Sarmaya’s Mumbai archive is a good place to remember that history lessons can be fun. Here, scrolls of folk art bring to life near dying traditions from the hinterlands; cabinets hold tomes like the 1875 volume of History of the Indian Mutiny by Charles Ball and rare 16th century travelogues, dense with stories of visitors who came to India; and portraits of Indian royalty on albumen cartes de visite that rarely see the light of day, only revealing their stateliness at curated shows, or when a history buff visits, by invite only. Then, there’s the man behind this extensive collection, Paul Abraham, COO of IndusInd Bank, whose innate curiosity for the origins of historical artefacts is infectious.
Abraham, 57, is far less guarded than you’d imagine a private collector to be. His collection is a meticulously curated repository of thousands of objects of Indian antiquity such as Mughal coins, old maps, engravings, tribal art and 19th-century photographs, including rare ones by Felice Beato, who was commissioned by the War Office in London to document the aftermath of the 1857 revolt. The libraries in his Mumbai and Delhi archives have over 8000 books and records on these subjects, making them invaluable to researchers and history buffs alike.
The purpose of Sarmaya, which translates to ‘collective wealth’ in Urdu, is to make available India’s heritage, often underplayed as metadata, next to an object at a museum. An unsuccessful plan to launch a physical museum in Bengaluru prompted Abraham to take his collection into the public realm through outreach programmes. Then last year, he launched the Sarmaya digital archive, opening up a world of resources to anyone with an internet connection. This is when his partner Pavitra Rajaram, Good Earth’s lead designer and all-round creative powerhouse, came onboard as brand custodian. They’ve since worked on a reinvention of sorts based on the shared dream of making Sarmaya one of the most exciting properties in the educational space for Indian art, culture and history. “With Sarmaya, we’re trying to make Indian history light for the audience, to be a little tongue-in-cheek,” he says.
Shadow puppets from Andhra Pradesh, used in Tholu Bommalata
Abraham’s love for dissecting the past stems from the hands-on history lessons he received as a child — his playground was the historically rich Hauz Khas Complex. “We used to play in the old complex with structures like Khilji’s tank, Siri Fort, Jahanpanah and the tomb of Firoz Shah Tughlaq within cycling distance of each other.” But, his first tryst with collecting really began at the age of 17, when his father gave him ten coins from the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore in a small Vaseline bottle. This piqued his interest and he started to collect Mughal coins. Keen to make sense of the ancient coinage that bore Urdu inscriptions of mint locations, couplets and issuers, he also studied the language for eight years. “One object can send you down a rabbit hole,” says Abraham.
In the mid-eighties, when he began working, Abraham acquired as much as he could afford. “I started collecting because of my love for history. In the initial phase, it was the selective excitement with a genre and the history associated with it,” he says. Soon, his collection grew like a ripple in a pond, extending to engravings and other historical ephemera. The seasoned numismatist’s collection runs into several thousands. The oldest of the lot dates back to 2500 years and has its origins in Gandhara, an ancient kingdom in the Peshawar Valley. His rarest coin, from the early 1700s, establishes that the Mughal emperor Nikusiyar did indeed dream of ruling Hindustan, even if just for a few days. “When I collect, I look for a mix of things — objects that attract the eye, that are historically significant and that leave you with a sense of how deep our traditions are.”
An 1801 engraving depicting the death of Colonel James Moorhouse, during the third Anglo-Mysore War
Abraham, who lost his wife to cancer in 2014, says Sarmaya is based on her idea of using collected objects to connect the youth with our heritage. “Tina was a lawyer with an interest in tribal art. We used to travel extensively in India and collect things together,” he shares. It was on a trip to the ancient caves of Bhimbetka, in Madhya Pradesh, that they made their first acquisition of tribal art: ten paintings by Jangarh Singh Shyam, India’s foremost Gond artist. “While admiring the cave paintings, we questioned whether the tribes in the area would still carry this artistic gene in their DNA.” One thing led to another and they found themselves in the home of the late Gond artist. “His wife wasn’t willing to sell us any of his paintings at first, so we asked if we could [just] see them. We behaved like children looking at a beautiful painting for the first time. When we finished our tea and said our goodbyes, Jangarh’s wife, Naukusiya, suddenly agreed to give us a few of his works, saying that she saw something in us that made her believe that we’d do justice to the works of her late husband,” recalls Abraham.
An engraving by artist Robert M. Grindlay on the Ellora Caves (1826)
This quiet understanding and respect for India’s living traditions is reflected in his collection of Patachitra scrolls from Odisha and West Bengal, Rajasthan’s Phad paintings, and shadow puppets from Andhra Pradesh. “More than the need for preservation, tribal art lacks awareness and the patronage it deserves. The traditions of indigenous art essentially propagate India’s love for storytelling. It’s not just art; there’s a huge amount of effort, skill and tradition involved.”
Map of the coasts of Malabar, Coromandel and Ceylon by German cartographer Johann Baptist Homann (1733)
Abraham, an early riser, deftly divides his time between heading the teams at IndusInd Bank and Sarmaya. If he’s not planning talks, experiential travel itineraries and workshops or working with the Hinduja Foundation, he’s busy dreaming up collaborative projects with folk artists. “But we’re happiest when we take Sarmaya to schools and to young adults,” he says. When he travels, while museums are his sacred spaces of contemplation, there’s another place where he can be found in his element: forests. As an avid wildlife conservationist, he works closely with environmentalist Bittu Sahgal on conservation programmes and scholarships for young naturalists. “I love going into the forest and have been to almost all the sanctuaries in India,” he says, “but I don’t really have a great desire to spot a tiger. For me, being in the forest is a near spiritual experience.”
The book is the travelogue of Sir Thomas Herbert Bar who chronicled his journey to Asia and Africa in the 17th century
The conversation veers towards Sarmaya’s experiential strategy when he starts talking about the immersive nature of video games such as Assassin’s Creed. “By the time you finish the Istanbul series, you know that the city has a Blue Mosque, a Hagia Sophia and so on. We want to do something along those lines,” he says. Hoping to bring onboard creators of holographic content and virtual reality, he is certainly not digital-shy. Like his vast collection, Abraham’s Instagram account is a treasure trove of information on Indian history. Yet, he’s quick to admit that he still appreciates old-school methods of learning. “I feel that ultimately if you touch a nisar, or the medallion thrown into the crowd by emperors, and I tell you it’s a coin that was potentially held by Jahangir, you’ll get goosebumps knowing that you’re holding a piece of history.”