The Museum And The Man
The Museum And The Man

The MAP Museum of Art & Photography, which opened in Bengaluru recently, is a fitting culmination of Abhishek Poddar’s lifelong devotion to collecting Indian art

The finest privately funded museum to come up in India in a generation opened for the public a few weeks ago on Kasturba Road, in the heart of Bangalore. Housed in a modernist, five-storey steel and glass building, it boasts of five galleries, a café, a rooftop restaurant with a sweeping view of the city, a 130-seat auditorium, and a library of Indian art. But what makes MAP stand out from other museums in the country, and perhaps elsewhere in the world is the all-pervading use of digital technology to enhance the visitor experience. This arguably places MAP among the most technologically advanced museums in the world. 



MAP’s ever-growing repository of artworks now number more than 60,000, cutting across a variety of genres and disciplines. From contemporary and modern paintings to sculptures, graphics, drawings, textiles, tribal art, and film memorabilia, the range is vast. High art and pop culture sit comfortably across the collection. Its massive photography collection is among the largest ever assembled by any museum or gallery in India.  


The first thing that strikes you as you enter the museum is the stunning design of the building itself. Designed by the local architecture firm Mathew & Ghosh, it is encased in steel panels whose facades are embossed with a cross pattern to give the feel of an old-style industrial water tank. The idea was to “bring out the metaphorical connection between the idea of storing something precious: in this case, art.” The courtyard leading to the entrance is an art gallery itself housing an imposing collection of stone sculptures of rishis and yoginis in Indian basalt created by well-known British architect, Stephen Cox, who is known for his monolithic works and spends part of the year in Mahabalipuram. 


MAP is in many ways the logical culmination of its founder Abhishek Poddar’s lifelong love for collecting Indian art. Originally from Kolkata and based in Bangalore since the 1990s, Abhishek is 55 this year. He started collecting while still a teenager, and has since amassed what many believe to be among the largest and most important Indian art collections in the world, numbering over 15,000 works that include paintings, sculptures, photographs, textiles, and much more. He has donated half his collection to MAP, while the other half is also on loan to the museum.  


Abhishek’s tryst with art started quite early. His father, the well-known Kolkata industrialist Bimal Poddar, was something of a collector himself, and their house was filled with paintings, both modern and Raj-period landscapes, sculptures, and textiles. Abhishek was only eight when the legendary French photographer Henri Cartier Bresson came to his house to photograph his family as part of an India project. He vividly remembers chatting with Bresson, who after he got back to Paris, mailed four signed prints of the photographs to the family. Abhishek, the precocious collector, knew the value of the pictures even then, keeping and preserving all four. 


After Bresson passed away in 2004, his wife Martine Franck, a renowned photographer herself, sent him the 5th print in the series that the French photographer had retained, this time signed by her. These pictures are amongst Abhishek’s most prized possessions, an important part of his massive photography collection.  


While at Doon School, Abhishek ran an art magazine called Akshat for which he got big-name artists like Satish Gujral and Anjolie Ela Menon to contribute. And when he was 14, he had a chance first meeting with the legendary MF Husain. He was in his car when he saw the great man with his signature naked feet waiting at a bus stop not very far from the Poddar household. Abhishek stopped the car, went up to him, and offered him a lift. Husain thanked him saying he was waiting for a friend to pick him up. He offered to come for tea at Abhishek’s house the next day. The visit kicked off a friendship that lasted till the painter’s death in 2011. 



Abhishek’s other significant acquaintances were with painters Manjit Bawa and Subhaprasanna Bhattacharjee. He credits them with shaping his discerning eye for good art, and also for introducing him to the likes of Tyeb Mehta, Jagdish Swaminathan, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, Ravinder Reddy, and many others who became regulars at his Kolkata house. The artists in turn held him in high regard despite his youth. In the early 1980s, for example, he was able to get 25 of them, including Bhupen Khakhar NS Bendre, Husain, Laxma Goud, and KG Subramanyan to paint a flower each on a canvas, which he presented to his parents for their 25th wedding anniversary. Like the Bresson photograph, these 25 paintings also form an important part of his collection, which he loves to show visitors to his house in Bangalore. 


Abhishek was fifteen when he bought his first painting, a Jatin Das. Helped along by an annual allowance from his father, it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for collecting art. Not surprising then that influential works by almost every modern Indian artist of note, as well as many greats from the past, are part of his collection. Luck also played a big part. As he told the art website Artisera sometime back, “I have been very lucky and continue to be so when buying art. In the 1980s an old man in Kolkata, who was a framer, took a liking to me and sold me 26 paper works from Raza, Bikash Bhattacharjee, Paritosh Sen, H. A. Gade, and other eminent artists, for a total of just Rs 3,500!” On another occasion, in the early 1990s, while on a holiday in Goa, he once managed to snag four editioned works by Souza for just Rs 1,200.  



