One of the most interesting critical turns in the practice of art in recent times has been the negotiation of the gallery-space. While artists have tried to use the conventional gallery-space in innovative ways, art is simultaneously getting displaced out of traditional museum and gallery spaces into the domain of the public sphere. The displacement has allowed for the possibility to present art, not just to a pre-determined ‘viewer’ i.e. the gallery-goer, but to a wider cross-section of the public (which might otherwise have been a passive or disinterested segment). This displacement implicitly involves, in varying degrees, the viewer and the artist in a dynamic relationship depending on the medium and the site that the artist may choose for the intervention. While within the context of art history and criticism, the contemporary movement of art into the public space is located around the collapsing of categories of ‘high/low’ art and ‘private/public’ art, the movement is also very significant for a sociological understanding of art because of the reconstruction, that it entails, of the relationship between art and society.
The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, housed in the Town Hall Building in the Fort area, is of great historical significance and is an important institution on the intellectual map of the city. It was started two hundred years ago as The Literary Society of Mumbai and therefore its origins are anchored in Mumbai’s colonial and intellectual past. It represents a very significant moment in India’s colonial history when British scholars initiated the study of this country and its cultural history in the tradition that we now know as Indology. Though it embodies the knowledge-making practices of the colonial period, the Asiatic Society also continues to be a centre of advanced learning and research which seeks to strike a balance between the Indological and post-colonial perspectives. It is therefore best described as a ‘heritage’ institution. The institution functions through three complementary identities: a) as a Society of intellectuals and scholars, b) as a Library for the general public, and c) as a repository of some of the rarest archaeological treasures. The intersection of these identities of the institution account for its complex and multi-layered character.
As part of the bicentenary celebrations of the Asiatic Society, the Asiatika project has been initiated as a public out-reach programme aimed at revitalizing the physical space and the intellectual heritage of the Society. The Asiatika, which is primarily conceived as a heritage walk in and around the Town Hall, aims to make the public develop a critical engagement with our colonial past and to sensitize them to heritage and conservation issues. Through an anecdotal narrative and an interactive method, the walk offers the public both, a perspective to Mumbai’s history and also, a window to the scholarly world of Indology, without either glorifying or dismissing this scholarship.
The three identities of the institution and its physical location within the grand colonial building of the Town Hall, located as it is at the centre of the Fort area, suggest interesting possibilities for an art intervention within this location. Whle exploring the larger issues of heritage, if site specific, such an intervention would allow for an exploration of the interstices between these identities of the institution and its relationship with the wider public. Within the Asiatic society, the durbar hall with all it’s glory, the library with it’s vast collection of books and manuscripts, the research room with it’s slumbering spirit, the intimidating vestibule..all would make for interesting and significant sites for the making of engaging art which takes up issues specific to the site of the Asiatic society and more specifically to the Asiatika project. For example, does the Society still have an image of being insular and exclusionist? What is the public perception (particulary of the youth) of the Society? How does the knowledge produced here impact the wider public? What is the nature of the relationship between the Asiatic Library and the Central Library, which is a public library housed in the Town Hall? Should the collections of the Asiatic Society be museumised and what will be its impact and how does it relate to the larger issue of the movement of art out of public spaces? On the other hand, what is the local history of the area? Does it still contain remnants of the British fort? What is the implication of the area being declared a heritage precinct? How can meanings be reinvented so that the high culture that the institution represents can be negotiated and made available to the public?
Asiatika feels that art interventions can bring forth some of these issues in an expressive and creative manner and art can explore the metaphor, the myth and the meaning of a colonial knowledge-making and archival institution like the Asiatic Society of Mumbai thus making art which is far more engaging than just the decorative.
— Gita Chadha