Curious Cabinets: Kunstkammer meets White Cube at the Salar Jung Museum

kgs gouache devi

K.G.Subramanyan, New Works, 2014 and How Strong the Breeze, How Precious The Flight, 2014
Parallel Exhibitions at the Salar Jung Museum, July 2014

And so it begins! Or so it began. What better place to start a museum blog titled Ajeeb Ghar/Wonder-House than in one of the strangest, most wonder-filled museums in India.. Lauded as the country’s third largest national museum, the Salar Jung museum is an idiosyncratic, one-man collection in Hyderabad that dates back three generations but achieved its current public museum form in 1951. And what better time to write about this strange museum than July 2013 when it opened its doors to two extraordinary contemporary art exhibitions: a 90th year retrospective of one of India’s most respected and beloved senior artists (K.G.Subramanyan); and a group show by graduating arts students at the other end of the career spectrum.

Salar Jung Museum (SJM) sits on the fault-lines of two historical models of museum-making: the Renaissance-era wonder-cabinet and the 19th century ‘public’ museum for educated citizenry (that grew out of the imperial archive). From the perspective of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim which begins with the nine-year old sitting astride the ZamZamah — Lahore museum’s cast iron cannon — the SJM is perhaps the quintessential Ajeeb Ghar, the textbook Wonder House. Although it was conceived and born when a museum’s order of things had to do with 19th century displays of imperial power, scientific authority, and civilizing missions, it is in fact a throwback to earlier 17th century “chambers of curiosity” (wunderkammer) and “princely collections” (kunstkammer). These proto-museums mixed art and science in equal measure, calling for wonder (or curiosity or marvel or awe) as the predominant mode of engagement with their wide-ranging but unclassified collections of natural, artificial, and human-made objects.

Indeed, the notion of a princely or royal collection, as in kunstkammer (literally, man-made objects), applies almost perfectly to the Salar Jung museum. The majority of the SJM collection was acquired by the third in a line of Prime Ministers to the Nizams, the erstwhile princely rulers of Hyderabad at a time when state privy purses had not yet been abolished. At his death in 1951, Salar Jung III’s collections passed to the government of India, which moved them to his residence in Diwan Deodi (in old Hyderabad) and opened them to the public. Over the years, despite increased access and successive renovations, the collections themselves – and their display – have remained virtually unchanged (and not surprisingly, have remained unchanged virtually, in that there are few technological bells and whistles in the SJM!). Instead, the museum’s galleries continue to include a wealth of what kunstkammern termed naturalia and artificilia, things of the natural as well as the cultural worlds — exquisite paintings and scientific instruments, antique textiles and musical clocks, armaments and walking sticks, folk and classical arts — all jumbled together with no real disciplinary emphases or orientation. In other words, for all that Salar Jung museum’s mission at its founding was to universalize, modernize, and present a generic, classical past of antiquities for the nation, it still bears the singular historical stamp of princely Hyderabad in the early decades of the 20th century, and the unique, even eccentric, personality of Salar Jung the collector himself.

From a personal standpoint, walking into the New! Improved! Renovated! museum for the first time in 25 years since visiting it regularly as a child is — to mix metaphors — like walking a tightrope or stubbing a toe on a chalk painting. We gasp in recognition (or pain as the case may be), but this is quickly followed by doubt that we are seeing the same things in the same place, or indeed, are in the same thing or place.  Everything is at once familiar, even intimate, but also disorienting. At first glance, the museum’s shiny new renovation lends a 19th century nationalist sheen to its museological order of things. Touted as one of India’s three largest universal survey museums, the SJM at first glance appears to have history, even antiquity, in spades, but curiously no geography, no sense of place; these galleries could be located anywhere in India, or even Asia, but also nowhere in particular.

Look a little closer, though, and it is all about place — a place, Hyderabad, and the unique charms of the collector’s eye. A distinct and quite unique way of seeing. Despite objects that range across continents (the four main galleries are divided – in charmingly anachronistic nomenclature – into Asian, Western, Far East, and African), the biggest draws continue to be Salar Jung’s own personal collections of strange and wondrous objects – walking sticks, armaments, jewellery, garments — and the same handful of 19th century Western art “collectibles” that have for over half a century induced marvel (at their making) and wonder (at their intricacy): the marble Veiled Rebecca, the wooden Mephistopheles/Margareta, and the wildly popular English Bracket Clock, which sits in a courtyard filled to the brim every hour with rapt museum-goers waiting for it to strike. And if the shifting, fluid, but ever-present crowd that gathers hourly in the Clock courtyard (and has, since the museum’s inception) isn’t the longest continuous flash mob to coalesce in an art museum, I don’t know what is!