The Poddar family underwent a business partition in 1990 which resulted in Bimal Poddar being apportioned the South India-based businesses, the tea trading company Matheson Bosanquet, and mining explosives maker Sua Explosives & Accessories. Consequently, the family shifted base to Bangalore where they built two adjoining identical-looking bungalows filled with art. Abhishek and his wife Radhika would also go on to set up Cinnamon, a lifestyle store that become a Bangalore landmark, which in turn helped stretch the collection to all manners of curios including kanthas, posters, fine silver, old mirrors, vases, china, furniture, etc.  


It was also in the 1990s that Abhishek discovered photography as an art after watching a documentary featuring three of India’s best-famous female photographers, Dayanita Singh, Homai Vyarawalla, and Ketaki Sheth. “It was really Dayanita’s work that blew my mind. I saw her photographs in a film by Sabeena Gadihoke about three women photographers. It was made on a grant received from India Foundation for the Arts which I was involved with,” he says, “A friend of mine introduced me to Dayanita and that’s how we met first and became friends. She connected me to Prabuddha Dasgupta, who became a friend as well. They were my gurus when it comes to photography. Prabuddha helped me set up Tasveer. It was really Prabhuddha’s idea.” 


Tasveer was a traveling gallery for photography that Abhishek set up in the early aughts as a vehicle to channel his new passion. In his typically gregarious style, he was able to establish rapport and relationships with photographers and photograph collectors from around the world. This enabled him not only to amass a large personal collection but also to have frequent exhibitions across the country featuring some of the finest works on India by Indian and foreign photographers. Tasveer showcased works of many Indian greats like Jyoti Bhat and T.S. Satyan, which otherwise would be languishing in obscure collections. 


It was during the Tasveer days that Abhishek first began toying with the idea of setting up a permanent museum in Bangalore for his collection. A window opened when the then Karnataka government expressed its interest to let him renovate and run the Venkatappa Art Gallery, a government-owned contemporary art museum in the vicinity of the city’s popular Cubbon Park, as part of a new public-private partnership model for running the state’s museums. But after a few years of promising discussions, there was much resistance within the government to allowing an outsider to run a government museum and the deal fell through in 2015.  



A crestfallen Abhishek decided not to give up. He made the decision to set up a privately funded museum of his own. But that wasn’t going to be easy. Besides the costs involved, the other big issue was of land. He didn’t want to set up a museum far away from the city where land would be cheaper, but where people would be loath to travel, especially in a country where museum-going culture is largely non-existent.  


Serendipitously he then thought of a piece of unused land that he used to walk past every day, not far from his office on Kasturba Road. He made enquiries and found out that the owner was willing to sell, but at a high price. In 2016, Abhishek sold 41 paintings from his collection at an auction conducted by Christies to raise the Rs 30 crore required to buy the land, the most someone paid for a piece of real estate in Bangalore till then.  


Work on MAP began in earnest. Using all the goodwill he had generated over the years he created an Indian and international board filled with some of the world’s leading museum experts and philanthropists to help guide him through the process, including the fundraising. The cost, which he had originally budgeted at around Rs 18 crore for the Venkatappa Art Gallery, had now ballooned to more than Rs 100 crore. 


He recruited the best of museum professionals from India and abroad to run the museum, and Mathew & Ghosh designed it based on the recommendations of some of India’s best architects. Everything was going as per plan when covid brought it to a standstill. Never one to give up so easily, Abhishek and his team went back to the drawing table and turned MAP into a digital museum, which was inaugurated as planned in 2020. And after the pandemic, the same digital technology was adapted across the brick-and-mortar museum. What was to be a conventional museum was transformed by the pandemic into a digitally enhanced museum that offers the best of both worlds.  



Despite all that he has done, Abhishek Poddar has not provided himself the luxury of a personal office or workspace in the museum complex. He continues to work out of his old office nearby. That’s where we met him to talk about the ups and downs in his journey to set up MAP. Here’s an excerpt: 


MW: Let’s start with how the idea of a museum originate?  


