At the heart of Sarmaya is a carefully curated repository of art, artefacts and living traditions from the larger Indian subcontinent. And to think it all began with a Vaseline jar full of old coins from the princely Southern state of Travancore is, well, a little astonishing to say the least. What is Sarmaya, but? To put it simply, it is an online museum. Unlike other museums that occupy physical space, Sarmaya does not adhere to boundaries of time. Hence, events that took place two centuries ago will be on the same page as a breaking story.

Sarmaya has many objects in its collection and has a plethora of genres under its canopy, from numismatics, photography, folk and tribal art, engravings/etchings, cartography to modern and contemporary art. The collection is categorised into 11 themes and seven genres on the website. But where are the physical copies of these digital prints? They are housed in the Sarmaya archive in Mumbai, which is a temperaturecontrolled storage space overseen by Komal Chitnis, Sarmaya’s manager. The museum may have been launched in 2015, but its foundations were laid in 1948, when founder Paul Abraham’s father moved to Delhi from Kerala. When Abraham reached his teenage years, his father gifted him a Vaseline jar full of old coins from Travancore. A young Abraham was thoroughly intrigued and this love for coins led to a passion for old maps.

So why the name, Sarmaya? And why not an actual museum? “Over the years, I’ve learnt Urdu for a variety of reasons, mainly because it helps me interpret one of the genres in the collection — the coins. I came across the word Sarmaya, which means ‘collective wealth’. That’s the idea of Sarmaya. Our venture is our collective heritage and therefore, our collective wealth and can be shared with everyone,” says Abraham. He says they were hunting for space for the museum, but there were too many barriers. “Space in our country is a huge privilege and unfortunately, most museums are for the privileged and the elite. Also, we wanted to be a young museum. Many museums take the point of view of the expert or the academic who is educating the masses. We don’t see ourselves as that at all,” says his partner and Sarmaya’s brand custodian, Pavitra Rajaram, who is also the former lead designer at Good Earth.

Abraham uses a list of skills and tactics to source items for the collection. “Sourcing for Abraham is a full-time job and he is at it day and night,” says Rajaram. While some artefacts are acquired through dealers and auctions, others are sourced from exhibitions and the by-lanes of old cities. Everything in the collection is original work that has been purchased by Abraham for the Sarmaya Arts Foundation. While for coins, old books, photos, engravings and indigenous art, there is no permission required, acquiring contemporary art is also not much of a hassle, as long as the name of the artist is mentioned. “Usually, it is the privilege of the person or the institution that has purchased the art or the artefact to be able to display it,” says Rajaram.

 

VIEW OF LUCKNOW (1860)

Collector’s comments: “This view of Lucknow is particularly beautiful as it shows the large contingent of British troops entering the city via the famed Rumi Darwaza. We love this for its panoramic view of the great city of Lucknow, just prior to it being ravaged by the British.”

MASSACRE AT CAWNPORE (1858)



Publisher: The London Printing and Publishing Company Limited

Collector’s comments: “Battle scenes are particularly intense, especially when they are about extracting revenge for an art of brutality. As one of the big Cantonment towns during the Mutiny, Kanpur was ransacked by the marauding mutineers. What stands out in this polychrome engraving on paper is the sheer ferocity of the encounter.”

THE LAST EFFORT AND FALL OF TIPU SULTAN (1858)



 

Artist: W. Daniell R. A Engraver: J. B. Allen

Collector’s comments: “This moment of Tipu’s fall in 1799 has been immortalised by many painters and artists, and this version by Singleton is a masterpiece. Especially poignant is the additional rendering of the handover of Tipu’s sons as hostages to the British.”

NIKUSIYAR RUPEE (1719)

Commissioned by Emperor Nikusiyar

Collector’s comments: “This is one of the best objects in the entire Sarmaya collection. It’s a rupee, issued in 1719 by the Mughal Emperor Nikusiyar (one of Aurangzebs many great grandsons), who sat on the throne for just a few days. Only two things denote kingship: the issue of coin and the reading of the Qutba in your name. Both these momentous acts occurred in the few days Nikusiyar sat on the throne in Agra. Only two specimens of his issued coinage are known to exist. One with a reclusive collector outside India, and the other with Sarmaya.”

THE CITY OF DELHI BEFORE THE SIEGE (1858)

Publisher: Illustrated London News

Collector’s comments: “This original etching and engraving by Thomas Sherratt captures a deeply significant moment of history. When the British captured the city of Delhi by storming Kashmiri Gate, one of the entrances to the city of Shahjahanabad, they captured the Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, effectively ending the rule of the 330-year-old Mughal dynasty in India.”

GANDHARA BENT BAR (2500 YEARS OLD)

Collector’s comments: “This is one of the oldest objects in the Sarmaya collection. It is a coin that is nearly 2,500 years old now. The coin is a silver Shatamana (denomination) from the Gandhara Janapada and was probably issued in a mint in the north west of India, in what was then the Gandhara region. These were among the first Indian punchmarked coins struck. Abraham was amazed to find it in auction and acquired it for its sheer antiquity and historical importance as one of the first ever coins to be struck on the Indian subcontinent.”

