In the 16th century, when curious individuals wanted to get to the bottom of the world’s mysteries, they started to recollect unusual objects: sculptures and paintings, exciting items, horns, feathers and many more parts from strange creatures. They were universal artefacts from around the globe guarded in cabinets of wonder or rooms to display a “miniaturised reflection of its reality “1.
These art collections have become complex reflections of different civilisations through time, accessible precisely to understand society. The following twenty cabinets of wonder go beyond form and function to tell India’s story in a multi-layered fashion where the architecture becomes spatial storytelling of unique places, times and cultures.
When Past Meets the Present
1. Ajanta Caves
Time: 2nd and 1st centuries BCE
The architecture of art could be seen, merely, as the design of spaces to display art. More than that, it is the transformation of space that inhales the essence of human narratives and exhales their representative power.
In fact, the oldest documented forms of art are visual arts from the existence of prehistoric humans. So, this recurring act of producing images throughout history has proven to be the result of a universal desire to express reality, may we call it human nature.
Similarly, the Ajanta caves happen to be exceptional examples of ancient Indian art as the means of expression of civilization in a particular time and place. They are now the ruins of ancient monasteries and worship halls that narrate the Jataka tales, Buddhist legends depicted through mesmerising paintings and intricate carvings.
Why wouldn’t we interpret these as spaces of art? Indeed, these could be the oldest existing galleries. Here, in the caves, the past speaks for itself, and time loses meaning, as the manifestation of humanity becomes present.
2. Drishyakala Art Museum
Place: New Delhi
Architect: Ustad Ahmad Lahori
From the Mughal empire to the British Empire and the Indian National Army trials, the Red Fort and remaining barracks are palpable vestiges of this time. For the sake of change, these spaces of oppression became museums, one of them, the Drishyakala, developed in partnership with Delhi Art Gallery (DAG). The period defines the time range of the leading exhibition, gathering Indian art from the 18th century starting from British “Oriental Scenery” landscapes to potent modern Indian paintings.
There is perhaps a touch of irony, this piece of narration occupying the old military structures, evidence of India’s development into a fully independent society after years of undefeated control. To this sense, the red sandstone walls may seem like even more potent symbols of India’s history.
3. Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum
Architect: George Birdwood
Style: Renaissance Revival
Once called the Victoria and Albert Museum, it is the first colonial building constructed for this purpose. Starting as a treasure house of the decorative and industrial arts after the Crystal palace great exhibition. An orderly Palladian exterior and a vibrant Victorian interior allures the citizens with the empire’s might.
The current collection of 19th century Indian Renaissance art showcases this flamboyant cultural era that meets its equivalent architectural spaces. To some extent, it is an archaeological recollection of the world of the citizens and the city of Mumbai at the time. Now, we become silent spectators as we become submerged in history.
4. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya Museum
Architect: George Wittet
“The Indian pillared hall, the arched pavilion, the dome rising above the huge intersecting arches forming a beautiful geometrical pattern.”2 In essence, a grandiose memorial for the Prince of Wales in the form of a museum; this was, of course, a convenient achievement for an insisting pursuit to blend the British order with the Indian-Islamic appearance in architecture.
Today, we find an immense collection of Indian artefacts dating back to the Bronze age and Indian miniature paintings from the 11th century to European paintings and porcelains from China and Japan. I should say, the museum deals with a sure multi-cultural, multi-historical blend of local heritage and foreign society expression, nonetheless, for the sake of knowledge.
5. National Gallery of Modern Art
Place: New Delhi
Architect: Arthur Blomfield
Fundamentally ordered and symmetrical – in the sense of Lutyens’ Delhi hexagonal design – the Jaipur House becomes a miniature parallel to the large-scale plan. In a few words, a rectangular plan for which both narrow ends divide into two repelling segments, at its centre intersected horizontally and vertically with a perfectly circular plan and dome.
I believe, a case of recycled architecture, as this was initially Maharaja Jaipur’s residence transformed into a museum in 1954. However, no one would complain to the meticulous buff and red sandstone design as an ideal dwelling for the rising collection of 17000 works that trace Indian modern art development.
The Indian Formula
6. Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, Durga Bajpai, 1952
Architect: Durga Bajpai
It is fascinating how one particular element in a building becomes the representation of its whole identity. This happens for the Jehangir Art Gallery and its Alvar Aalto style undulating cantilever covering the now majestic entrance. Impressively enough, it is one of the early concrete structures of the city.
After independence, Indian architecture seemed to be going through an identity crisis. Should it be Indian, Colonial or Modern? This gallery was one of the undertakings that led to recognising a “new” society and the reinterpretation of the arts. Similarly, the gallery has taken up the contemporary art development endeavour, undoubtedly a job requiring constant reinvention.
7. Sanskar Kendra Museum
Architect: Le Corbusier
We know that Le Corbusier’s work focused on developing a standardised architecture that could be applied anywhere. Unfortunately, we also see that theory is one thing and reality another. Corbusian museums originate from a volume raised on pilotis, a square spiral for infinite growth.