Abhishek Poddar: Over the years many international curators and museum professionals would come and ask to see different parts of my collection. It used to bother me that people from abroad are interested in the collection, but not people here. Secondly, every time I went overseas, I would visit amazing museums and fantastic exhibitions. These experiences enriched me and taught me many things I didn’t know. In India, though we have great art in our museums, the experience of visiting them is rarely satisfying. It was always underwhelming, not much of explanation is provided, and it is rarely interactive. Very often the lighting is poor, the labeling would be wrong, sometimes and there would be all kinds of mistakes. There was a lack of attention to anything which was happening in our museums.  
The other thing I felt was that while India was developing on so many fronts why were we languishing at the bottom when it comes to showcasing our art and culture? It is the least funded area in the country. The budget of all the Indian museums put together is probably less than that of many of the large museums in Europe and the US. So, for all these reasons we took on something which was much more challenging than I thought it would be. I never imagined it would be so much work and also that help would be so difficult to find.  




MW: What was the kind of museum you had in mind, when you first thought of the idea of setting up a museum? 


AP: I am a museum buff. I go to museums all over the world. But my idea wasn’t based on any particular museum. There were lots of things I liked in different museums. First, we started on a PPP model with the government where the plan was only to renovate an existing building. When that went south, we decided to do it on our own. That changed everything. We had to start with buying a piece of land first, which meant that we had to first figure out what we could afford. It also meant figuring out where to locate the museum. I could have bought acres of land, but only outside the city. I could have built a much bigger museum over there, but that would have been just a vanity project. When we don’t have a museum-going culture, who’s going to drive half an hour outside the city to see a museum in a city where people would think twice about even crossing the road to see culture? So, we had to do it in the centre of town. We were lucky to find a piece of land quite soon after we started looking. We identified the land in 2015 and bought it by 2016. 
MW: You are not an expert at setting up museums, nor are you a trained museologist. Museology as a professional field is virtually non-existent in India, so getting professionals to work would not have been easy. Raising funds for a museum was never going to be easy. And finally, India does not have a culture of visiting museums. Didn’t you find the whole project very daunting?  


AP: I don’t think I gave it that much thought. If I had thought about it so deeply, I’m not sure I would have embarked on this project. Secondly, I was at that age when I had to very truthfully answer to myself whether I had done anything significant in my life. I’ve led a damn good life. I wouldn’t trade it for anybody else’s but did it make me feel good about myself? No! So, I said to myself ‘If I have another year to go, what am I going to do to change that? I should do something I’m passionate about and I should do something to give back to society’. Yes, one could have written a cheque, and done some good, but that would have been very easy. I said ‘let me get my hands dirty and do something myself’. I chose to set up a museum because that is a subject I was passionate about. I didn’t think about what it would entail, what hills I would have to climb.  
I was naive about one thing. I thought because I had a large museum-worthy art collection, 90% of the work was done. It’s only after starting work that I realized that putting together an art collection is less than 10% of the work. Everybody who I spoke to thought it was a brilliant idea and I should do it. But there was nobody I know who had built a museum in India, so there was nobody to tell me about the reality of setting up a museum.  


MW: What about the fundraising part? Building a museum in the heart of a large metropolis like Bangalore would have been a very expensive exercise.  


AP: When we were doing the project with the Karnataka government, my plan was not to seek any outside funding. It was a small project worth around Rs 17 crore or Rs 18 crore, well within the budget that I had planned for years and kept the money aside from my own resources. It was only when we decided to do it by ourselves and when I identified the land for it that it became a Rs 100 crore project. I didn’t have that kind of money, so I decided to do the next best thing. I approached Christie’s to do a sale of some of my art to raise some money. My plan was that it would cover 50% of the project cost, and the rest I hoped would come from private donors. If you’re doing something for the greater common good, I thought, people would come forward to help and become founding patrons. I was ready to knock on as many doors as possible to make it happen, but things didn’t work out as planned. With delays because of the pandemic, and as the team got built up, the costs did too. We eventually ended up spending several times our budget.  


MW: How was your experience in raising the required funds? 


AP: Most of it was raised in India. Not much came from rich art collectors though. Quite a large part came through the CSR route. Some came through personal funds as well. The names of people who contributed are listed as the founders of the museum, except those who didn’t want to be named. In fact, the only name that you would not find there would be Radhika’s and mine. We have founding patrons and we have founding circles depending on the funds donated.  


We also had to decline some contributions from people who we felt didn’t have the kind of reputation that we were looking for. We are very careful as to who we invite and there’s full due diligence done before we invite somebody to come on as a founder. We even have a clause that if they do something which brings disrespect and dishonor, we can remove their name.  