The Bracket Clock, in fact, is both iconic and indexical of another time – my childhood — at Salar Jung Museum. Everything seems to have changed since my visits in the early 1960s, but remarkably, has also stayed exactly the same; frozen and pickled, as in amber or aspic. Time ticks on, hour after mechanical hour (‘performed’ by the tiny blacksmith figure in the clock, located in the village square of the museum courtyard), day after day, but equally, stands supremely, absolutely still. A museum determined to catapult itself into the 21st century, its footprint – indeed, its very DNA — still derives from old-fashioned pre-Independence collections that dazzle and delight masses through one man’s fascination with craftsmanship, early scientific marvels, and exotic travels.

July 2014, however, saw a radical change in what was on display at the Salar Jung. For the first time, the museum’s ‘Western Block’ – typically the space reserved for rotating exhibitions — seemed to leap-frog out of its princely mold and into a very different museological space:  namely, the ‘white cube’ space of a contemporary art gallery.[1] White cube is, of course, a very specific term coined by the art critic Brian O’Doherty to mean a very specific set of things in the art gallery context – minimal historical context, blank white walls, beautifully spot-lit, that allows the art to shine without excessive description, background, or relational information. As O’Doherty suggests, the aesthetics of the white cube gallery allows spot-lit art to stand on its own, to acquire all the power and presence of a ‘masterpiece’ that can cocoon itself off from the world, dazzle viewers, and stop them dead in their tracks, in complete and utter slack-jawed, gob-smacked wonder. The surprise here was that Salar Jung’s twin white cube experiments did dazzle, much like wonder cabinets once did.

On July 26 and 27 2014, the museum flung open its doors to two extraordinary exhibitions of contemporary Indian art: the first, 140 plus exquisite works by a widely respected senior artist in his 90th year of an active career – K.G.Subramanyan, considered one of the greatest living contemporary masters of our time. And the second, a group exhibition of final year MFA students from the University of Hyderabad’s Fine Arts department, about to launch their own artistic careers. The two could not have been more different from each other, or from their museum host. But somehow the whole, the gestalt, could scarcely have been more seamless – as museum display, as viewer experience, as art pilgrimage.

To be sure, each of the ‘white cube’ exhibitions which opened at the SJM in July 2014 was a stand-alone blockbuster, with its own exhibition history. Consider the master first. Padma Vibhushan K.G. Subramanyan (or Mani-da as he is known to his many students, friends, artist colleagues and admirers) is one of those teachers, artists, and human beings to have acquired a hagiography, a gold-tipped mythology that travels ahead of him wherever he goes. And this particular show did go places. After opening in Baroda on Mani-da’s birthday in February 2014, the exhibition traveled to Delhi and Chandigarh before winding its way down south – to Hyderabad first, after which it went on to Kerala, Chennai and ended in Santiniketan, a year after it first began. It contains an astonishing 140 artworks produced in Mani-da’s 90th year – including 40 exquisite drawings that have never been published or shown, as well as the stunning mural, War of the Relics, originally produced for the Delhi Art Society. K.G.Subramanyan’s New Works 2014 was sponsored and presented by Seagull Foundation for the Arts, a unique independent publishing outfit based in Calcutta (started by Naveen Kishore) that produces books as art, gorgeous art-like books, to be read and savored for their sheer visual delight, their texture, and – yes, for the great pleasure of merging text and image, what one sees on the page. And as I walked through this absolute treat of an exhibition, pinching myself in disbelief at such a close encounter with great art, that was indeed my viewing experience.

Mani-da’s vivid reverse painted acrylics, toned gouache on board paintings, and quiet, spare, black and white drawings – reams of them, displayed beautifully in the large 2nd floor gallery in Salar Jung’s Western block – retain an astonishing book-like quality seen all together. A gorgeous, giant mega-book or scroll of individual paintings – similar but not alike — that unravels slowly on the wall and touches viewers’ hearts image after image, page by beautiful page. If there is one story narrated through New Works, it spills far beyond process or period or biographical detail, although the drawings and murals do describe particular episodes and encounters in the artist’s year. What is in fact being told – drawn, painted, etched – is a resonant tale, a fable, filled with juxtapositions of the real and the mythical, the fantastic and the demonic, the sacred and the profane, the fabulous and the everyday. And as always, K.G.Subramanyan’s work rarely disappoints, always surprises, and never leaves one cold. This is contemporary narrative art at its evocative and mature best, touching some universal core of what it means to be human, with its contradictions of suffering and joy, passion and paralysis, attachment and death.

And now the second white cube exhibition. Right next door, on the same floor, the equally spectacular MFA students group show – How Strong the Breeze, How Precious the Flight – has a different exhibition story to tell. This is a show that had its origins in the final-year graduating exhibition held at the University of Hyderabad’s DST auditorium in May 2014. By convention, the graduating exhibition of the final-year students has been shown in the brick-walled proscenium stage of the Fine Arts Department at S.N.School, the building that held their studios, classrooms, and indeed the space they lived, dreamed and worked in for two years. Breaking with recent tradition, the class of 2014 – composed equally of Painting and Sculpture students — decided early on that they would prefer to show in the DST Auditorium at the heart of the university campus – a move that required articulation, vision, and collaboration to execute. With little outside help, they pulled it off with aplomb and grace on their own steam and muscle. The Salar Jung museum’s director Dr Nagendra Reddy, who was the inaugural guest, was so impressed with their beautifully curated exhibition that he extended a spontaneous invitation for a group show at the Salar Jung museum. When we suggested an overlap with the K.G.Subramanyan exhibition in July, the museum kindly agreed, and … the rest, as they say, is history. Or art.