However, the museum of Ahmedabad is evidence of the need to transform a model to meet India’s particular geography and cultural character. Here, the brick and concrete building with the open courtyard of sunlight, shade and water establish an architecture that satisfies the spirit. It articulates ideal proportions and a modest scale, providing a rational yet humanistic approach to developing spaces for the arts.
8. Lalit Kala Akademi
Place: New Delhi
Architect: Habib Rahman
Already embarked in the large-scale mission, Habib Rahman took the Rabindra Bhavan’s art complex plans as scenarios for trial and error to find, at last, his design vocabulary, fundamentally modern yet attuned with Indian references. In effect, a mixture of concrete, chajjas, jalis, and overhanging roofs.
The gallery, an independent block in this composition, communicates three levels of exhibition space through perimetral mezzanines linked by a curved stair spiralling vertically through the resulting skylighted space. Sadly, this is no longer the case due to the building’s upgrade that took its charm away.
9. Panjab University Museum of Fine Arts
Architect: B.P. Mathur
Oddly enough, I can’t avoid comparing this museum with Stonehenge. As I expect, many would ask how I got from point A to point Z. Maybe it is, simply put, the series of tall volumes surrounding open space. The museum is in principle, adjacent cube-shaped galleries that connect through passages, a circuit of overlapping spaces that, in the end, create a central courtyard.
This spatial dynamism essentially interrelates an assortment of 1200 diverse contemporary artefacts in one single experience. The form, the proportion, the arrangement and materials all seem to integrate into the open field monumentally, still and all conveying a rather affecting modest essence.
A Blank Canvas
10. Triveni Kala Sangam
Place: New Delhi
Architect: Joseph Allen Stein
It starts with a singular spatial frame in which different components begin to fill the voids. Similar to Mondrian’s abstractions, only they are not colours but materials. In the manner of autonomous surfaces, they draw a thin line between exterior and interior that, before one knows it, starts to diffuse into continuous space.
For Stein, the built form was “not merely to shelter the measurable needs of the body but to provide a home for the imponderable longings of the spirit.”3 This abstract, somewhat fluid space gives the possibility of continual recognition, a chance for appropriation and a setting for aspirations of a society⎯a space for the arts. Fittingly, the building “provides an open canvas for both established and young artists to exhibit their works.” 4
11. Bharat Bhavan
Architect: Charles Correa
With galleries, workshops, studios, museum, auditorium, library, and an amphitheatre, the Bharat Bhavan seems more like a landscape than this extensive arts centre. From the hillside down to the lake, a combination of topographic articulation with an architectural reverie imagines a “ritualistic pathway” of movement and discovery through terraces, permanence and contemplation through sunken courtyards.
Overall, a cascading spatial experience of art that blends with the form of the city. “Current but connected to the past in creating a building well-suited to the needs of contemporary society while making use of familiar architectural motifs, Correa manages to reconcile modernity with tradition; a significant step towards his goal of establishing a distinctly Indian modernism.” 5
12. L.D. Museum of Indology
Architect: B.V. Doshi
A small rectangular volume – the institute – confronted parallelly by a proportional larger volume – the museum – both intersected by a connecting linear bridge. Even though they use the same precast concrete system, one appears weightless, elevated above the ground, while the other feels heavy, standing on a large plinth.
Nonetheless, both forms are a direct expression of their standardised structural grid. The simplicity of form, the principles of modern architecture and the details that address the Indian context make for a modest building complex. Here, the function becomes irrelevant while its character is determined by the way it is inhabited.
13. Jawahar Kala Kendra
Architect: Charles Correa
In some way or another, we all have founded archaic universal symbols. It is knowledge developed throughout human history that lies in the collective unconscious expressed in the likeness of myths and dreams.
Nine unique qualities from the Navagraha determine the nine squares’ character in this art complex, materialised through an analogy with Jaipur’s original city plan of nine divisions protected by fortified walls. After all, contrasting spaces unified by a single cosmic idea.
Like the city, they converge at the centre, an area of meeting and reflection. Indeed, a whole new way of experiencing art, through accidental encounters and playful discovery animated by individual instincts and the collective imaginary.
14. Amdavad ni Gufa
Place: New Delhi
Architect: B.V. Doshi, M.F. Husain (Artist)
The idea of a gallery has always presumed a measured relationship between space and artwork; a notion transformed in Amdavad ni Gufa through a merge of architecture and art. The underground cavern-like space comprises curved walls, inclined columns, dome-shaped roof and a floor that moves.
The resulting outline is a continuous surface with no joints and no breaks⎯an infinite space. There is no doubt form goes beyond the art gallery’s design, much like a living organism it emancipates from the constraints of function. In like manner, the art abandons the canvas as M.F. Hussain’s bold strokes and vivid colours take on the undulating surfaces. Now art becomes space itself.