MW: The other equally important or probably even bigger part would have been finding qualified professionals to run the museum. How difficult was that 


AP: I already had a small team in place to start with. These were qualified professionals, both Indians, and foreigners, who had worked with me over the years on various projects. But when it came to finding a director, every name suggested to me was somebody from outside the country and I said, “with 1.3 billion people I’m not going to get a foreigner as my first director.” Yes, I should take whoever is the best suited, but I was very keen to take somebody who’s an Indian. Though I had met a few others, the only person I offered the job was to Kamini Sawhney, who is now the director. I had known her for many years since the time when she was at the Jehangir Nicholson Foundation. Whenever we met, I used to tell her that ‘I’m building this museum and I need you to find me a director. If you don’t find someone for me, I’m going to steal you.’ That is what happened. 


A museum that is just getting established requires a different kind of director to a running institution that needs to be just taken forward. I needed someone whose skills were compatible with mine, as I was going to be very involved as a founder. I was not just someone who was funding the project and donating my collection. The museum is my vision and I was going to be putting in my time, effort, and ideas. I knew what I could do and I knew what I couldn’t do, and I think Kamini brings the kind of skills needed to run MAP. Between MAP and MAP Academy she now leads a team that is nearly 115 people strong.  


MW: You have not only set up the MAP museum but also the MAP Academy. Why was MAP academy very important for you?  


AP: The MAP Academy is a free resource for the history of the art in South Asia in the form of easy-to-read articles which has been vetted by scholars from across the world. I think it’s hugely important because in the next 8-10 years I anticipate a string of new museum openings in India. Some of them will be vanity projects, some because people have built up a large collection of art that they are passionate about, and some of them will be a legacy thing. There will be various reasons for setting up museums but when it comes to any groundbreaking work of lasting value, none of them would do that. Nobody would do it if the government hasn’t done it if no university has done it. For us, this project is much more than a museum. 
Nathaniel Gaskell, one of our curators who has worked with me since the days he started out as an intern when I was running Tasveer, first came up with the kernel of this idea, which I put up to my board. The board shot it down saying ‘Please, decide if you want to build a museum, or you want to build an academy? We’re not saying it’s not important. We just don’t have the means or the bandwidth to do both. You want to build a museum, that itself is a herculean task. And anyway, we don’t have the money to do it’. So I said, ‘Fine, I’m going to put in the money but it has to be done.’ 


As a result, the museum and the academy are run separately, by different teams. I did this because I didn’t want anyone to think that I’m taking away any resources from the museum for the Academy. So, we created a separate structure within the museum. I told the Board, ‘A day is going to come when the academy will be bigger than the museum, and a day will come when we will not only get the money to run this, we will have a line of people waiting to support the academy. As compared to around 100,000 people who will visit MAP annually, MAP Academy will serve a few million people.’  


One of the questions I was asked quite early was, ‘Why do you need a MAP Academy when you have Google? So, I said ‘Fine, let’s go to Google and ask them if we need to set up an online academy to do something that’s not needed.’ We went to Google to ask them the same question. They told us that you can search for information on Google, but Google doesn’t say it’s authentic, Google doesn’t say it is factual. Google merely spits out what somebody else has put there. You will find 5,000 pages on the Taj Mahal and if you do a detailed analysis, 4,700 will be the same thing copied from one another. If the original source is wrong all of them are wrong. Google is not vouching for anything they’re putting there. So it was thanks to them that we knew that we had to do this. 


At MAP Academy we have an academic review panel of experts who go through everything before it’s published. It’s jargon-free, agenda-free, and fully fact-checked. MAP Academy’s reputation is growing very fast. It is slowly becoming a major source of information for anybody who’s looking at anything about art and culture in South Asia. Educational organizations like Khan Academy have tied up with us to use our content for their teaching. News websites like The Print, Deccan Herald, and Jagran use our content on a fortnightly basis and publish it for free. The traffic has been growing at about 30% month-on-month just because there’s a need for such information and people are enjoying it.  



MW: Besides your collection, how many others have donated art to MAP?  


AP: Besides my family, 30 others have also donated their collections to MAP. Most of them approached us after they got to know about MAP. We don’t usually approach people for their collections. We only seek money for the museum. Most people came on their own to give their collections, like the family of the legendary photographer T.S. Satyan. We had shown Satyan’s photographs when I was running Tasveer. When he passed away, his family approached us saying since you are doing such wonderful work, we would like to donate the entire collection to MAP. Their collection consists of over 1,000 prints. We’ve also had collectors of Indian art from abroad who have also donated to the museum.  


But we don’t accept everything that is offered to us. We have an acquisition committee, which vets and decides what we should accept. There are many things that we have not accepted, and sometimes we select only a few things from a collection. Whatever we select has to be museum-worthy, it has to speak to our existing collection, fill gaps in them, or tell a story better than what we are currently able to do. When we accept something, it becomes a lifelong commitment and responsibility.  


