Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Coronavirus: India's locked museums take treasures online

With the hope that visitors will return after the Covid-19 lockdown, museums and art galleries across the country are finding ways to stay relevant and engage new audiences, virtually. The future of the business of art, however, remains a question mark

Published: Apr 16, 2020 02:18:56 PM IST
Updated: Mar 17, 2021 04:52:54 PM IST

Coronavirus: India's locked museums take treasures online
In the late 1980s, Abhishek Poddar, founder of Bengaluru’s Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), gifted his parents a bouquet of 25 paintings for their 25th wedding anniversary, along with his sister. Each canvas portrayed a different flower and was painted by a leading artist, such as Manjit Bawa, Arpita Singh and MF Husain, to name a few.  

This bouquet was brought to the online world in mid-March, after MAP decided to close its doors following the Covid-19 scare. Poddar sent out e-mails with a collage of the paintings, calling it a ‘bouquet of hope’—for a better future and people’s safety. He asked patrons, museums and galleries across the world to respond with their own flower renditions, actual, painted, crafted or photographed. “We got so many responses from across the world that we are building a separate website for all the digital bouquets,” says Kamini Sawhney, Director, MAP. The website is now live.  

In early April, Mumbai’s CSMVS (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) museum sent out a fascinating newsletter. In it was an e-book charting the history of the Anvar-i Suhayli, a Persian translation of the Panchatantra, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar circa 1575 AD, and some of its short stories, translated. 

The manuscript, created in Akbar’s imperial atelier, was perhaps commissioned for his six-year-old son Prince Salim (later called Jehangir), as lessons on moral conduct. It found its way to the library of Mountstuart Elphinstone, a Scottish statesman and historian with the British government in India, and was damaged in a fire during the Anglo-Maratha war of 1818. The paintings were retrieved, mounted and bound into an album, and later gifted to the Museum by donor Alma Latifi. “Even if the physical space is closed, we must continually engage with our visitors and reach out to more people,” says Ajay Kochle, assistant director, CSMVS.  

With the hope that visitors will return after the lockdown, museums and art galleries across the country are innovating with ways to stay relevant and find new audiences. For a traditionally physical medium, this has players navigating new ground. So, gallerists and curators are running online workshops, quizzes, puzzles, colouring sheets, expert talks, crosswords, YouTube discussions and competitions. “Covid-19 zoomed forward the digital revolution in the Indian art world by five to ten years,” says Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum (BDL).  

Earlier, most of these spaces were focused on physical activities to grow their footfall—as well as their revenue. They have had to cancel or push forward many major events due to the coronavirus lockdown, including talks on Akbar Padamsee at Mumbai’s Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF); a 10-day conservation workshop at MAP; artist Nalini Malani’s big-ticket show and a big online interactive project on a prominent Mumbai personality by BDL. 

“That effort has now moved online. Even for a government museum like ours that does not rely on ticket revenues, it's important to be out there, so that patrons, artists and visitors do not feel alienated,” adds Mehta.  

BDL has some of its collection on its own website and on the Google Arts and Culture gallery. On Instagram, the museum’s team got contemporary artists such as Reena Kallat, LN Tallur and Atul Dodiya to speak about their old works. Malani, whose show was on display at the museum before the lockdown, made a special animation of her work for BDL's Instagram account. 

'Are sansar, sansar' (Oh, this life) is one of the most well-known poems written by Bahinabai Chowdhari, a farmer from Jalgaon in the late 19th century. Bahinabai could neither read nor write. She composed poems that have a deep resonance even today and have become a benchmark of Marathi literature. Nalini Malani's exhibition 'The Witness' at the BDL Museum references Bahinabai's poetry that provides us an insight into her philosophy and approach to life. The exhibition reflects Nalini's continuing concerns with the notions of oppression & dominance, of freedom & justice. Nalini has previously created iPad animations of another poem by Bahinabai titled 'Dharitrichya Kushimadhi', which is also featured on our page. #BDLMuseum #BDLOnline #Bahinabai #labour #life #NaliniMalani #TheWitness


For one of its campaigns, JNAF asked social media users to respond to one of VS Gaitonde’s abstract artworks with a poem, using the hashtag #gazingwithgai. The best responses will be displayed on their Instagram page, and winners will receive posters of Gaitonde paintings.  

“We are doing something different every week, trying to understand what people respond to,” says Puja Vaish, Director, JNAF. “Earlier, we didn’t have the time to focus much on the online aspect of things. But now that is literally the only way to connect.”  

Delhi’s Kiran Nadar Museum of Art is relying heavily on online DIY activities, virtual tours and a showcase of their old exhibitions. “We want to build new interests among people, and this is the right time to do that. Everyone is currently exploring new things over internet, and art is something anyone can engage with,” says Kiran Nadar, founder of the museum.  

