Sarita Sundar: Storytelling in India's museums

It is not easy explaining to people I have just met what I do – my work, my interests and how they all intersect – particularly if I have to make that ‘10 seconds elevator pitch’. In some ways I could say my work straddles practice and research at the intersections of design, art and heritage studies.

While my graduate degree in visual communications from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India, taught me the practical skills in graphic design, I often veered towards projects that provided me the opportunity to study visual and material culture. A final year project realised through a book and animation film looked at how people navigate the multitude of messages, the chaos and clutter that shout out in Indian streets; following a school boy’s journey down the rabbit hole of Indian streets. This interest at looking at how we, as Indians, crowd together people and information took form in a paper I recently wrote called ‘Indians don't like White Space’. (White space is a term in graphic design that explains the blank areas on a page that helps provide relief to densely layered content).

I have always liked visiting art galleries, museums and attending folk performances in villages. I soon realised that while we had so many museums in India, with incredible cultural objects, the museums were mostly object-oriented, with little or no interpretation, very little narrative and interactive elements. What started with an epiphanic encounter with a Hanuman (a monkey god) puppet while watching a shadow puppet performance in rural India became an overriding passion: to study the cultural objects and their agency in the context of performance cultures. That is when I decided to pursue a Masters programme at the School of Museum Studies, in 2013. Visual and material culture at its margins continues to be of particular interest to me especially when dealing with issues concerning real and imagined borders, the uneasy relationship that material objects and images have with intangible culture in performance practices, and urbanism’s links with folk culture.

The Masters degree, besides opening my mind to an entirely new vocabulary in the field of museum and heritage studies, helped me recognise that interpretation is often plural, complicated and fluid, and audiences ‘read’ differently. Today I continue to balance practice based projects with research through a consultancy based in Bangalore. The master narratives that we create at Hanno attempts to weave multiple stories, allowing them to intersect, diverge or even contradict one other. At Hanno we visualise and curate diverse narratives with a particular focus on museum, heritage and social communication. We work with brand strategy and design solutions, but are deeply involved in research into visual culture. We also formulate approaches and weave story-lines for archival and commemorative communication. (Hanno is the name of an elephant gifted to the Pope in the 16th century, his poignant story was brought to our attention during an exhibition project we were putting together on the herbal tradition of the Malabar coast as documented in five European books of the 16th century).

Sarita Sundar
MA Heritage and Interpretation, Graduated 2015.