An Independent Museum’s Radical Efforts To Engage Indian Youth In History

An account of the particular region of the country, along with coloured lithographic prints of original drawings done by the author, Robert Grindlay (L) and Paul Abraham (R)
An account of the particular region of the country, along with coloured lithographic prints of original drawings done by the author, Robert Grindlay (L) and Paul Abraham (R) Sarmaya/Paul Abraham

“A portrait usually signifies a face, a person. How do you paint the portrait of a nation?” It’s a question that gnawed at Paul Abraham, Founder of the online museum Sarmaya, which showcases his vast private collection of living traditions, contemporary art, rare photographs and historical artefacts from the subcontinent. The answer took shape at Sarmaya’s first photo exhibition, which I attended in Mumbai a few months ago. The month-long show featured vintage black-and-white and sepia-tinted photographs of 19th-century India captured by veteran photographers like Samuel Bourne, Felice Beato, John Nicholas and Charles Shepherd.

The exhibition’s title summed up its curatorial approach: ‘Portrait Of A Nation, A Nation In Portraits.’ It chronicled not just the history of the nation but also the evolution of modern photography. Going beyond the aesthetic framework of the space, each picture told stories about society and culture – forming an important link between the past and the present of the country. That has been Sarmaya’s aim all along, which I felt it had achieved in its debut exhibition.

Launched in 2015, Sarmaya translates to ‘collective property or wealth’ in Urdu. A modern museum, one without boundaries, Sarmaya aims to interact with younger generations about India’s rich cultural legacy and history through talks, exhibitions, outreach and travel programmes.

An image of the Kashmiri Gate in Delhi by Felice Beato, a year after the Uprising of 1857 - this is the same gate that was breached by the British army to suppress the native sepoys revolting in Delhi. Techinique: Albumen silver prints from glass negatives

Paul was only 12 years old when his father gifted him a Vaseline bottle containing ten 19th-century coins from the princely state of Travancore. He pored over them, trying to understand what the inscriptions meant. This led him to collect reference books and old maps, as well as join local numismatics clubs and learn Urdu to better understand Mughal-era coins.

Later, his collection grew to include engravings, photographs and rare books. Paul and his late wife Tina also collected works by contemporary artists like FN Souza, KH Ara and MF Husain, as well as equally brilliant but lesser-known tribal and indigenous artists like Jangarh Singh Shyam, S Chidambara Rao and Jivya Soma Mashe.

Thus, what began with the jingle of a few coins ignited a spark within Paul that shines even today, more so through the nostalgic glint in his eyes as he sits in his spacious cabin at IndusInd Bank as its COO and narrates stories of his childhood where he had close encounters with history.

From Paul's collection -- 10th century Gold Pagoda issued by Vinayaditya Hoysala. s a fine and rare specimen. The reverse has the inscription “Sri Malaparo Lugonda” which translates to “Lord of Malpad Janapada”,

“I’ve always had a penchant for history. Perhaps it had a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in Delhi in an area called Hauz Khas that was surrounded by forts, with Qutub Minar only a 12-minute cycle ride away. Though I chose banking as a career, for it was more lucrative back then, I have never let my passion for Indian history fade away. I continued to travel, network and collect precious items that were a gateway to a bygone era. My wife, Tina, was interested in contemporary and tribal art, so collecting those too became a part of our passion project. A few years ago when she was unwell, I asked her what future she imagined for our collections and she told me that it should be shared and used wisely, to engage with a young community.”

And that is how the idea of Sarmaya was conceived. Today, Paul runs it with Pavitra Rajaram, the lead designer of Good Earth. The museum has a growing online as well as offline presence. They regularly conduct talks by a range of speakers on a variety of interesting themes: Jonathan Gil Harris on the Ethiopian slave-general Malik Ambar who built Aurangabad , Dr (Sr) Anila Verghese on the art and archeology of the Vijayanagara empire, Manu Pillai on the matrilineal traditions of Travancore and Phejin Konyak, who documented the last of her own dying community of tattooed headhunters in Nagaland.