At Mumbai's gallery Chemould Prescott Road, the team is busy building a new website and getting artists to talk about the process of creating art during the lockdown. Artist Dhruvi Acharya is creating one painting every day and Aditi Singh is drawing different horizons, for instance. Chemould’s director, Shireen Gandhy, is collaborating with nine other galleries from India and Dubai to build a common online platform. Partners include Experimenter, Nature Morte, Vadehra, Photo INK, Grey Noise, Third Line, Gallery Espace and Ske. 

The common website will showcase thematic artworks, perhaps from the galleries’ collections, priced below a certain amount. “Galleries from across the country and beyond are coming together to reach out to a common audience, and competitive edges among the galleries, if any, are blurring,” says Gandhy.   

A similar effort paid off for the first-ever online ‘Art Night Thursday’, an initiative where a clutch of galleries remains open after hours for one Thursday a month, for curated walks and to encourage new patrons. In the virtual version, Mumbai galleries gave their online viewers a tour of different exhibitions through Instagram and Facebook livestreams. While a typical Art Night Thursday event gets about 25-40 participants, about 450 people from India, the US and Canada attended the virtual viewing, according to confirms Carpe Arte, an initiative that promotes contemporary art in India and conducts Art Night Thursday.  

In times of isolation, building a community Collaborative engagement and a worldwide dialogue are other takeaways from the lockdown. Museums in India and abroad are tagging and involving each other online, which was not the case earlier. For instance, Italian museum Poldi Pezzoli initiated a version of the game ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’, called ‘Name, Flower, Object, City’ on Instagram, tagging various museums and challenging them to share a collage of these four things as paintings or photographs from their collections. Both BDL and JNAF participated, tagging other museums.   

The MAP has reached out to people to share pictures and caption of their quarantine days in a series called Home'bound’, publishing the best images on their social media handles. “More than just engaging with people, it is also important to archive this time and document how people are feeling and living,” says Sawhney.


Our second photo essay is titled 'Working From Home' and is by Samir Bharadwaj⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ 1. OWL⁠⠀ I've always been a night owl. When I was younger I relented to waking up early for school, but in truth, I enjoyed the silence of the night. Staying at home seems to have caused more of us to break out in owl feathers.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ 2. SWAN⁠⠀ There is an uneasy calm to being at home and working from home when you know you have no choice in the matter. I'm very familiar with the resistance to knowing you have to work, but knowing you must stay at home to do it is an additional imposition. Your mental feet work vigorously under the still surface.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ 3. ROBIN⁠⠀ Sometimes I stop fretting about deadlines and distract myself with play. Flitting around from this experiment to that scribble. It's an old habit which I don't practice often enough. Maybe a habit more of us need to pick up when we're masters of our own time at home.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ 4. CROW⁠⠀ In lazy moments I slip and let myself be dragged into the undertow of social media screams. The internet never sleeps and someone somewhere is always panicking. Not even the night is safe. It is a ruckus best avoided but not easily.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ 5. HUMMINGBIRD⁠⠀ Suddenly it's too late. Why are the birds chirping so early? Are they keeping military time? Have we spoilt them with late shaming? Too late, I scramble to finish something. A note, a mini task, a hurried email to schedule for the real morning in a rush of wings.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ 6. ROOSTER⁠⠀ The trees come alive with sounds, light is beginning to leak the into the sky. A new day dawns and so you know it's safe to sleep through the coming noise. Rest, recover. You'll do better tomorrow, and if you're honest, you enjoyed some of today.⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ @somethingartful (photography)⁠⠀ @samirbharadwaj (personal and other art)⁠⠀ ⁠⠀ #inthistogether #homebound #mapbangalore #museumathome #photography #photoessay #mapchallenge⁠⠀

In times like this, while people are social distancing and indeed finding virtual communities to participate in, such initiatives have brought galleries and museums increased social media following. But what comes of it after the lockdown is uncertain.  

“It's hard to say what impact the lockdown will have on the future of the art business,” says Gandhy. “This is a path that nobody has tread on. I keep reading that the world order has changed. How will galleries survive in this new realm? I have no idea.”  

Mehta believes that people are going to be scared away from public spaces for a long time unless a true vaccine is available. “As museums, we will have to re-examine our roles in society and rethink our revenue models. That’s a big thing,” says Mehta.  

The transition to digital also requires funds, which might be hard to come by for some time at least.   

However, CSMVS’s Kochle is optimistic. “If the lockdown is lifted during the summer, I am sure we will get many domestic visitors, while students are on holiday.”  

And CSMVS wants to ensure it is ready for its guests when that time comes. It has taken special government permission to complete some urgent building conservation work before the monsoons, which was stalled because of the lockdown. But for now, the museum doors are locked and a troupe of security guards lives there 24 hours a day, guarding the precious objects that wait for visitors. from this transformation. For instance, if the Indian IT sector, which employs over 4.5 million people, were more dispersed, rather than concentrated in Bangalore, Hyderabad or other IT hubs, it would drastically reduce pressure on city infrastructure and lead to balanced economic growth across the country.