Barbara Kipper’s promised gift of 464 objects from her remarkable collection of Asian jewelry and ritual objects to the new Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bangalore, is exceptional in more ways than one. Besides being a gift, it’s the first time the Chicago art collector’s generosity has extended to an institution based in her collection’s geographic origin.

While most countries strive to repatriate precious cultural artifacts forcibly taken away during oppressive foreign regimes in their varied pasts, what is unusual in this instance is Kipper’s firm belief that these artifacts rightfully belong to the culture of their origin.

“I have had the pleasure of living with these wonderful pieces and sharing their energy, but they’ve never really been mine.”

Barbara Levy Kipper

“Yes, money was exchanged but that was on a superficial level,”  says Kipper, “but are they really mine? No, I’m a caretaker. Now they are going to four institutions that will honor them and care for them. It is a wonderful way to send them on to where they will be shown in proper exhibits, where they will be photographed, digitized and be available online and be used to educate.”

The donation to MAP, founded by philanthropist and art collector Abhishek Poddar in the heart of Bangalore, follows promised gifts to the Art Institute of Chicago, The Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. MAP will be South India’s first major private art museum to exhibit, interpret and preserve India’s rich artistic heritage through its collection.

Kipper is the former chairman of book distributor the Chas Levy Company and a Life Trustee of the Art Institute. As a young woman, she was fascinated by the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kublai Khan and with the Eastern inspired sets and costumes of the Ballet Ruse. “Something certainly reverberated -the colors – it was a world I certainly wasn’t living in. That ignited my imagination.”

On her first overland expedition by Land Rover from London to Afghanistan in 1968 with a group of 24 people, Kipper saw ‘visions’ which left indelible imprints on her memory. She remembers seeing a ‘marvelous rider on a white horse in pistachio robes and turban’, in the swirling dust of the high mountain passes in Afghanistan. She vividly recalls the tiles on front of the Friday mosque in Isfahan and watching a hundred camel caravanserai.

“Watching the camel train, I knew I was witness to an event that had been going on for thousands of years. At some intrinsic level I knew that it was going to end sooner rather than later.” The intoxicating sights, sounds and colors of those travels kindled her fascination for all things Asian and her passion for collecting.

Kipper built her collection over 30 years with her late husband David. They assembled a diverse and thoughtful set of artifacts that offer a panoramic view of the fast-disappearing nomadic and tribal cultures of Asia, as well as refined Tibetan objects and other regional jewelry.

The Barbara and David Kipper Collection now includes over 1300 objects that date from the 7th century to the 1950s, collected from countries bordering the Silk Road.

The unique pieces in the Kipper Collection are significant because they represent local cultures, which even at the time of collecting them were fast disappearing due to social, political and economic changes. Kipper appreciated how these cultures were at risk and wanted to help preserve them, her focus – to find objects of everyday use, each with their unique story to tell.

The collection includes artifacts that are symbols of portable wealth and the religious practices of the time. It includes gaus (portable shrines or protective talismans, which are filled with small statues, tsa tsas, deity images or any other holy, blessed object), women’s ornaments including necklaces, earrings and headdresses, and various ritualistic items.

“What bothers me the most is that these pieces that were so important to families and individuals with deep symbolic and spiritual meaning, become merely pretty objects to be viewed on a shelf,” explains Kipper. “What I trust MAP to do is give these pieces context and understand their relevance within a culture.”

Abhishek Poddar describes how the gift to MAP happened. “Barbara heard about what we were doing at MAP at a presentation I was making to a small group at The Art Institute of Chicago. She said she loved what we were doing, wanted to help and to gift a part of her collection to MAP. I was overjoyed!”

Kipper in turn was struck by Poddar’s belief and appreciation of Indian arts and culture. “I found his authenticity very moving and I respected his vision for MAP.” She invited him to see the collection in situ, and when he asked if there was anything that could go to MAP, Kipper said yes. “I was honored. I wanted to give it to an outstanding institution, even though at that point it was not off the ground yet.”

At MAP, Abhishek Poddar’s mission is to take art and culture to the heart of the community, and make it accessible to diverse audiences. Poddar has conceived a space for initiating ideas and conversations, enabling it to engage with audiences in multiple ways. MAP takes a 360-degree approach to accessibility, with a special focus on people with disabilities making it the most inclusive museum in the country.

Its flagship building will have galleries, an auditorium, an art and research library, an education center, specialized research services and a state-of- the-art conservation facility and a café.

MAP is custodian to an ambitious collection of over 18,000 works of art, predominantly from South Asia, and dating from the 10th century to the present. It will focus on six themes – Modern & Contemporary, Photography, Folk & Tribal, Popular Culture & Textiles, Craft & Design and Pre-Modern Art. A special highlight is its holding of historical and contemporary photography and popular culture, rarely seen in any Indian museum.

“So, you could have a Ravi Varma oleograph or a Bollywood poster next to a Chola bronze or a Tyeb Mehta painting,” says Poddar. The whole point has to do with the artifact’s artistic intent and content, not its value.

“We are trying to remove the distinction between high art and low art. We are putting it all on the same level. If we are going to cater to only the really valuable collections that other museums are showing, which cater to less than 1% of our population, how do we speak to the balance 99% unless we have something that interests them?”

The Poddar Family are prominent collectors of Indian art, and have donated approximately half of the objects currently owned to MAP’s collection. The rest of their family collection is on permanent loan to MAP and can be included in all exhibitions.

The absence of private museums in India with a focus on education, research, conservation and outreach, has worked significantly in MAP’s favor.

“People are looking at MAP as a space in which their collections will be looked after in an appropriate manner, along with the best conservation methods,” says Poddar, adding that, “When someone has collected with such joy and passion, then they are handing over their legacy. It becomes your responsibility to look after it going forward and it becomes an unending commitment.”

That philosophy has drawn the attention of other important collectors who are in the process of joining the MAP collection. The contributions include 73 manuscript paintings and drawings of religious and mythological subjects, animal studies, jewelry sketches and other manuscript illustrations, called The Traveler’s Collection.

Poddar says “We’ve received collections from other countries of Indian textiles and other artworks. I’m glad we’re attracting people, even those whom we don’t know.”

MAP will launch digitally with a week-long celebration from 5-11 December 2020, as each department opens on consecutive days. “By making the museum digital, we are expanding our reach significantly and hope to play the role of a catalyst. Unless we make it attractive to the younger generation, we are going to lose out on a lot.”

MAP is set to become a cutting edge Indian museum at the forefront of exceptional collections, curatorial, research and educational practices.

Kipper calls it, “A museum for the 21st century and beyond, created in the 21st century.”

As collectors like her come forward to donate their precious collections and restore cultural artifacts to the region of origin, gifts from ‘caretakers’ like Kipper are a meaningful sign of things to come.

Shonali Madapa is a brand designer and photographer who runs a design studio Lumos Design. She follows patterns of culture, nature, society and behavior through travel photography and writing.

Edited by Meera Kymal, the Contributing Editor at India Currents.