Pavitra Rajaram (L) and Paul Abraham (L)

They also offer several outreach programmes for children and young corporates to give them a deeper understanding of concepts like identity and culture. “We believe that the viewing eye is very personal. Each of us connects to a different thing – beauty, rarity, emotional nostalgia or historicity. These programmes help youngsters to identify exactly that,” says Paul.

Another interesting event that Sarmaya organises is ‘Saturdays at Sarmaya’, wherein Paul talks in detail about any ten objects from his glorious collection. He does a complete breakdown of the objects’ history, its social context, mythology, contemporaneity and relevance.

They’ve also begun a series of exciting history-and-art-themed journeys, called ‘Sarmaya’s Art of Travel’ wherein they take the travellers to a destination for a completely immersive cultural experience that gives them a taste of its heritage, architecture, cuisines, traditions and lifestyle. They recently did a 3-day-trip to Lucknow and are now all set to visit Chettinad at the end of September.

Sarmaya also has a library at Wadala with books and journals ranging across topics such as history, art, architecture, archaeology, aesthetic theory, natural history and even historical fiction. The library and study room welcomes researchers from all backgrounds and age groups to access the collection on appointment. Though Paul says that he hasn’t found the perfect physical space to display his collections and open a museum, they are available to view on appointment as his place in Dadar.

From Paul's collection -- A reinterpretation of the biblical theme of last supper by one of the pioneers of Indian Modern Art - Jamini Roy. Made in the 20th century. Technique: Watercolour on canvas

They also offer a robust internship programme for students. Interns don’t just get to handle and work with precious artefacts but also read, understand and help create an ever-growing database. The organisation also interacts and offers opportunities to the differently-abled youth.

Slowly evolving, Sarmaya today is a completely self-funded, not-for-profit entity that continues to grow. Both Paul and Pavithra manage it well alongside their day jobs with a small team working full time. “I want to see Sarmaya as one of the finest cultural educational institutions in the country. In order for it grow, I make the time to travel and network with artists. I also patronise and commission artworks,” Paul states, talking excitedly about his latest project with an artist in Bhilwara, Rajasthan. “The project imagines Christianity in the Orient seeing the life and times of Jesus through an Eastern/Asian lens. The art is in the Indo-Persian Hamzanama style of miniature painting,” he adds. It is turning out to be a special and significant initiative. Paul is also working with Pattachitra artists in Odisha and Mata Ni Pachedi artists in Gujarat.

While his endeavours continue offline, Sarmaya constantly tells stories about Indian heritage and culture online. Their website takes a storytelling approach to history and art, with highlights from the collection presented in an interactive, engaging and fun format through monthly themes that are topical and accessible. Their theme for July was ‘Epic Journeys’ and it was brought to life by inspiring travelogues, paintings, photographs, incredible maps and interesting trivia. The language they use to tell these tales is engaging and fresh, making it a delightful and educational read.

A political map of Southern India demarcating the Malabar and Coromandel coasts and the wider regions are distinguished with pink, green, yellow and white and are bordered with darker tones of respective shades. The title of the map is written on the saddle cloth of an elephant driven by a mahout, while a scene of trade exchange between the natives and perhaps Arabs take place. Artist -- Johann Baptist Homann
A travellogue about Sir Thomas Herbert journeys across Africa, Persia and Asia along with illustrations. Published in 1665.

Sarmaya’s own journey is never ending though as India’s cultural knowledge is limitless. As Paul puts it, “It’s not Paul Abraham’s collection, but Paul Abraham’s education.”

Interacting with Paul and understanding Sarmaya has been a true learning experience for me as well and as I bid him adieu I remember the question our conversation first began with. “How do you then paint the portrait of a nation?” I’d say just take a look at Sarmaya. It is one in the making.

You can visit Sarmaya’s website here. Check out their Facebook and Instagram page here and here.

Feature Image: An account of the particular region of the country, along with coloured lithographic prints of original drawings dne by the author, Robert Grindlay (L) and Paul Abraham (R)

All images courtesy of Sarmaya/Paul Abraham

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