Co-founder of Eka Cultural Resources and Research, Deepthi Sasidharan is a Mumbai-based art historian and archivist who has been working on heritage and museum projects across India, including Kalakshetra in Chennai and Udaipur’s City Palace. Ahead of her lecture this weekend at Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai, she talks about her work, its challenges and why the ongoing exhibition of the Nizam’s jewels in Delhi is unmissable.
You chronicled your curating of the Nizam’s jewels in the book ‘Treasures of the Deccan: Jewels of the Nizams’. What makes it so exciting?
The Nizam’s jewels are on display in Delhi after 14 years. These are 173 pieces of the most beautiful, exquisite jewellery bought by the Government of India (GoI) at a steal. One of the diamonds in the collection is 183 karat and is the fifth or sixth largest diamond in the world, a flawless piece that is priced at millions today. There are emeralds and rubies and such fine craftsmanship that I have had the privilege of curating in the past. These should be on permanent display. But on Sunday, they will go back into the vault. People pay £40 for a glance at the Kohinoor whereas we never celebrate the fact that seven of the world’s top 10 diamonds are in India. The Nizam’s jewels are a benchmark of beauty and craftsmanship thats is so uniquely ours…there is polki, kundan, foiling, gold. Hyderabad is where the Northern and Southern traditions of jewellery merged. Then there are pieces made during the British time, which are from the House of Cartier and other such names. But it’s pearls before swine, literally. There is complete lack of vision from the government to sell this soft power India has.
Your work is fairly niche. What does it entail?
We started small at Eka ten years ago. It was a time when private players were entering the market, like hoteliers with an art collection. They would want us to curate the art and set up an exhibition. But soon enough, we were creating inventory systems, researching. One of our earliest projects was Udaipur’s City Palace Hotel, with heritage property dating back to the 13th century. As they converted their property into a luxury hotel, they also created heritage collaterals such as a section on artefacts, silver jewellery and so on. When they decided to upgrade, we stepped in. We created an inventory of all their art, cultural legacy and heritage and turned them into a photography gallery, a gallery for the artillery and so on, working closely with heritage conservators, art restorers etc.
Today, we do more than that. Working on projects that typically last two to four years, we handhold and create cultural entities. Take for example Juna Mahal in Dungarpur. We were called to turn it into a museum but we saw this beautiful building. The mahal was broken in parts and had some lovely murals. So we got some money and restored a part of it. Then we did a research on its history and created a report and got it a UNESCO before proceeding to find possible funders who would be interested in seeing its revival. Basically, we have to dream a dream and then make it come true.
But the government has the best resources. Why not collaborate to improve the state of our museums and art institutions?
In the past two years, we have had a mix of private, corporate and government clients. But it’s tough to get a break with the government. One needs to have the credibility, references, done a couple of government jobs, be empanneled by the government and so on. It’s impossible to begin with a government project. But we also realise we have the advantage of being Indian. A couple of foreign entities did attempt that. Our culture is too diverse and practices complicated. Old families are embedded in tradition, which foreigners don’t understand. When I go to a palace and see a temple, I know have to take off my footwear before entering. If a client invites me for a Ganesh puja, I jolly well be there and eat the laddoo given to me as prasad. If I am discussing a project and at the end of the chat, I am given a cheque of Rs 5,000 and a Re 1 coin as ‘shagun’, I know better than to encash it. Because if I do, I can be sure I will never hear from them again.
What does it take to archive when such little chronicling is available on the history of Indian art and culture?
There was a breakdown during the colonial period but otherwise, rulers and maharajas had systems, or fragments of systems, for book keeping. They are in a bad shape, yes, but that’s a different story. Even an army of restorers won’t be enough because it isn’t in our culture to keep a track of old things. In the US or the UK, there is a sense of community and pride taken in it, every single house or even a tree that turns 100 is celebrated.
What do you see as the future?
India sees the largest number of Buddhist tourists every year. The Japanese are laying out the red carpet and offering anything we want to partner with them. They want to develop the Buddhist sites as world tourist destinations. Ajanta caves has been mapped by China, not by the GoI. Similarly, other foreign players see potential in the rich heritage of India. They will map it and India will not maintain it. And once everything collapses, we will pay them to buy back our own culture.
The silver lining is that private players have come in, such as the Kiran Nadar Foundation, or Tata Trust, who are doing this kind of work. But real estate prices in metro cities are often a deterrent. It’s a tragedy that when a foreigner comes to Mumbai, the city of former textile mills and a thriving jewellery bazaar, there is no place we can take them to show the great traditions of jewellery or textiles. But the young heirs of business families are sharp. Throw them an idea and they will turn it into a venture. They have done it for lotions and potions, eating experiences and brief immersive experiences. There is scope for more. It will take some more pride and awareness of Indian culture to get there.
Is archiving more challenging in the times of WhatsApp?
There is no space for it in the field where we work. For instance, while working at the Padmanabhaswamy temple when the vault was opened, the forwards depicted a huge snake sitting atop a pile of gold coins, stuff out of a fantasy film. In reality, we were working in tropical Kerala where officially, no woman can are allowed. Inside, we had to abide by temple rules. As opposed to the Lara Croft image, I would supervise in a two-piece sari with not a piece of jewellery on me. The 22 men would be in a veshti because the temple rules didn’t allow them to cover their torsos. Inside, with nothing but a noisy whirring fan, we were photographing, archiving, cleaning, sifting. It was more like a scene from a factory. People will believe what they want to but that does not kill history. It is what archiving is about.