications in the Annexure to this volume not merely because these come from what may be the most meaningful of publication programmes undertaken by any museum in India, but because any study of these should serve the purpose of bringing those who visit the Museum closer to the objects that make it what it is. Obviously only a small selection of the writings published could have been included, but these should enable the visitor to recall the magic of some of the things seen, to explore more depth than surface, and thus to experience the Museum again: at another level, perhaps in another, more enduring, way."

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