MW: Art conservation and restoration are also a big part of what MAP does. Why did you choose to do this?  


AP: Yeah, it has to be, for the simple reason that works deteriorate, they get damaged and any museum or gallery should have the means to look after them properly. We don’t have the perfect climate in this country to preserve things naturally. There are insects, there are mites, there’s dust, there’s age, there’s light and we need a competent team to [manage] that.  


MW: How much international help did you seek to set up this museum 


 AP: A fair bit. I needed help with everything because I didn’t know how to do this. What we did very smartly was that we got professionals who are involved with other museums on our board, our U.S. board, and on our international advisory panel. We have someone who was at the Met, somebody from the British Museum, and others who are involved with similar prestigious institutions. We also have had a large number of Indian experts helping us in a variety of ways, distinguished people like art historian B.N. Goswamy, museum expert Jyotindra Jain, the late textile historian Martand Singh, architect Rahul Mehrotra, etc. Some are friends of mine, and others I sought out or encountered on my journey to set up MAP. I sought out digital experts to help us with technology and venture capitalists to help raise funds. We have had people like G.V. Ravishankar from Sequoia Capital, Ajit Mohan of Meta, and senior people from Accenture, Microsoft, Google, Adobe, etc. guiding us.  


For the design of the museum, for example, we had a three-member design committee consisting of Martand Singh, Rahul Mehrotra, and Mahrukh Tarapor.  


MW: One of the first things that strikes you about the museum is the design of the building in which it is housed, which in itself looks like a piece of art. Tell us its story.  


 AP: It was designed by Soumitro Ghosh of Mathew & Ghosh Architects from Bangalore. Though I had worked with Soumitro for 20 years and done several projects together, initially I had dreams of getting one of the best architects in the world to design the museum. I even had a meeting with Frank Gehry. I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned in getting the best architect because I knew I’m not going to do it again. It was really the design committee, and particularly Rahul Mehrotra, who put sense into my head. He said, ‘It’s one thing to get a star architect, but every time you go back to their office you would be working with a new junior. You’ll end up meeting the star architect maybe two or three times during the course of the project. So, you’ll have his stamp but you’re really not going to have his soul. Get a local architect, who you can have on the ground all the time and with whom you already have a great equation with.’ So, that seemed to be a much more logical way to go.  



MW: What was the idea behind the design?  


AP: We wanted to do a very simple building, a very functional building. We didn’t have the luxury of too much space. So, we had to maximize every square foot of space. We also wanted an iconic building that stood out. And hence the steel and glass design with motifs of old Indian water tank. It didn’t start like that though. It has been five to six years in the making. The design evolved over time.  


If you notice the building’s span out as you go up. It is a building that makes its presence felt from the outside, but it kind of disappears when you’re inside and when art takes over. It’s a very simple, unassuming, industrial-style building with exposed wiring and low ceilings. Museums around the world have huge volumes of large installations, but when we looked at our collection, we figured that most of it is small artworks that invite you to come closer to see them, for which you don’t need gigantic spaces. That’s what I like about the design, it’s unobtrusive, and yet it makes an impact from the outside but dissolves inside.  


MW: Another striking aspect of the museum is the widespread use of digital technology. How did that come about?  


AP: Much of what this museum is, is because of the pandemic. When my plan to take over a government museum as a public-private partnership fell through after years of discussions, we all had a long face. Then we decided to do it on our own, something bigger and better, but as a regular simple museum. Then the pandemic came, and we again had long faces. But as time went by, we began working around it by using technology in ways we never thought were possible. It led to the belief that it was still possible to launch the museum within the time schedule we had planned.  


We launched the museum digitally in 2020, becoming probably the only museum to launch in the middle of a pandemic. The technology that we employed in the virtual museum is now used in the physical museum to make the visitor’s experience several times better. Today, there are museums around the globe that are coming to see how we are using technology to enhance the visitor experience. We have 30 people in our tech team constantly working on innovations. We are even working towards setting up a digital museum at the Bangalore airport.  


MW: Where do you see the museum say, 10 years from now? Where do you want it to be if you had your way?  


AP: You know, I would be lying if I say I know where I want to be, because if I had built the museum I wanted to build, it would have been a shadow of what we have finally created. If we can respond to the need of the day and adapt, that’s the museum I want to build. I don’t want to build a museum that’s going to satisfy me. I want to build a museum that’s going to be relevant. Today, if what I’m doing is going to be irrelevant to you, you’re not going to come. So, what’s the point of doing what makes sense to me? 

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