How an institute can become a public platform for art and artists
Early 2001, a theatre company from Germany landed in Delhi to stage Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui.
Written while he was in Chicago after fleeing from Hitler, Brecht had replaced the Nazi leader with Chicago’s mafia don Al Capone in the 1941 play to warn the world about the danger of fascism. After witnessing two world wars in the previous century, it was a fitting thought by the Max Mueller Bhavan, the well-respected German cultural institution in Delhi, to herald the new century with a Brechtian idea.
But nature had other plans. A devastating earthquake struck Gujarat on January 26, 2001, casting a pall of gloom over the whole of India. Though bringing a Brecht play to India involved months of planning and mind boggling logistics like a planeload of paraphernalia, the Max Mueller Bhavan donated all gate collections to the earthquake relief fund. Nearly two decades later, the institute is ready to rewrite its role making a cultural institution more relevant today than ever before as the Max Mueller Bhavans in Delhi and Kolkata celebrate the 60th anniversary this year.
Drafting a new role
“We began as a cultural institution housing a library and hosting cultural events. Then it grew into many channels of cultural exchange. But we have a different role now,” says Max Mueller Bhavan’s South Asia regional director Berthold Franke. “We see culture as a fluid, open, never-ending process of search for identity. This might be a good contribution, especially at a time nationalist and identitarian culture has support from everywhere in the world,” adds Franke.
The Max Mueller Bhavan knows that search for identity well. The German cultural institution, known
elsewhere in the world as the Goethe Institut, is named after the famous 19th century German Indologist Friedrich Max Mueller in India. A pioneering philologist and Sanskrit scholar, Max Mueller translated the Vedas and Upanishads into German, finding common roots among different
cultures. “It was a rare quality of someone who devoted his whole life to another culture,” explains Franke about Max Mueller’s life.
The Goethe Institut, which is present in 90 countries, is a publicly funded private association connected to the
German ministry of foreign affairs by a contract unlike cultural institutions of other nations. “We are partly civil society, partly NGO,” says Franke, a 25-year-old veteran cultural administrator whose previous stint was with the Goethe
Institut in Prague. The first Goethe Institut was founded in Delhi’s Connaught Place in 1957, and in the same year, Kolkata received its own at Baliganj. The Bhavan moved to its present complex on
Kasturba Gandhi Marg near Connaught Place four years later , while in Kolkata, the move was to the landmark Park Mansions on Park Street. Though the Max Mueller Bhavan completed 60 years in 2017, it decided to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2019 with a year-long
Around the world the Goethe Institut became spaces for free exchange of ideas. “In Brazil, most people who met in the Goethe Institut library there became members of its first democratically elected government,” says Leonhard Emmerling, director of programmes of Goethe Institut, South Asia. The Goethe institutes in Central and South America are inspired by German explorer Alexander Humboldt, the world’s earliest environmentalist who travelled to the region in the late 18th and early 19th centuries creating a spirit of understanding the other. Both Franke and Emmerling draw their own inspiration from Max Mueller and Humboldt for a new thinking on cultural institutions of the 21st century.
Institute as a public space
The Max Mueller Bhavan will step into the new idea of the institute as a public space with a year-long art project, Five Million Incidents. Co-curated by Max Mueller Bhavan and Raqs Media Collective, the project will see artists from across the country creating a new space for a search to engage with people and change the conversation among artists. “It is the idea of a public space, being with time and being with each other, to bring in all kinds of diversity to the place,” says Jeebesh Bagchi of
the Raqs Media
Collective, the Delhi-based art collective that participated in the 2015 Venice Biennale. “We are searching for a model that can bring in different ways in which institutions, the public and artists inhabit art,” says Bagchi. For a year, about 100 artists will be expressing a durational aspect to their practice that has art works
overlapping at the same time in Delhi and Kolkata venues. Max Mueller Bhavan and Raqs Media Collective are backed in their project by artists Rupali Gupte and
Sanchayan Ghosh, art researcher Sabih Ahmed and Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art head Vidya Shivadas.
One of the first works at the
Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi is by Delhi University’s College of Art alumna Dhara Mehrotra’s Gossamer, based on self-organised communication in the plant world through fungal networks that connects roots of trees with each other. Delhi-based Sangeeta Rana connects the 60 years of inland letter card with Bhavan’s own 60th anniversary in her work titled, 5 gms | 70 gsm | 60 incidents. The title denotes the mandatory specifications for an inland letter card, which becomes a transmission of information and memories in Rana’s work. The changing soundscape of the site of the Navi Mumbai International Airport which is under construction, the lives of sanitary workers in Mumbai, and the agrarian crisis in the urban context are among the works of Five Million Incidents. The project will run until April 13 next year at Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi and Kolkata.
The writer is a freelancer