I spent a thoroughly enjoyable morning at the Government Museum + Art Gallery (Sector 10-C), meandering through the large concrete and glass space and soaking up the wide array of objects on display. Built by Le Corbusier in 1968, the museum complex includes an auditorium and outdoor park surrounded by trees and benches where one can find a shady spot to enjoy lunch or retreat from the oppressive mid-day heat.
The first gallery showcased textiles including several phulkari and bagh, a handful of Chamba rumals, some large paintings from Nathdwara and a few thangkas. Of particular interest were a recent (2003) sainchi phulkari made by artist Dayawanti and a stunning mid-19th century figurative shawl from Kashmir that drew inspiration from the Shahnama.
The second floor galleries were filled with everything from Buddha heads and bodhisattvas from Sanghol, Sikrai, and NWFP; Kashmiri manuscripts and nayika miniatures; and a fabulous 19th century drawing of a darbar of Ravana from Kangra.
I was particularly intrigued to see that the museum chose to include braille didactic wall labels for some of their works, particularly stone sculpture. This suggests that visitors are allowed or even encouraged to touch the objects, or perhaps that there is value in just being in the same space as the objects, in breathing in the air and smell of the place, in experiencing (and not just seeing) the objects, getting a sense of their rasa. Makes one think twice about the privileging of vision within the context of darshan and how to reinterpret that ritual context of seeing / being seen when sacred objects are on display in an art museum. Also suggests a different strategy for constructing a museum visit that goes beyond the often-seen warning in Indian museums: No Touching, No Spitting, No Praying!
Aside from the textiles section, I spent the most time in the series of modern and contemporary galleries that dominated one side of the second floor. By opening the section with large canvases by Tyeb Mehta and by Arpana Caur, the museum hinted that the paintings and sculptures to follow would narrate a history of modernism that was both regional and national, Punjabi and Indian – an alluring notion indeed! Unfortunately, not so much. While the galleries featured paintings and sculptures by artists with roots in Punjab (such as Serbjeet Singh, Malkit Singh, Jaswant Singh, Shiv Singh, Dhanraj Bhagat, and Satish Gujral whose stunning sculptural mural dominates the front entry of the museum), the galleries cast a rather wide net that included works by artists such as Bhupen Khakhar, F.N. Souza, and the “nine masters” of modern Indian art: Raja Ravi Varma, Abanindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose, Gaganendranath Tagore, Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Amrita Sher-Gil, Nicholas Roerich, and Sailoz Mookherjee. (Not surprisingly, a very Bengali crowd!)
I applaud the museum for including modern and contemporary works alongside more traditional objects, but can’t help but feel that they missed an opportunity to articulate for the viewer why these works (and not others) were on display – were we seeing the result of a curatorial whim, a generous gift of a wealthy patron, or set of artworks that explore a particular theme? While I was overall impressed by the museum and thoroughly enjoyed my visit, in this section in particular, I felt they could have done a better job at conveying what this seemingly random selection of objects might suggest about the history of the museum, the history of art, and the history of modernism both in Punjab and in South Asia.
The last section of the museum that I explored was the children’s gallery on the ground floor, near the entrance. I was surprised and pleased to find this space – part activity room, part exhibition hall – specifically devoted to cultivating and showcasing creative works by local youth. Kudos to the GMAG for setting aside this gallery and for putting it front and center.