I was recently invited to mentor the fellows of an artist residency conducted by Arts for All (A4A), a self-sustaining yet not-for profit entity. I have admired A4A for its focused efforts to further the cause of early career artists from the Indian sub-continent. While works and concerns of many of them were intriguing, I was particularly drawn to the project of Devashish Sharma. He received the Foundation of Indian Contemporary Art’s (FICA) Public Art Grant in 2017. His project began with the idea of a museum in a tribal village. One that records and preserves objects referencing culture and histories. But his interaction with the children in the village led to a drastic change, of both his ideology and the project concept.
Here, STIR interviews Sharma to dive deeper into this change and how museum became a device, not to preserve history, but imagine futures.
Rahul Kumar (RK): When and why did you first visit the tribal belt of Bastar in Central India? What were your initial observations?
Devashish Sharma (DS): I first visited the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh in October 2017. I had been working at an art museum in New Delhi for a few months. The opportunity to observe the inner workings of a museum had given rise to many questions relating to the processes inherent within the museum apparatus. It was then that I decided I wanted to work with the idea of a museum.
I was in search of a place that was new, somewhere I had never been; somewhere a museum had never been. These two ideas coincided with the idea of shifting to the Bastar region. The first thing one notices about this place is its pristine landscape. There is no plastic strewn all over the place, no clogged gutters, or any of the other things one has become accustomed to seeing in Indian cities; just clean air, farmlands, a few scattered houses, and forests stretching out till the eye can see.
I noticed that people mostly had what was needed for the season; village life doesn’t encourage accumulation. It washes away anything that is unnecessary, that is something I would learn over the next year-and-a-half.
RK: You had planned to create a museum at the village. What was the initial idea about, was the plan to preserve history of objects or crafts or other traditions?
DS: The initial plan for the museum was a broad conceptual framework that centered around the idea of exploring the museum paradigm, and using the museum apparatus to generate dialogues about the preservation of local culture. It also envisaged the production of historical discourses within the local knowledge systems and the collection of tangible and intangible heritage.
I was also interested in the physical structure that would house the museum collection, and how that would influence the curatorial possibilities. I intentionally had not demarcated specific themes before I began living in Balengapara, as I wanted the logic of the collection for the museum to emerge from my conversations with students of the Imlee Mahuaa School and the people living in the village.
RK: Please share with us the genesis of the project ‘Museum of Questions and Imagined Futures’? At what point did you drop the idea of a conventional museum?
DS: From the beginning the intent of the project was to create a space to contemplate culture. To have a space that is socially relevant and sustainable, and provides the opportunity for children to think more deeply about their relationship with time and history. I chose to make the museum in two schools - the Imlee Mahuaa School in Balengapara, and the Saathi School in Kumharpara. My function there was to be a catalyst, to create a new social space, where the children could question the changes that they were seeing around them.
The Museum of Questions and Imagined Futures emerged from the questions that I was asking myself. I began to share these questions with the children, and encouraged them to share their questions with me. There were no thematic limits whatsoever. These questions inside the museum have significant historic and personal value as they reflect the transition that the children are witnessing in their villages. The children have begun answering their own questions, and the collection of questions and imagined futures continues to grow.
RK: Why, in your opinion, should histories be preserved?
DS: Over the many years, a simple rhythm has formed in Balengapara and the surrounding areas. But this way of life has slowly begun to change through its interactions with the urban economies and popular media. Balengapara doesn’t have a formally recorded history; most of the history is in the form of traditions that are passed down from generation to generation through social constructs like the ghotul and the haat. These too have started to change, to accommodate the products of industry that were conventionally supplied to urban settlements. I think that the pace of change within such societies is going to accelerate. And traditional systems of knowledge might get obfuscated under the current guise of development. I think it is important to discover and value different histories and their systems of knowledge that exist, because they have dealt with similar questions in many different and innovative ways. Preserving history might provide new ways to think about the future of our societies.
RK: How do you intend to share your learning and make accessible the museum at Bastar for global citizens? Or is that even possible?
DS: The museum evolved from the rhythm of life in the villages of Balengapara and Kumharpara, and for the museum to be accessible beyond its geographical boundaries, it would be important to first understand who will be the audience or the viewer of this extension of the museum. I have begun working on a book that will allow for the museum to travel; facilitating new readings of the questions, while also making available the photographic archive that consists of the spaces, objects and traditions of Kumharpara and Balengapara.
I see the book as a portable museum, and hope to reach a larger audience; giving people, who otherwise might never be able to visit the Bastar region, a window into the lives of the children there. I hope to have the book available in as many languages as possible so that it is accessible to children and adults from diverse cultures.