This 34-year-old woman is making Indian museums cool | Condé Nast Traveller India | IndiaMay 19, 2021
Medhavi Gandhi (left) founded The Heritage Lab in 2015 to help make India’s museum collections and artworks more accessible to audiences with digital posts (like the image on the right), events and contests.
Three women, their heads, necks and arms dripping with jewels, gaze directly at the viewer in Thomas Hickey’s painting Three Princesses from Mysore. The portrait of the Wadiyar queens is far from the forbidding image you’d expect, and that’s because they were persuaded by Rani Lakshmi Ammani, who was on a mission: to encourage vaccination against small pox after losing her husband to the disease. The younger queen on the extreme right exposes her left arm, where she’s just been vaccinated, in 1806. It is a remarkable and little-known moment in India’s royal history, one that The Heritage Lab spotlighted on their website in October 2019, before it was amplified by international media a year later in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Shining a light on lesser-known art
The Heritage Lab (THL) reaches over 20,000 followers across its social media platforms, thanks to founder Medhavi Gandhi’s knack for making centuries-old artworks and artefacts feel relevant.
At 22, after a college internship helping document the harsh prospects of traditional Indian artisans for UNESCO, Gandhi decided she wanted to help revive folk and traditional arts. She co-founded the Delhi nonprofit Happy Hands Foundation in 2009, which works with artisans in a dozen states to connect to wider audiences. Six years later, she founded The Heritage Lab “because there was hardly an online presence for museums or galleries.” Gandhi is now on the advisory board of Europeana and the Commonwealth Association of Museums, but it’s been an uphill climb as not many institutions saw the need to engage virtually until 2020 changed the game.
“Last year really boosted our mission,” Gandhi says, “Museums would initially just brush it off but there’s been a complete shift and willingness to acknowledge digital visitors and audiences too.” It ushered in more content for museums and more followers, as well as more sessions with schools to teach history through art and artefacts. “Of the over 1,500 collections in India,” Gandhi says, “I’ve seen a lot of the collections in Punjab and Chandigarh [where she is now based], and Ahmedabad but there’s always that feeling that I haven’t seen enough!”
Mughal miniatures are mined to echo the ennui of a year spent in lockdown, the website has a meme-maker to encourage people to interact with open-access Indian artworks, and they’ve partnered with museums and galleries to make collections more accessible via GIF-making contests and jigsaw puzzles.
It’s much more than fun and games. Millennial references are a handle to grip iconic Indian artists like Gieve Patel and SH Raza. THL also has a YouTube series on India through the eyes of travelling artists, and IGTV portraits, such as of the incredibly gifted Baburao Painter, who was the first Indian to cast women in his films.
Changing the narrative when it comes to representing women in history is one of Gandhi’s key interests. She hosts Wikipedia Editathons as the South Asia coordinator of Art+Feminism, to spotlight the often forgotten contributions of women in the arts.
“Is it frivolous to share art given the circumstances?” Gandhi posted on THL in late April, when India’s COVID-19 crisis came sharply into focus. But as the painting she chose underlined, art is just the catharsis and mirror we need as we shelter in place.