Sahapedia: A challenge to India’s hidebound museum culture

Sahapedia: A challenge to India’s hidebound museum culture

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

Sahapedia, an online resource centre, hopes to make India’s culture and history more accessible

Arun Janardhan
It could be an encyclopedia. It could be a library. It could be a museum. Though that really is rather limiting in definition.
“Let’s call it an open online multimedia knowledge resource,” says Sudha Gopalakrishnan, Sahapedia’s executive director, in order to cover everything it is attempting to do.
Under construction since 2012 but launched officially in April, Sahapedia, which derives a part of its name from the Sanskrit term saha or “together with”, is an online resource that tries to make the history and culture of India more accessible. If that sounds like a lofty and limitless project, then Gopalakrishnan is aware of it.
Sahapedia’s basic philosophy remains collaboration, with knowledge holders of different kinds, to bring “all the cultural wealth of India” under one roof. So, the platform functions as a workspace, a library, a community for shared interests, as a news site and as an events listing.
Currently, the website is divided into 10 sections, including ones on knowledge traditions, visual, performing arts, literature, languages, histories, people, etc. Content is a mix of text (sometimes in cumbersome formats), pictures and videos—including interviews. An events section throws up forthcoming performances.
The site has rough edges—in terms of design and the speed at which content loads—but is clearly building towards a wealth of matter.

The founders wrote extensively to institutions of similar mandate, seeking collaborations, such as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Centre for the Performing Arts. They formed a network of scholars, and through them more scholars, till the point where it has become a chain that “goes on and on contributing information”. They also crowdsource contributions, from any interested person—once approved by the in-house editors, it can be included in the site.
Gopalakrishnan was a director at the National Mission for Manuscripts about a decade ago. At the time, she wanted to—but didn’t know how to—put this project together.
“We had people in their 20s, many of them curious and respectful of our history and culture, but the wisdom of the older generation was not getting to them the way they could understand,” says Gopalakrishnan over the phone from New Delhi.
Secondly, she adds, whatever knowledge institutions have is locked up and not accessible to people.
Since she wanted all knowledge to be open to the public and most institutions she interacted with were not keen to share, the idea of collaboration came into play. There were the obvious concerns over copyright—of how much can be put on the Internet, a medium that gives more elasticity to the material, can bring complexity, narratives around a performance, richness and history together in a multimedia way.
“It’s not a simple project at all,” she says, laughing.
The rare survivors
India’s rich culture and history is preserved—many would argue very poorly—in institutions and museums run by the central and state governments, or in some cases through public-private partnerships.
Mumbai’s oldest, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, is one such, belonging to the Municipal Corporation and run jointly with the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Once in a state of shambles, it underwent comprehensive restoration about a decade ago due to the foundation’s efforts and recently won an international quality award. Another survivor is the Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, which is celebrating its centenary year.
Museums have been low priority for both the government and private sectors, even though few countries have India’s history, culture and heritage. This is partly because India is a developing country focusing on poverty, medicine and basic needs and museums are thought of as more elitist, says Niraj Bajaj, director, Bajaj Group. The challenge is that “we are caught in a rules-bureaucracy-government ownership net”, he adds.
A lot of the country’s historical riches are either not made accessible to people or are made available inconveniently, as Gopalakrishnan points out. New Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History, for example, was reportedly in disrepair before a fire gutted it in late April. The Aga Khan Palace in Pune is another one suffering from neglect, according to a May report in The Indian Express.
“I feel upset with the neglect, it makes me angry,” says Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, who is a managing trustee and honorary director at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. “It’s almost criminal.”
Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Photo: Hindustan Times

Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Photo: Hindustan Times

She adds that the government just does not respect experts in the field and does not pay them deserving salaries, which is the reason why the best historians do not work here.
Contemporary India’s relationship with museums too has evolved over the years as it competes with other forms of weekend entertainment. So, visits to the museum may include positive caveats, like being allowed to click selfies with Chandra Shekhar Azad’s pistol at the Allahabad museum, or negative ones, like preventing people from chasing their Pokemon inside, like in Baroda’s Museum and Picture Gallery. New “museums” also tend to lean towards the gimmicky, like the Click Art Museum in Chennai.
The challenges museums face can be best illustrated with two examples—also reasons why online resource centres make most sense despite their limitations (the majority of people in the country do not have access to the Internet).
Auction house Osian’s started an online search engine and knowledge base for information on cinema, fine arts and culture called osianama.com three years ago. But their decade-old project of building a physical museum, at what used to be the Minerva Theatre in Mumbai, fell apart due to monetary and infrastructural problems.
Second, the government-funded National Museum of Indian Cinema, set in an elegant 19th-century heritage bungalow in south Mumbai, took seven years to make and cost nearly $20 million, but hasn’t yet opened despite being ready for two years.
“You need the stimuli, to be exposed to different ways of thinking, which is not just malls,” Mehta argues, while stressing the importance of museums.
A sustainable model
At the same time, online museums, if Sahapedia can be called one, have certain advantages—people can get information regardless of physical access, time constraints and their credibility to do so as many institutions restrict access to their collections to specialists and researchers. The economics are different too.
Another example is mintageworld.com, an online museum and shop for coins, bank notes and stamps started in 2015 by Ultra Media and Entertainment Pvt. Ltd. Its chairman and managing director, Sushilkumar Agrawal, said they introduced a commercial angle so as to sustain interest among visitors.
“Museums and libraries (and many other physical edifices) often tend to be awe- and wonder-inspiring,” says S. Ramadorai, president, Sahapedia, and chairman of the National Skill Development Agency. “Sometimes, this quality makes them less approachable. A resource like Sahapedia is always free, and users can access it privately, browse without mediation and for free—so it offers more open access to information.”
A file photo of S. Ramadorai. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

A file photo of S. Ramadorai. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Gopalakrishnan explains the idea behind Sahapedia: “Institutions fulfil the need for archiving; documenting, collecting, without them how do we preserve memory?”
But in the years gone by, she says, institutions have become more about preservation than dissemination. Government institutions have the same mindset as any knowledge corpus, she says. They think twice if someone asks for some material.
“Now, there is so much interest, so if we don’t rise to the challenge... Sahapedia is a counter challenge, there is no doubt. Our task is to connect the knowledge of older people to enthusiasm of the younger.”
She is hoping they are able to do multiple things: inform, appeal to different users, educate, and help in conservation, tourism and documentation. Their current team is of about 30 people, but Sahapedia networks with others who are affiliated. They want to approach all universities, different art history institutions—“whoever has a niche institution, we want to tap into what they can share”.
Timely help came from Tata Consultancy Services, of which Ramadorai used to be the chief executive officer, which has jointly funded them since 2010.
Gopalakrishnan is clear they will never have a subscription model and Sahapedia will always remain free to users. “If we need sustainability, we may have advertisements,” she says, “because we have seen many initiatives that have failed because of funding.”
“I am not a pessimist. It’s (the project) limitless and endless, somehow we need courage. If people are interested, this will definitely sustain itself.
“We in India have a problem of the richest collections. They are all in a state of slow disintegration. We see ourselves in a capacity of mediation. We cannot boast we can resuscitate them, but it is there in a part of my mind.”
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