- “A Simultaneous Validity of Co-Existing Cultures”: J. Swaminathan, the Bharat Bhavan, and Contemporaneity
The innovative nature of the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, India, is intimately linked with the vision and energy of its founding director, J. Swaminathan (1928–1994), himself a painter of international prominence. Assessments of Swaminathan’s artistic career have become more laudatory since his death in 1994, keeping pace with the enhanced value of his paintings, and with growing scholarly attention to his Group 1890 manifesto and other polemical writings positioning him as a radical counterpoint in the story of Indian modern art. Yet the Bharat Bhavan, a purpose-built museum established in 1982, is infrequently discussed or analyzed, perhaps in part because it lies outside the established art corridor of Delhi-Baroda-Mumbai. However, this institution presents a remarkable experiment in rethinking the exhibition paradigm and discourses of display. As I will argue, it fundamentally overturns prevailing notions for displaying adivasi (“original inhabitants”) visual production, often embedded in an ethnographic model that privileges an archive of material culture.
To create the Roopankar Museum of Fine Arts at the Bharat Bhavan, Swaminathan and teams of students recruited from the government art colleges in Gwalior, Jabalpur, Indore, and Dhar traveled extensively throughout the countryside in Madhya Pradesh state, collecting and documenting material. These young students were divided into five teams of six; each team stayed in its assigned district for two months. As Archana Verma, a member of one of the original teams assigned to Raigarh and Sarguja in eastern Madhya Pradesh, recalls, the only restrictions were that they were not to collect clothes, jewelry, or utensils, but even then some students collected them because of the quality of their designs. “After all, the students selected were art students and had a trained eye.”1 Their initial efforts form the core of the Roopankar collection, an entire wing devoted to “folk and Adivasi art.”2
While the collecting practices may appear to parallel ethnographic approaches, the institutional framing of this large corpus as both contemporary and art is a deliberate and radically different exhibition strategy. Rather than being subsumed under a homogenizing rubric that upholds a positivist view of the anonymous craftsman, the Bharat Bhavan acknowledges individual creativity. Swaminathan’s intervention marks a decisive shift from a long-standing institutional practice of categorizing and classifying this large corpus as craft. With its dense and complex history in India, crafts found validation in several state-sanctioned projects, including the creation of the All India Handicrafts Board in 1952, a dedicated national museum for crafts—the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum (known as the Crafts Museum) in New Delhi—in 1956, and the establishment of the annual National Craftsman award in 1965.
In 1982, the same year as the Bharat Bhavan’s official opening, a celebratory Festival of India, sponsored by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and chaired by Gandhi’s cultural advisor Pupul Jayakar, took place in Great Britain. Of particular note were two London exhibitions: Aditi: A Celebration of Life held at the Barbican Centre and The Living Arts of India: Craftsmen at Work at the Serpentine Gallery.3 The Living Arts of India brought together nine “distinguished craftsmen” from all over India for a three-week demonstration of their skills with stone, wood, bronze, marble, textiles, and terracotta. Despite this material and geographic diversity, these craftspeople shared “one common inheritance”: the teacher-pupil tradition (guru-shishya parampara).4 Not surprisingly, all were past winners of the National Craftsman award, underscoring both the deep embeddedness of the craft model and the primacy of the government in creative validation, thus demonstrating the complex entanglements between artists, patrons, and institutions.
Actively resisting a Western model for his museum, Swaminathan resolutely rejected periodization in the displays at the Bharat Bhavan, instead enabling the objects to exist in a shared space and time—which he termed “contemporaneity.” He articulated this position in the important 1987 catalogue The Perceiving Fingers: Catalogue of Roopankar Collection of Folk and Adivasi Art from Madhya Pradesh, India: “We will, therefore, try to define contemporaneity as a simultaneous validity of co-existing cultures, as is the validity of the simultaneity of events on a matrix...