An Archive Remembered

From Demonstrations to Documentation: Early Years
From Plate to Image: Destroying the Books
Order and Chaos: a Complex Taxonomy
From Iconography to Semiotics: the Practice of New Art History
Voice and Silence: the Archive In and Out of Place
Parvez Kabir bio

Parvez Kabir reflects on some defining moments that shaped the Image Archive of MS University of Baroda.


In the seventeenth century, Locke postulated [and condemned] an impossible language in which every individual thing […] would have its own name; Funes once contemplated a similar language, but discarded the idea as too general, too ambiguous. […] Two considerations dissuaded him: the realization that the task was interminable, and the realization that it was pointless.

—Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes, his memory," Artifices, 1944


Image: The Image Archive at MSU.
Image: The Image Archive at MSU.


This is how Borges describes "Funes, the Memorious"; a person who remembers everything. Funes is an archive himself, with an astounding ability to record an image in its specificity. He is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his life is just a chain of moments and his imagination is beyond design. His archive belongs to the suspended realm of "things in themselves," unbroken and uninterrupted by any discursive practice.

This paper, however, is not about Funes. On the contrary, it is about all those imperfect and inglorious practices that separate a modern day image archive from his. Like all great archives of the past, the image archive of the Art History Department of The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda (MSU) is a remarkable record of history. As an archive, it perhaps falls miles short from Funes’, but it is precisely its imperfection, corruption (caused by language), and violence (initiated by several discursive practices) which make it significant in relation to the ideal archive of our imagination. Keeping Funes’ archive as a measuring pole, this paper is an attempt to probe into the history and discourses generated through the image archive of the Art History Department of MSU.

As we know, without language, we cannot establish a relation between two different images or objects. Linguistic memory allows us to enhance past observations with present sensory perceptions. Because we have an imperfect memory, that is, we cannot remember every detail, we embellish. We give a past idea or object an identity independent from the external world because we replace our original reaction with linguistic attributions. Once we come to construct the relationship between objects through the associations they have, we unleash a stream of discursive thinking. A constantly changing and developing archive, such as the image archive at MSU, therefore presents us with a picture of tremendous discursivity. This discursivity is a result of the logical friction between its objects, constantly changing in order, and the discursive practice as exercised in the institution. This paper is an attempt to trace the development of this archive, marking the defining moments that shaped the practice of art history in the institution throughout the years.

From Demonstrations to Documentation: Early Years

It is well known that for a long time, art history was regarded as a supplementary subject in the art institutions of India. Apart from lectures by honorary scholars, art historical questions were largely met with experiments such as those of the Santiniketan program, led by Nandalal Bose. In the Santiniketan program, which was more of an institutional project than a conscious art movement, works of art from the past (murals and sculptural reliefs) were copied and “innovated” in the process, including images from Ajanta, Bagh, Aurangabad, and many other ancient Indian sites. On one hand, these exercises served to produce artworks in themselves, and on the other hand, they served as discursive examples for Santiniketan art students.

The Black House reliefs, for example, were chosen by Bose precisely for demonstrative purposes; the copy of a lion from a Mesopotamian relief served as an example of alternative realism. In his book, Vision and Creation, we find Bose arguing through this image that different traditions found different logics behind the idea of sadrsya or resemblance. However, it may be observed that it is only this formal logic, through which objects from the past could enter into the art and art historical practice in Santiniketan. By contrast, enquiries into the past through archaeological or iconographic evidences remained relatively outside the ambit of art historical practices in Santiniketan and other art institutions. Around the mid-60s, this deadlock was broken, mainly at MSU, where the practice of art history came to assume a relative autonomy and could exercise a dialogue with other practical fields without implying any hierarchy.

The shift coincided with a significant change in pedagogic practices, where the practice of analysing documents silently replaced the practice of demonstration. We hear about the demonstrations by K.S. Kulkarni, Laxman Pai, and Mr Achrekar in the early years of the faculty. There were demonstrations of portraits in oil, or landscape painting and we also come to hear of “folk” artists demonstrating their work in those days. Technically speaking, these practices had little to do with the study of art history, but they were of an enormous importance otherwise, for they imply a certain method of studying that had an impact on art historical practices.

We may do good to remember that in those days the aspect of materiality in art carried a certain baggage. The sheer physical act of demonstration went well with questions of physical and stylistic integrity, since it implied a living, practical process that was much valued over an artwork in reproduction. “Picturesque” was a word of abuse and a photographic reproduction of any artwork was of a secondary, “impure” status. Showing photographs in art classes was more or less limited to the practice of providing a reference that had, at most, an indexical value. We hear of Professor Markand Bhatt, who used to teach theory classes showing small picture postcards of Western art.

