First there was the ajeeb ghar, then came the Western-style museum. Philippe Calia documents the fascinating hybrid that is the museum in India
The museum is an institution firmly rooted in Europe, consubstantial to its imperial history and imported to India. How to qualify this object in an Indian context? The term ajeeb ghar refers to the ‘cabinets of curiosity’ which preceded museums; it also reminds us how these spaces also belong to the realm of the strange, the uncanny and the absurd. On the other hand, what the camera lens can do, especially when pointed at the interstices, is to make visible the processes of translation and indigenisation of the museum space.
These photographs are part of an ongoing project, conceived as a book featuring a montage of photographs shot in various public and private museums across India, along with quotes collected from their visitor’s books. The project is constituted of several layers. At a global level, it invites us to look at and interrogate the way spaces and objects are arranged, codified and regimented (or not) within the context of the museum. At a local one, it investigates the many narratives propelled by these institutions in the context of a post-colonial nation. Finally, at a subjective level, it delves into the meanders of the spectator’s vision: be it the photographer’s, capturing the real through the prism of his ‘imaginary museum’; or the visitor’s, drawing an involuntary poetic treatise on aesthetics and power.
This piece was published in the July-September 2019 issue. The theme of the issue was Memory.