Deep in the heart of Mumbai's Asiatic Society, a treasure lay dormant, hidden away from the world's gaze. Dating back to the early 16th century, this painted manuscript (dated 1516 CE), one of the world's oldest, holds the potential to reshape South Asian art history. However, gaining access to this revered relic requires the approval of an elusive committee – a hurdle that Prof. Jinah Kim, a distinguished expert in South Asian art, spent years trying to overcome. Fortunately, in September of last year, her persistence paid off, and she was granted permission to study this exceptional artifact. Little did she know that this opportunity would catalyze a groundbreaking project that could revolutionize how we understand Asian art.
Jinah Kim is a professor of Indian and South Asian Art in the Department of History of Art & Architecture at Harvard University. At Harvard, she has been leading the Arts program at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute since 2018. Her journey began with the realization of a critical gap in the realm of art history. While researching her second book, Garland of Visions: Color, Tantra, and a Material History of Indian Painting, she felt compelled to delve deeper into the materials used in South Asian art. Her quest led her to various conservation departments across institutions, where she discovered a wealth of research being conducted but not widely shared. This realization inspired her to initiate the Mapping Color in History (MCH) project.
The MCH project is a groundbreaking initiative aimed at creating an extensive, open-access pigment database for historical research. Its primary focus is on pigments used in South Asian art, but its potential extends far beyond this region. By consolidating scientific data from ongoing material analyses of pigments in Asian paintings, MCH seeks to challenge the predominantly Western-centric knowledge base in the field.
Prof. Kim's vision for the MCH project is to bridge the gap between art and science. By bringing together experts from diverse disciplines, including scientists, curators, conservators, art historians, and software engineers, MCH aims to foster collaboration and interdisciplinary dialogue. Through this collaboration, the database can trace transcultural connections, artistic practices, and the movement of colorants across Asia, shedding light on centuries of artistic evolution and exchange.
Color, according to Prof. Kim, holds the key to unlocking a multitude of historical insights. The database allows users to search a vast collection of paintings by pigment, providing a comprehensive view of where and when specific pigments were used in different types of artworks. For example, by browsing the color yellow, researchers can discover that orpiment was the most dominant yellow pigment in South Asian art, followed by the famous organic pigment known as Indian yellow, which was made from kettle urine. This type of information not only enriches our understanding of art but also reveals historical insights into trade routes, cultural exchanges, and the environmental impact of pigments like mercury and arsenic.
The MCH project is a monumental endeavor that has garnered support from various institutions, including the Faculty of Arts and Science at Harvard, the Mittal Institute, the Radcliffe Institute, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Prof. Kim emphasizes that Harvard's rich resources, including the Harvard Art Museums (HAM) and the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, have been invaluable in the project's development. Furthermore, collaborations with Indian institutions, such as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Asiatic Society, Mumbai, and Banaras Hindu University have expanded the project's reach and depth.
As the MCH project continues to evolve, Prof. Kim envisions its database model accommodating data from various geographic locations and cultures, thereby addressing existing gaps in our knowledge of historical pigments worldwide. The recent inclusion of the 16th-century manuscript in the database is expected to expand and challenge our understanding of painterly practices in South Asia, marking a significant step towards further development of the MCH project.
In the realm of art history, where colors have told stories for centuries, the Mapping Color in History project promises to be a transformative force, weaving together the threads of science, history, and art to paint a more comprehensive and vivid picture of our artistic past. With each pigment added to its database, the MCH project brings us one step closer to unlocking the secrets of Asian art and, perhaps, the entire history of art itself.