So, when one thinks about documenting, or rather collecting, reproductions of artworks in those days, the whole idea appears quite quarrelsome to the larger pedagogic atmosphere. In the first place, it calls for an adjustment in the system of values preserved and nurtured in the academy for decades. It implies that not only is a photograph or reproduction of an artwork a potential object of enquiry; it is as autonomous as the original. It implies that reproductions are not just vague traces of original masterpieces, but in reality and in practice, they also precede the originals. All these implications were not deliberate, of course, but they pointed out a simple truth: a change in practice always initiates a change in discourse. The conception of building an image archive, alone, therefore called for a newer practice of art history. 

From Plate to Image: Destroying the Books

The credit of visualising, collecting, and building up an enormous image archive in the Art History Department in MSU singularly goes to Professor Ratan Parimoo, whose saintly persistence and monstrous labour is still a matter of marvel to many. Unlike his contemporaries, Parimoo was not unaware of the importance of an archive; in fact, he had an experience with one. Parimoo studied in the Courtauld University between 1957–58, where there were two buildings for reference and study, one that housed a library and another that had a photo archive. Students used to get assignments on individual artists whose works were documented in the form of photographs. The culture of browsing through the ocean of images went hand in hand with the scholarship of his teachers, whose concerns were complex and wide ranging. Working in the Courtauld, under the guidance of these stalwarts, whose names include Heinrich Wölfflin, Edwin Panofsky, and Ernst Gombrich, Parimoo readily recognised the benefit of an image archive. Perhaps he remembered Wölfflin’s famous quote, that "art history is actually a game, where the person who has the most number of images, always wins"!

However, after his return from Courtauld, Parimoo met with several obstacles while planning the image archive at MSU. Building a photo archive was too expensive and availability itself was a prime concern. Parimoo’s answer to these problems, however, was remarkably simple and practical. To build the core of this archive, its main base, he resolved to pluck images from books. This was accompanied by a whole act of hunting: whenever he or his students came across a good reproduction of an artwork, it was cut, mounted, and put in the boxes. Heinrich Zimmer’s The Art of Indian Asia, its Mythology and Transformations was the first book to be sacrificed, in fact, twice, since it had plates on both sides of the pages. This was followed by hundreds of other image-oriented books, especially on Western art, then common in art circles.

This act of destruction holds a lot of importance. Not only did it establish a new form of material from which to study art, but in the process it also initiated a shift in the pedagogic practice in MSU. The act of showing images from books while giving a lecture still had its roots in the practice of demonstration, and it invariably lacked the fluidity of handling separate images. Images from books are still considered "plates" and much like "templates" they had a strong indexical quality, like messages arranged in order. In fact, however large the numbers of images are, the viewer’s orientation is always controlled and governed by the very form of the book itself. With time it always happens that the material in the form of a book shapes a lecture more than the lecture, which is supposed to shape its materials. The image archive freed its images from such limitations; plucked, separated, and collected as "images in themselves," its materials assumed an added air of specificity. The destruction, therefore, was only apparent in the initial stage of a gigantic constructional enterprise. Just like a child who learns language from destruction, from spotting and attributing sound to a form among all forms, the archive at MSU, too, began to talk in a language that recognised image as image.

Order and Chaos: a Complex Taxonomy

The wide range of images which mark the uniqueness of the image archive at MSU, has another importance which needs to be stated here. Unlike a pre-planned and centrally ordered archive, this archive possesses visual documents that vary in range and appearance. The variedness of these documents somehow transgresses the overall order that was visualised in the beginning. Parimoo too, favored variety over unity. As a result, the act of archiving visual documents extended well beyond the "images in boxes." There were, in fact, are, framed reproductions of masterpieces of the Western world. These reproductions are large in size and some of them are of the same size as the originals. Besides iconic works like da Vinci’s Last Supper, and landscapes by Cezanne, Whistler, and Monet, there are also images of Robert Campin’s Annunciation framed in a triptych, and Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs with a literary account of all the proverbs and their meanings. The room also has plaster cast copies of Indian sculptures that range from Amaravati, Mathura, and later periods. Small-scale plaster cast copies can also be seen depicting a Greek architectural pediment, a bust of Tutankhamen, and real artefacts from different "folk" and "tribal" communities that were also collected and displayed.

There is a collection of original works in the Department’s possession, but, excepting a couple of paintings by Bendre and Ara, the majority of these works are kept safely in another room, which MSU used to refer to as the "Treasury." Apart from these works, one also occasionally comes across a Shah Jahan on a throne, an oil on canvas by an unknown student, probably painted for the Fine Arts Fair, where painted and laminated copies of great works of art were sold from the Department stall.