If the exhibition Precious Flight is an artistic triumph, it is also an ode to the vulnerability of the flight process. Flying is hard work. Art-making, even during the rigorous, structured course of a two year MFA program can be fraught, uneven, mutable, moving forward by leaps and bounds even as it sometimes gets mired in routine or tied to a medium or material. Process, as we know, is deeply contingent in practice: sensitive to physical surroundings and cultural environments; and engaged with the times and politics of the world we live in. Is process, taken to its extreme, in fact the opposite of wonder? Is it resonance?

Many of the artists whose works are featured in the catalogue repeatedly describe how the physical or natural surroundings of Gachibowli and Hyderabad shaped and influenced their art. Still others recount their angry responses to recent political events – the Delhi rape case for example – or historical events, such as the India-Pakistan Partition, as catalyzing events in their artistic biographies and political consciousness. In one way or another, they all suggest that their art (content, scope, medium, intention) was transformed during the two years of the MFA, which is a testament to the quiet power of process in Fine Arts education. While this is hardly unique in arts pedagogy, the Hyderabad case reveals a further direct link to this particular department’s own pioneering arts legacy in the city, through its founder Laxma Goud and others who were loosely called the Hyderabad 5. It is perhaps fitting that these students can draw on that institutional or departmental legacy, and give back to the city before they spread their wings.

What happens when you juxtapose two such different ‘white cube’ exhibitions? Turns out, pitch perfect harmony. The student-artists had the rare opportunity to unpack Mani-da’s paintings from wooden crates before installation, their expressions nothing short of rapturous as they pulled out painting after painting, weak-kneed with the excitement of touching works by the master, seeing them up close, helping to hang them on the walls. Mani-da, in turn, was not only able to inaugurate the student exhibition, which served as a ritual consecration of sorts, but also to engage directly with the fresh stimulating energy of young artists poised for flight in their careers and lives. ‘Craft’ he told them repeatedly, the ‘craft of art’, ‘concentrate on that, and forget about the market’! That lesson was especially well heard in the Salar Jung museum, which does not (and cannot) display artworks for sale as much as it provides an unmatched context and resonance.

And what of the Salar Jung museum itself, the kunstkammer that could, that played host to these contemporary art exhibitions? Perhaps a visitor’s view brings the best perspective. Fifteen days before the exhibitions closed, a leadership training programme in collaboration with the British Museum was working its way through the Salar Jung museum collections to build a permanent ‘trail’ of 8 selected objects for children (among other things) as part of their India Meets the World initiative. Working in the main building, the trainees were unaware that these two quite different contemporary exhibitions had opened just a short corridor away. On the very last day, a few of them – Victor Gomes of the Goa Chitra Museum, Rachel Brown of the British Museum – attracted by K.G.Subramanyan’s name, hurried over to the Western Block to catch the exhibitions hours before they closed. To hear them tell of their unexpected and delighted encounter with the students’ art (and needless to say the master’s), one could easily have mistaken the dusty-brown carpeted corridor between the two buildings for the yellow brick road; the exhibitions themselves for Oz (in a wonder cabinet!).

All this goes to say that white cubes are not necessarily as square as their dimensions. Sometimes they can be as wonder-inducing as a Renaissance-style kumsterkammer. Indeed, sometimes they are even more wonder-inducing for being placed IN (or alongside) a kunstkammer like the Salar Jung Museum. Lawrence Weschloss (quoting Stephen Greenblatt) describes wonder as “that murmur or tremble in the heart; that space between heartbeats” when one sees the inexplicably beautiful, the astonishing, the unusual, when there is a suspension of belief, of cognitive thought, on looking at something – on beholding something – that is quite simply marvelous.

For more than three weeks in the Salar Jung museum in the month of July, from the eve of Ramzan in the old city to a hot, dry Janmashtami, the Western Block’s two wonderful, wonder-filled, contemporary art exhibitions were able to catapult viewers and security guards from a princely Hyderabad into another place altogether: Oz, via Wonderland (after falling through a museological rabbithole).

One thought on “Curious Cabinets: Kunstkammer meets White Cube at the Salar Jung Museum

  1. Sita Reddy, what a great tribute you have paid to KGS! What a wonderful writer you are! I am in awe of your mastery of the subject. I am so proud of you. Subbu, former RV teacher.

    Liked by 1 person

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