You Can Now Explore an Open-Source Encyclopedia of 10,000 Years of South Asian Art

The online reference aims to make the region’s masterpieces more accessible than ever

Watercolor showing an individual paying homage to gods
This watercolor from a devotional poem shows the richness of South Asian art—a long art history overlooked by some in the Western world. Public domain via Philadelphia Museum of Art

South Asia has a long, vibrant artistic tradition. But art enthusiasts in search of an easy-to-read reference on the region’s art have long been disappointed. Now, the New York Times’ Ginanne Brownell reports, a team of researchers has launched an open-source online encyclopedia covering over 10,000 years of South Asian art— the first such collection of information about Indian and South Asian art of its kind.

The MAP Academy Encyclopedia of Indian Art, supported by Bangalore’s Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), launched last week with over 2,000 peer-reviewed entries on artwork ranging from paintings, to sculptures, to textiles and crafts.

Each easy-to-read entry is in article form with text and images, and focuses on artistic techniques, the importance of individual works, and the art movements to which they belong, Hyperallergic’s Jasmine Liu writes.

The peer-reviewed articles were created by roughly 20 researchers and editors, CNN’s Oscar Holland notes, and the peer-reviewed project was supervised by scholars, editors and art history experts. Though the encyclopedia is only in English, organizers hope to launch Hindi translations in the near future. Currently, writes Holland, the team is aiming to add roughly 1,000 additional entries per year, including artwork from Bangladesh and Pakistan in recognition of art movements that pre-date modern borders.

Project founder and MAP Academy director Nathaniel Gaskell says South Asian art has been sorely devoid of such a resource, telling CNN that the majority of relevant scholarship “is in ridiculously verbose jargon." He describes the encyclopedia as “a response to that kind of writing, which people find quite alienating.”

A statue of Shiva with limbs in motion
This statue of Shiva with limbs in motion is held in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.  Public domain via Cleveland Museum of Art

MAP founder Abhishek Poddar, a businessman and philanthropist, tells the Times of India’s Neelam Raj that India’s art and museum sector remains relatively underdeveloped and reliant on philanthropists like him for resources—and that the museum intends to challenge the idea that museums are boring, elite spaces.

According to CNN, India’s Ministry of Culture’s most recent budget of 26.9 billion rupees ($351 million) was little more than the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2020 spending, and Gaskell tells Hyperallergic the country’s educational institutions—even art schools—sorely lack art history courses.

The result is that South Asian art is underrepresented both globally and in India. “Every kid knows about [Michelangelo’s] David, the Mona Lisa and Botticelli, but there are Indian masterpieces that even 1 percent of India doesn’t know about,” Poddar tells CNN.

Part of this is because, as Hyperallergic notes, the concept of art history and art valuation have Western connotations. And South Asia’s long history of art is rife with European colonization and subjugation—issues the encyclopedia does not shy away from. In its article on bazaar paintings—artwork created for European visitors to India—the encyclopedia writes about how Indian artists “began to adopt European styles and aesthetics” around the turn of the 20th century, leading to a hybrid style of painting now known as the Company school.

A brightly-colored painting featuring a large blue plant surrounded by humanesque figures
Bhuri Bai. c. 1980, Poster color on paper, Untitled. Courtesy Hervé Perdriolle.

Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s international head for contemporary Indian & Southeast Asian art, tells the Times the encyclopedia could contribute to the growing art market in South Asia, which the Art Newspaper‘s Kabir Jhala reports grew by over 9 percent in 2019. Collectors want to have “a little more understanding of what [they’re] getting involved with” when “spending $500,000 and above,” Klein says.

That could have a downside, writes Hyperallergic, noting that art collectors and dealers “typically benefit from the exploitative potential of art history.”

So do Western museums, many of which hold extensive collections of looted objects. Repatriation efforts have gained steam in recent years—like the return of a $50 million trove of Cambodian art and antiquities this February and the Rubin Museum’s agreement to return stolen religious carvings from Nepal—but many South Asian masterpieces remain in Western museums.

But the encyclopedia’s team says they’re focused on the sheer accessibility to art knowledge their compilation would provide. “Our aim is to make art histories more accessible, based on the idea that doing so can have a positive social impact through broadening perspectives on humanity, heritage and culture,” they say on the project’s website. Similar easy-to-access resources have been available through the American and British art-world lenses for decades—researchers say it’s high time South Asian traditions had the same.