Apart from all these varied curious objects that populate the department, there are other collections to be mentioned as well. In the archive room, there are cupboards which house slides for the purpose of teaching and presentation, scrapbooks with pasted clips of art-related news and information from newspapers and magazines, and students’ dissertations and doctoral works. All in all, the collection of images in the Department is not only massive, but it represents such a variety and range of formats that it is simply impossible to order and arrange it categorically. An image of da Vinci’s Last Supper will figure into at least four of the numerous categories; reproduction, slide, blueprint with the names of the twelve disciples, and framed photograph hung over a plywood screen. It is difficult to say how they are different from each other functionally. Not only are there images that figure into seemingly different classifications; there are also those that escape such order, such as the images loosely kept in a box labeled "Visual Illusion."

Here, I must stop and admit that in the middle of this flexible taxonomy, there does function some older order that has its own issues. For example, a typical modernist faith in psychology, ontology, and primitivism shows through the box on primitive art. Images of children’s art, tribal art, and African masks are dumped into one box, apparently betraying the belief that they are all products of a comparable level of consciousness. These occasional gaffes aside, overall, the archive still presents us with an impressive, ever changing taxonomy. The co-existence of objects in different categories presents us with an image of great chaos, but the chaos does not arise in the absence of an order. It is a chaos that erupts from commonalities, between two same images placed in two different categories. It is the narrowness that separates two images which leads to this confusion. It appears to be an archive on the run, constantly creating slippages that escape its own ordering mechanisms, presenting us with the impossibility of assigning commonalities in some and difference in others.

The answer will likely take us away from the realm of objects to the elusive realm of practice. Here, by practice I am strictly referring to the practice of art history in the Department. Since the range of documents escapes all order in the archive, it is only in the realm of practice that they can be interrogated. The usefulness of images in the day-to-day practice of art history is beyond any question. Yet, it is difficult to describe how valuable they are as things in themselves, and more so when we are confronted with their plentitude than with their rarity. One may say that their usefulness resides in their indexical value, as marks or pointers to a real image in question. In the absence of the latter, they perfectly replace its residence and superimpose themselves over the blank space that is created in the process. In this, the reproduction acts like a stencil that Derrida calls "the engraving"; an outline that not only follows the lost original but also precedes it in actual practice. The reproduction becomes not only the model of the original but also a model for the original. The reproduced image, seen in this light, resides in the interstitial gaps, in the blank spaces between the presence and absence of an image in question. It assumes the role of a priori knowledge of an original sign in question, not merely a signifier to it. In the realm of practice, therefore, the image archive of the Art History Department at MSU implies a new set of semiotics that sets it apart from the rest of the art institutions in India.

From Iconography to Semiotics: the Practice of New Art History

The real break in tradition took place in 1977 in the national seminar on "the problem of teaching and research in history of art," organised by the Department, where the importance of methodology was put forward and acknowledged by the participants. The awareness of practice as an insider’s craft seemingly cracked the field open to discourses outside the traditional ones. The next two decades were marked by the making of "new genealogies" that embraced newer objects as well. The "Vaishnavism" Seminar in 1983, followed by the site seminar on Ellora in 1985 and Ajanta in 1988, all tried to go beyond conventional methods to bring out newer perspectives on guild systems, patronage, and other specific areas of interest. The publications of the last two seminars were remarkable attempts in India to fragment the object of study in innumerable channels, each one overlapping the other without a pretension of finality in their narrations. More than compatibility, coexistence was valued, an attitude that nearly mimicked the form of the archive in the Department. Similarly, Parimoo’s publication on the iconography of Sesashayi Vishnu ran a close parallel to the archived form of the same, specifying the hermeneutic interpretation of an image at a given point of history. Shivaji Panikkar’s work on the "Saptamatrika" images too is iconological in that sense, though his landmark last chapter moved beyond even the hermeneutic closure to engage with questions of patriarchy and contestations over knowledge; things that have contemporary relevance as well. This work, along with the works of Devangana Desai, R. Champakalakhsmi, and R. N. Mishra paved the way for newer terrains of exploration. In the field of art criticism too, the Journal of Arts and Ideas and its contributing editors, both G. P. Deshpande and Geeta Kapur, were instrumental in charting new directions in art history. The national seminar on "New Art History and Indian Art" in 2002, was the first attempt made by any institution in India to come to terms with these developments, which a year later was published as a volume entitled Towards a New Art History: Studies in Indian Art

The introduction of this volume proposed a number of theoretical initiatives of which two must be stated here. On one hand, the practice of new art history aimed to move beyond "an art-object oriented approach, entailing issues of authorship, connoisseurship, attribution, and chronology with a framework oriented approach that shifted attention to the political, social, economic structures that under-gird the production of art." On the other hand, it aimed to bring new objects of enquiry to the ambit of art historical research, objects that range "from popular, mass produced art to film posters, MTV imagery, and digital art." The former initiative laid a road to critical interventions in specific directions, inviting issues of class, caste, gender, and sexuality when a researcher began to investigate objects in his/her chosen forum. The latter initiative, however, implied a slight change in the status of the art object, which moved beyond its identity as a material expression to figure as a semiotic fact in the larger perceptual and linguistic world.