Possibilities of Form
15. Gallery Maskara
Architect: Rahul Mehrotra
Tangibly, this gallery gets close on settling the matter of spaces for art. “With a nearly 50 feet ceiling height and walls that run 100 feet in length, the cavernous space marks a shift from the typical white cube neutral space and is raw yet flexible, making the building extremely well-suited for contemporary art practices.” 6 A cotton warehouse transformed into an art gallery.
This space could become a house, an office building or a place for immersive virtual reality in the future; everything is possible with its remarkable capacity for adaptability. Here, contemporary art’s explorative ethos no longer approaches the blank canvas but the unlimited blank space.
16. Lodhi Public Art District
Place: New Delhi
Architect: St+Art India Foundation
I’d say that only in this case, the artwork’s scale is equivalent to its effect. As it breaks from functional confined spaces to an unpredictable open city, the district’s constructed typologies become a whole new canvas. As the urban fabric starts to blend with the cultural fabric, the artwork encourages a renovation of social identity while leading to the re-appropriation of its public space, making for a political, democratic, public art.
Coming to an age where society begins to realise its self-imposed limitations, an in-your-face art that makes itself visible through unexpected encounters is just what is needed to start to question the standard ways.
17. Gallery Ark
Architect: M/s Prabhakar Bhagwat
The ark is a corporate office building that mixes an art gallery, exhibition space, café and commercial offices, combining the beautiful artistic encounter with the customarily everyday experience. Integrated into the industrial area of Vadodara, the robust building turns out to be a “box of surprises” for which the architects pushed the boundaries to create a new spatial language for the unique artistic experience.
What is most striking about this space is how the language develops into a narrative of material expression to create spaces that can be touched and felt. Finally, an unveiled aesthetic experience for the daily morning coffee motivated by a renewed dialectic between architecture and art.
18. Centre for Art and Culture
Architect: Vastu Shilpa Consultants
The outlined two-story red cube is carved from its white inside to create a textured courtyard, an interstitial space between up and down, between interior and exterior for the interaction of the arts.
So, from the upper-level gallery to the rest of the spaces below, ironically, the areas that carry primary importance are the stairs, corridors, corners and other in-between spaces of the centre. They become diverse sceneries for encounters and dialogue between the fine arts, theatre, dance and music, allowing for culture to become a network of infinite possibilities.
19. India Art Festival
The platform brings together 20 art galleries, 250 artists and 1000 artworks and transforms them into a multidimensional network. In a way, virtual reality will give humans the power to travel through space and time and dodge the pandemic era’s bullet to reach unlimited access to art.
Not only for the sake of an appealing experience but an opportunity to unveil to the community a collection of contemporary representations of Indian culture confronted with the current global artistic landscape. For society, a chance to look inwards and recognise the juncture in a continual transformation of identity.
Still and all, virtuality shouldn’t be confused with what would be a direct encounter and corporeal engagement with art. In the end, the word “virtual” means “almost entirely”, never a complete awareness of an unfathomable reality.
20. Kolkata Museum of Modern Art
Architect: Herzog et De Meuron
Whatever happened to the swiss architect’s design? According to the Telegraph, the mission to build an art museum with an international-standard exhibition space has become a series of failed attempts for about twenty years. No doubt, this project is much more than a qualified gallery space; it expands into a 50,000 square meter art centre that merges local and international works.
Like a fortified city, stacked rectilinear blocks match the art program’s complexity, different scales and spaces of distinctive character cascade down to create public spaces. At the same time, a network of climbing staircases assures the connection of the whole composition. Undoubtedly, the given “Art City” label doesn’t fall short as new urban spaces start to emerge within a single project.
In the long run, the decisive points come to a matter of scale, confrontation with the urban fabric, careful assimilation of the city’s cumulative memory and the appropriation on society’s part. Whether this is the case of KMOMA, they are questions worth asking.
- Rodini, E., Dr. (n.d.). A brief history of the art museum. Retrieved February, 2021, from https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/approaches-to-art-history/tools-for-understanding-museums/museums-in-history/a/a-brief-history-of-the-art-museum-edit
- CSMVS Museum. (n.d.). History. Retrieved February, 2021, from https://www.csmvs.in/about-us/history
- Magazine, S., & Spanmagazine. (2017). An American Architect in India. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://issuu.com/spanmagazine/docs/an_american_architect_in_india
- Shridharani Gallery. (2020, November 09). Retrieved February 01, 2021, from http://trivenikalasangam.org/shridharani-gallery/
- Bryant-Mole, B. (2016, August 01). AD Classics: Bharat Bhavan / Charles Correa. Retrieved February 01, 2021, from https://www.archdaily.com/791942/ad-classics-bharat-bhavan-charles-correa
- Gallery Maskara. (2013). Retrieved February, 2021, from https://gallerymaskara.com/about/space