VIEW OF WATSON’S HOTEL OR ESPLANADE MANSION, BOMBAY (1880s – 1900s)

Photographer: Unidentified

Collector’s comments: “This albumen print of the erstwhile Watson’s Hotel was shot somewhere in the late 1890s. It’s of particular interest today because until it collapsed a few months ago, it was the oldest cast iron structure in India, completed in 1869. It’s heartening to see that instead of being demolished as first suggested, it is now being restored. This is also a beautiful panoramic view of the Kala Ghoda area and the Arabian Sea beyond it. Rumour has it that Watson’s is where Mr. Jamsetji Tata was turned away, prompting him to build the Taj Mahal Hotel next door.”

MAP OF HINDOOSTAN DIVIDED INTO SOUBAHS (1815)

Publisher: R. Wilkinson, London Collector’s comments: “This map depicted the administrative structure and territories of the Mughal Empire as defined during Akbar’s time and as detailed in the Ain-I-Akbari. In many ways, each of these Soubahs ended up nurturing provincial ambitions and the eventual break away into smaller kingdoms, some of which became the states of modern India.”

WILD THINGS (2019)

Artist: Jethro Buck

Collector’s comments: “This is our current favourite in the entire collection. It’s a new acquisition and part of our contemporary art collection. It’s an oil and 22-carat gold leaf on Gesso panel. It traverses the whole landscape from pastoral England to Mughal and miniature India as well as Chinese ceramics and gilded screens. We believe that Jethro is an exciting new voice in the world of contemporary art and the miniature style and we were thrilled to acquire this work.”

MATA NI PACHEDI

Creator: Sumit Chitara

Collector’s comments: “Paul has long appreciated the art of Mata ni Pachedi, a ritual textile drawn by the Vagari tribes of Gujarat. Rajaram was not a big fan but on a joint visit to the home of one of the Mata ni Pachedi artists, we noticed his 15-year-old son making the most amazing contemporary drawings in the traditional style. We were both fascinated and commissioned a work on the spot. We told him to forget the Gods and Goddesses he was training to draw and just draw whatever his heart told him to. The result was this beautiful textile art, in the style of a Mata, where he tells the story of an age-old craft being made in a city environment that is rapidly modernising. The water tower in Ahmedabad, the buses and buildings, the river Sabarmati and the Vagaris making their ritual textiles by the river bank, all find a place in this one-of-a-kind work.”

THOLUBOMMALATA (C. 3RD CENTURY) 

Collector’s comments: “The art of shadow puppetry goes as far back as the 3rd century in India and a migrant strain of this art is also found in the Wayang puppets of Yogyakarta. In India, these puppets are made of goat leather by a community of traditional puppeteers in the Rayalseema region of northern Karnataka & Andhra Pradesh. A chance encounter with the artist, Chidamabara Rao, at a Paramparik Karigar exhibition has developed, over time, into a deep and abiding friendship. They have begun to document the many puppet characters who populate the Ramayana and are part of the Sarmaya collection of Indigenous Art. This piece is a spectacular 5-foot-tall Hanuman rendered in traditional black and red pigments on stretched goat leather. The Sarmaya collection has over 200 leather puppets, some of which are more than a century old. However, in keeping with our philosophy of honouring contemporary craftspersons, we collect puppets that are new as well as old.”

THE SIMPSON ALBUM (1890s)

Named by Benjamin Simpson

Collector’s comments: “One of the most prolific collectors of the 19th century photography, particularly of Indis, was a Swede named Sven Gahlin. When he passed away, his estate gave most of his collection to the auction house, Sotheby’s, to be sold. On a holiday in London in the summer of 2018, we popped into Sotheby’s and actually saw another album — of native princes in full regalia and were keen to bid for that in auction later in the year. Another well-known British collector outbid us on the album of Indian royals. We were rather disappointed but chose to stay on for the rest of the auction and then began to bid on this album; a rare collection of early photographs from Orissa and the North East. Like with the earlier album, it boiled down to the British collector and us, but this time we prevailed. We were so excited and in retrospect felt we had actually got the rarer album of the two since the documentation of the North East at the time was much rarer than photographs of Indian royals.”

BALA HISSAR (C. 19TH CENTURY)

Photographer: John Burke

Collector’s comments: “This is one of Paul’s most favourite photos. He had asked all his dealers to locate photographs of the boundaries of the erstwhile British Empire, in India and when a private dealer found this photo of Bala Hissar, a fortress in Afghanistan that marked the north western boundary of the Empire he was thrilled. As a South Mumbai resident, he had visited the Afghan Church, that was built in 1842 to commemorate the lives of the fallen soldiers in the Anglo-Afghan Wars and their subsequent retreat from Kabul. So, it was wonderful to have a photograph that connected these two bits of history. The photograph was taken by John Burke, who took two separate photos that were then stitched together to create a panoramic view.”