Understandably, these initiatives faced criticism from those in traditional quarters, who argued that new art history is blind to context-specific production and has no regard for historicity. However, between 2002 and 2007, no such moment arrived in the Department where the debates could be resolved on a neutral and productive forum. The national seminars, which were organised during this five year period, were all developments in the new art historical trajectory. The departmental archive, too, took part in these developments, building a small-scale digital database of images taken on field trips. Peripheral arts were also documented and researched, for example, the art of the Swaminarayan sect in Gujrat. Preparations for a massive digital archive were made in 2006, under the auspices of a future Tata grant, and I remember how many hours Santhosh S. and I spent working towards it. We categorised and rearranged most of the plates in the image archive and, in the process, annotated them with details, like the images of the Raphael box that I annotated myself. This came to an end, abruptly, in May 2007. Ironically, it was the archive which gave the Department its recognition, and which propelled the course of a traumatic series of events. 

Voice and Silence: the Archive In and Out of Place

As those at MSU know, on the 9 May 2007, a final-year student was arrested on the charge of depicting obscenity and the annual student display in the Department was disrupted by a politically influential leader of the RSS party. The initial reaction among the students and staff was one of helplessness, as they believed in the language of reason rather than that of violence. In the days that followed, the local media continually stated that nudity had never been part of Indian art and culture; that it was nothing but a bad influence of the West. The students felt it was necessary to initiate a dialogue to address these erroneous claims so that people could see and understand that works of art with erotic content have been an integral part of the Indian tradition throughout centuries.

As a sign of protest and reasonable concern, the students mounted an exhibition with a number of sculptures and paintings from the archives that dealt with erotic content. As we know, the display was closed by university officials and the dean in charge, Prof Shivaji Panikkar, was suspended for his refusal to obey an order, though there was no justification from those who issued it. The gross and obscene level of violence inflicted throughout the process was echoed in the comportment of several relative insiders in the field. They criticised the situation, saying that the function of an erotic image in medieval Indian art has nothing to do with a modern-day depiction of the same, and therefore the comparison was absurd. Seen from a distance, this can be recognised as the moment when a section of art historians pitched an argument against the practitioners of a relatively more open art history, and it was precisely the archives that became a trope through which such a debate manifested. In thinking through the argument, I don’t think anybody can claim that a medieval depiction of an erotic image is similar to that of the student’s work in question; that some thought we involved with the archive wanted to make such a naïve point is extremely insulting to us. The aim was rather to generate a discourse on sexuality and representation through a set of images that question our frameworks of looking at art.

Sadly, but perhaps expectedly, the discourse never came up; the attempt was clipped immediately and the archive was shut. The closed archive, therefore, became a metaphorical graveyard once again, where images function within an interiority of control. The archive came inside out and was squeezed back in again, regulated and surveyed, only to have its images returned to an interminable status, as we encountered in Funes’. Much like Funes’ memory, the image archive at MSU finally came full circle, turning into an ideal reservoir of everything; silent, interminable, glorious, and pointless.

The task today, for us and for those who differ from us, is perhaps to realise that, unlike a treasury, an archive comes to life only when it maintains a living relationship with the discursive practices overall. Ignoring differences and regulating practices will only hasten the gradual death of an archive. I genuinely hope the people who are at present in charge of the image archive at MSU share my concern, unless they are dying to book a place at the wrong side of history.

This article was originally presented at The Subject of Archives, a one-day symposium organised by Asia Art Archive, and hosted by the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) on 26 February 2011 in New Delhi.

Parvez Kabir is an art historian whose research interests include pre-modern temple building in India, and modern Indian art and design. He received an MVA from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, and his dissertation was on the concept and practice of innovation in Medieval Orissan art. He is presently working on his PhD, which looks at the role some design industries played in shaping modernism in India. He has contributed articles on his research to various books, journals, and art magazines and has curated or written for several exhibitions including Santiniketan at the Royal College of Arts, London.



Parvez KABIR

Fri, 1 Apr 2011
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