When was the last time you visited a museum? Yes, a museum, where the past meets the present, where you learn how people lived, worshipped, survived and evolved. A museum effortlessly draws you into the past, and as you explore its multi-layered history, you find out how every museum is its own marvel, and every piece of art has its own unique tale of existence.
Meet Shubhasree Purkayastha, a Delhi-based art historian who, in collaboration with the India Foundation for Arts, Bangalore, is bringing a unique art exhibition titled ‘Mysterious Mothers of the Museum’ to one of the biggest multipurpose museums of India- the Assam State Museum, Guwahati. The exhibits of the museum are rare and exquisite, providing the region with a sense of place and a collective heritage. Below are the excerpts from the interview with curator herself, Shubhasree.
EN: Tell us about yourself and your journey so far.
SP: I grew up in the town of Duliajan (Assam), and then went to Delhi for my higher studies in 2007. I studied history at Lady Shri Ram College, completed a masters degree in Art History and an M.Phil in Visual Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University.
I have been in Delhi for the last 10 years, completing my studies and working with various organizations such as the National Museum, New Delhi, and the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.
EN: Where have you worked before joining the Alkazi Foundation for Arts, New Delhi?
SP: I began my working life from Bombay, working at the Chemould Prescott Road Art Gallery as a gallery manager. Then, I worked as an event writer with BlouinArtinfo, India. In between, I also did a few freelance project with Artsome, Travel and Deal, etc.
After this, I shifted back to Delhi to join the Outreach Team at the National Museum. For the last one year, I have been engaged with the Alkazi Foundation for The Arts, working on archiving and cataloguing their collection of photographs.
EN: What is the ‘Mysterious Mothers of Museum’ all about?
SP: The pre-Ahom history of Assam is rich in historical data of all forms. There was a vibrant economic and political relationship between Assam and the larger north India, which eventually lead to the migration of Hinduism into Assam as well.
The artistic styles and iconographical canons of the Brahmanic heartland influenced artists working in ancient Assam to a large degree. There was a transfer of canons, ideas and perhaps even artisans between the two regions. The objects on display at the ‘Mysterious Mothers’ are an evidence of this cross-cultural undertaking. The exhibition attempts to recontextualize the displayed objects in light of the socio-political environment of the time and identifies them as part of a Matrika (mothers) series, the likes of which were prevalent in the early centuries of the Common Era in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
This exhibition is the result of a year-long fellowship grant given to me by the India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore, with support from Tata Trusts. The larger theme of the grant was to look into the pre-Ahom collection in the Assam Museum and develop programs based on the same. The current exhibition is the first of many other public engagement programs to be organized at the museum throughout the course of this year.
EN: How did you get interested in Arts and history?
SP: I have always been interested in History. For as long as I can remember, there was never another option or academic course that I had thought of pursuing. When I joined LSR, I was introduced to the specific branch of Art History through a college workshop and that is when I decided to pursue my Masters in that field.
Since my childhood, I have been interested in the sphere of the visual, and painting was a constant hobby. It still is! So I figured art history was the perfect course to club both my interests together.
EN: How did your love for museums develop?
SP: I completed my masters from the National Museum Institute, New Delhi and my focus area were history of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture. So naturally, museum collections and heritage studies became an integral part of my learning process.
Eventually, I landed a job in the same museum in the Outreach Department, where my engagement with the field in a more practical manner became concrete. I was part of a team responsible for coordinating exhibitions, engagement programs and other outreach initiatives of the museum, and you might say that this is where I learnt the “tricks of the trade”.
EN: What according to you is culture? How do you see it in accordance with the contemporary times?
SP: Well, culture is the everyday. We are constantly living with it, and constantly creating it. It could be the way we look at our history and society, the way we adapt to the changes in our city or the beliefs, rituals and traditions that we continue to practice – we are continually being a part of the cultural environment of an individual or communal level.
One cannot demarcate the contemporary as a separate entity from culture. As I said, culture is a continuity and we are constantly changing, creating or re-creating it.
Yes, if one were to compare the contemporary with a time of the past, naturally a lot has changed. Some changes have been positive, and some not so. This is a subjective matter.
EN: What do you think the museums can teach us?
SP: Museums are repositories of our culture and our lives as we live them. Not just of our past, but of our present as well. There are museums across the world documenting the every day, documenting memories, personal histories and even feelings!
One can sum it up by saying that without museums or archives, we as a civilization would have no record of our historical progress or cultural growth.
Visiting a museum gives one a sense of where one comes from, a sense of being part of something so much bigger than oneself. One has much to learn from a museum – it teaches one to be humble, to be proud of all the achievements, to be wary of not repeating the same mistakes, and at the same time, to gain perspective on where one is heading as an individual and as a civilization.
EN: Do you think we could still learn from them?
SP: In India, I think the culture of museums and visiting museums still lags far behind. People often consider them as boring dead spaces, holding objects of the past which have no function in the present. This outlook must change.
We have made significant progress in the field in the last couple of years, and certain museums across the country are doing a tremendously successful job in attracting more visitors. But I feel there is still a long way to go.
A matter of utmost importance in India today is to raise awareness about the importance of heritage preservation and education among the layman, especially among children. I hope one day people in our country realize that becoming a doctor or an engineer is not the only means of defining ‘success’, and give the liberal arts the respect and attention they deserve.
EN: Lastly, when is your exhibition opening?
SP: The exhibition opens on August 1st and will last until 10th of the month. We will also be organizing a public lecture by an expert from the field that day and later on 10th, I will be conducting another outreach activity targeting the younger school going audiences and it will be open for all.
Interviewed by Pritesh Gupta