(S.Nagarajan – The Hindu, 09/02/17) – Curator and archivist Deepthi Sasidharan explains how museums can be turned into places that enchant and enlighten visitors
“Why on earth should one remove one’s footwear to enter a museum? Why shouldn’t one take pictures inside a museum? Famous museums the world over don’t have such strange restrictions. It only discourages visitors and museums thrive on footfalls. Museums should welcome people to come and be enchanted and enlightened by what these places showcase and preserve,” says an exasperated Deepthi Sasidharan, talking about museums in Kerala that have such restrictions in place.
After having worked with some of the best museums in the world and curating many fascinating ones in India, Deepthi should know what she is talking about. Consultant to the “Expert Committee for the Supreme Court of India, for ongoing documentation of treasures at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram”, Deepthi is also working as a Consultant to the Kerala Government.
A native of Thiruvananthapuram, Deepthi, a Fulbright scholar, currently living in Mumbai, is one of the two directors of Delhi-based Eka Archiving Services. She explains that Eka was born after she and work partner Pramod had worked with some priceless collections, ranging from textiles to jewels and documents tucked away in different parts of India. “We found that there was a dire need to conserve these valuable collections for posterity and turn them into places where people could learn more about their heritage. I worked with several former royal houses and individuals in Goa, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. What we came across were two kinds of people: well-meaning people who had the resources to safeguard their treasure but was not sure how to go about showcasing it and the other group consisted of ordinary people with extraordinary collections who did not have the means to conserve it or put it on show for visitors.”
Her first major work came up after she completed her post graduation in Museology from the National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, National Museum New Delhi. She was able to work on the relocation project of the Museum of Christian Art in Goa in 2000. Funded by the Archdiocese of Goa, the Museum was relocated from Rachol, Salcette, to the Convent of Santa Monica in Old Goa. “It was a dream-come-true for a youngster and it was an unforgettable experience. In 2002, I was appointed curator of the Museum and was very lucky, as work took me to a lot of seminaries where women are not typically allowed!” she laughs.
She adds: “It was a treasure trove of Indo-Christian art ranging from sculptures, paintings and sculptures in ivory, wood and clay. Introduced by the Portuguese when they landed in the 16th century, the art is specific to Goa and is a result of the amalgam of Christian faith blended with Indian craftsmanship. For instance, in the Museum, there is a tiny ivory figurine of Bom Jesus (infant Jesus) in a small crib, wearing Indian inspired ornaments like an odyanam (a golden belt) and fashioned after similar sculptures of Lord Krishna as a child. That shows the fascinating cultural melting pot at work,” she says.
Following a Fundacao Oriente scholar to Portugal, she worked in Kochi as a faculty member of the Centre for Heritage Studies at the Hill Palace Museum in Tripunithura.
However Deepthi feels it is not enough to run a course on heritage studies without giving students avenues to use their education, upgrade their skills and also help them earn a living.
“Many of the students end up as guides and that is not enough. They should be working to make museums accessible and people-friendly. Sadly, in Kerala, many museums lack proper world-class collection management practices and there are many absurd regulations put in place. Lighting, cohesive display, informative text labels on each piece, audio guides… all these go a long way in attracting visitors to museums and making the visit meaningful,” she says.
After she put in her papers at the Hill Palace Museum, Deepthi got a call from Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage to inventory the private collection of the Nizams of Hyderabad. As part of a two-member team, Deepthi documented more than 6,000 objects, some of which were priceless.
“Arrangements were made for us to stay at the Chowmahalla Palace in Hyderabad and we worked day and night to catalogue the collection and also photo-document it. Shows were curated for the museum complex, now open to the public. It was an experience of a lifetime and I recall our days there, working, chatting and living in a small renovated portion of the sprawling palace grounds that were then in darkness. We were also privileged to work at the Falaknuma Palace, today a luxury hotel. When I see the opulence there today, we remember our times there, working through rooms with just torchlight.. ,” says Deepthi.
The Fulbright scholarship made a stint possible with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and, eventually, marriage took her to Pune. That was when she got the opportunity to work with the Tatas to archive and curate their corporate history.
“As the Chief Archivist, I had tremendous access and was able to get a captivating ringside view of the evolution of the history of the Tata Group and their role in India’s economic development,” she recalls.
More recently, Deepthi was in Thiruvananthapuram with academic John Mathew to look at the precious exhibits at the Natural History Museum.
“I am there because John and I share a common interest in natural history,” says Deepthi.
Praising the staff members working in the museum, she says they work tirelessly and do a good job to conserve the institution established by monarchs of erstwhile Travancore, whose vision led to the founding of the museums.
“At the risk of being called a loyalist, the Travancore royals, established one of the earliest museums in India. They also recruited some of the best in the world to curate the museums.
“As such our museums have exhibits that can be on a par with the best in the world. But many of the museums in Kerala have to be modernised to be in tune with the needs of visitors,” she says.
S.Nagarajan – The Hindu, Art of the curator