National art’ elicits a very different response today than in the 1990s when two leading art historians, Partha Mitter and Tapati Guha Thakurta wrote about it. While both setup a wider frame with a focus on Bengal, Maholay-Jaradi narrows her interest on a specific royal art collection and art institutions associated with Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III of Baroda in Gujarat. As a result, she brings into view an under-studied and under-researched geography of art, making it an important site not only for the region but also of national and ‘global’ cultural politics at the height of the colonial era. Maholay-Jaradi’s introduction is erudite and informative, and is in itself a valuable contribution to the literature on Indian modernity’s close collusion with nationalism on the one hand and imperialism on the other. Laying out her broad theoretical framework, Maholay-Jaradi alerts the reader to the distinctive feature of the book being a revisionary approach to the history of art collecting, the strategic localization of colonial art institutions and, importantly, to a new understanding of agency of a native art collector in British India.
The book consists of four chapters: the first, ‘Manouevring Baroda and the Nation’ in British India foregrounds the biography of the Maharaja and his administrative policies of the Princely State of Baroda. The next, ‘Collecting the High Arts’ highlights Gaekwad’s interest in art collection and patronage and the manner in which academic genres like oil portraits and salon sculptures undergo indigenization, both as a mark of the patron’s taste and artists’ new sensibility in the backdrop of colonial modernity. In other words, it is Gaekwad’s patronage that created a context for the reconfiguration of genres by his court artists like Tiroovengada Naidu, Raja Ravi Varma and Fanindranath Bose such that history painting as a European form, as for example, finds a native subject matter in Hindu epics.
In chapter 3, ‘Courting Craft Design and Industry’, the author shifts attention to artisanal practices and underlines Gaekwad and his official’s role in modernization and promotion of local crafts through the act of private collecting and institutional projects. The establishment of Kalabhavana as Baroda’s polytechnic is viewed as localization of a Euro-American model and a meeting point for crafts and mechanization. Through case studies, it discusses private commissions of new type of objects that addresses western lifestyle like tea service and the melding of western form and Indian design and motifs. In the last chapter, ‘Inventorying Ideas and Objects’, the focus falls on the collector’s lending practices through an empirical study of loan inventories for exhibitions in India and abroad. It is around these exhibitions, ranging from the 1886 Colonial and Indian exhibition, the 1893 Chicago Exhibition, the 1902-3 Delhi Durbar and the 1902 Ahmedabad Industrial Exhibition that the hierarchy between high art and craft is read as collapsed (viewed by the author as ‘truly egalitarian’) and the category of Baroda art is said to emerge.
It is in the way collector’s agency is theorized between poles of objectivity and subjectivity that I discern a productive tension. In cultural anthropology, the agency of the object is highly celebrated which gets rightly redressed by Maholay-Jaradi when she turns to Jean Baudrillard’s ‘system of collecting’. Occasionally, she tends to lean too much on the subjectivity pole as the only way to address the agency of a native maharaja in a colonial viagra 100 setting. Agency itself becomes a fraught concept and a place of postcolonial desire to articulate an alternative modernity. However, when the author brings into the picture institutional history and the whole apparatus of administrative bureaucracy, this agency comes across as heavily mediated, a point acknowledged and defended as almost a heuristic by the author herself.
This is a very fine—if sometimes uneven—book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of art collecting in South Asia, complex intersection of cosmopolitanism and nationalism and a critique of the predominant western frames of modernism. For those, this book is a cause for celebration. One of its strengths is the anchoring of the conceptual frameworks within a rich archival research and a close engagement with objects and institutions and the care with which they are historicized within its local, national and international contexts. I do want to close with a few critical comments.
Firstly, the mapping of teleology of art and craft genres from Baroda’s colonial, modern and contemporary periods. The insertion of Anju Dodiya’s installation’s Throne of Frost that took place in the Palace in 2007 into this narrative, which ostensibly concentrates on the period of Sayajirao’s reign (1875 to 1939), seems to be quite misleading. It is one thing to use this installation as an allegory to reflect on the composite visual culture of the palace which the author does admirably but quite another to make it into a synecdoche for contemporary art.
Secondly, her postcolonial desire to engage with radical politics pushes her to over-read the political in the last chapter when she terms the integration of high art and crafts in the exhibitionary spaces as ‘egalitarian’. Captivating this reading may be, but it needed more justification and substantiation that would leave some room for the perspective of the craftsman, or what she loosely refers to, as the subaltern. It is this tight-rope walking that the notion of agency pushes this project into: too much of emphasis on the royal collector would make other sites of freedom or even ‘un-freedom’ invisible.
Lastly, her endeavour to shift from the micro sites of a specific collection or a museum or a palace to the realm of cultural politics at the national level hinges on thin ground, constituting largely of public speeches given by the royal collector in different parts of the country. Given the importance of this project in the field of art history and museum studies, terminological precision is desirable whether it concerns the term ‘subaltern’ or ‘global’. How far back can the term ‘global’ travel without losing its specificity and its connection with late capital economy is a question that keeps recurring as I read this riveting account of the fashioning of a national art.
In conclusion, I would reiterate that this book gives new meaning to private art collections and underlines their potential to narrate a history, which would bear significant implications for the history of the nation itself on the one hand, and contest Eurocentric notions associated with art collecting at large, on the other.
Parul Dave Mukherji is with the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.