In our smartphone-saturated times, with every scrap of information you might want to know seemingly already at your fingertips, what good reasons could possibly exist to publish any whacking great 960-page doorstopper that weighs full three kilos?

It turns out there are many. And all are embodied in the distinctive and rather wonderful English translation of Visual Arts of Maharashtra: Artists of the Bombay School and Art Institutions (Late 18th to Early 21st Century), recently released by Pundole Art Gallery.

Originally published in Marathi in 2013 as Drishyakala Khand by Hindusthan Prakashan Sanstha, this meticulously compiled encyclopedia is edited by Suhas Bahulkar and Deepak Ghare, with the eminent artists Sudhir Patwardhan and Dilip Ranade as associate editors. It spans from the year 1765 (the birth date of Navgire Gangaram Chintaman Tambat, the first artist from Maharashtra to “acquire proficiency in the Western style of painting”) right to the present day (its five youngest inclusions were all born in 1960).

In between are detailed biographical notes of more than 300 artists, with an endlessly fascinating wealth of knowledge about their lives, the movements and institutions they built, and the web of relationships binding them to Maharashtra. The editorial team’s approach is refreshingly catholic: they included Carmel Berkson (an American sculptor who spent decades in India inbetween her New York life) and Magda Nachmann-Acharya (the Russian-German painter who married an Indian communist, and spent 17 years in Mumbai before dying there in 1951) as well as Mario de Miranda (whose prolific career is most strongly associated with his home state of Goa).

Broadminded scope

Bahulkar explains in his Editor’s Note: “Though the state of Maharashtra was established in 1960, as far as this volume is concerned, it covers the notion of Maharashtra prevalent from the historic period of the Maratha empire, the Bombay province of the British era to the present-day Maharashtra state. The criteria behind [the] selection of names have been defined quite liberally to accommodate all the artists who have contributed in a great way.

That is an impeccably broadminded scope, which makes it quite a disappointment that Bahulkar et al conspicuously omitted Shakir Ali and several other exemplary artists who studied at the JJ School of Art before Partition cleaved their lives away from India to Pakistan.

I was also rather dismayed to note that the great bridge figure between the Bombay and Bengal modernists (he actually attended both JJ and Shantiniketan), who spent four decades painting in Pune, Angelo da Fonseca does not find his deserved place.

Nonetheless, those concerns can be seen as quibbles, given everything else that has been brought to general attention for the first time. Much of what is in this marvellous tome doesn’t reside anywhere on the internet, and a good proportion hasn’t ever been available in English. This is why, ever since my copy arrived, it has surprised and delighted me upon every consultation, even on subjects that I have followed closely for many years. It is nothing less than an instantly valuable treasure-house of material that was previously exclusive to the Marathi archive.

“English has afforded us this amazing opportunity to be world citizens but it is also part of what one might call, the brown man’s burden – we often fail to acknowledge the various languages and traditions it has displaced,” said Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India magazine for 19 out of its 25 years in existence. “There is a lot of important work in languages like Marathi that needs to be made available to a larger audience. How many non-Maharashtrians have heard of writers like DG Godse, for instance, who I feel is one of the finest Indian thinkers on art and history from the last century? I hope to translate some of his work soon.”

Sardesai is an increasing rarity in the Anglophone Indian media world for his deft, literarily adept fluency in both Marathi and Konkani. “Given the fact that ours is a multi-lingual country that is continental in its diversity, translation as an act and event is quite central to our lives,” he said. “We swim between languages, dip in and out of cultural resources, and manage our composite lives with a degree of ease. Increasingly and rightly so, ‘translated knowledges’ that give us information and insight about our own aesthetic traditions have become crucial to a deeper understanding of our contexts.”

Vivid narratives

It is undeniable that Visual Arts of Maharashtra brims with vivid narratives, ideas and understanding that hitherto simply did not exist in the English language. Just one example, of particular value to me, is the entry on Ramachandra Pandurang Kamat, who was born in 1904 in Madkai, some 25 km from my home in Panjim.

You can look high and low online, but will only glean the briefest biographical details for this sculptor, the only Indian to win the Gold Medal at the Royal Academy in London (after studying at the Royal College of Art in the early 1930s). By contrast, Visual Arts of Maharashtra has much more, including the fact that the young artist was gifted enough to be admitted directly into the third year at JJ by its principal Gladstone Solomon.

Notably, there’s also an extremely rare image of Adam & Eve, the plaster sculpture that won Kamat his gold, which I had never seen before (and is not online anywhere).

Kamat’s biographical note was written by Dr Nalini Bhagwat, and then translated by Dr Manisha Patel. These are just two of an army of contributors whose names are listed in five densely-printed pages under the heading of Team Encyclopaedia. Amongst writers, I counted 79 names, and there were another 28 translators.

Besides the biographical sketches, this teeming cohort put together useful sections on “important art institutions and organisations that have made a valuable contribution to the development of visual art” and an excellent preface surveying the historical and cultural heritage of Maharashtra from pre-historic to modern. I was struck by how little of this exists for any other part of the country – Kerala and Bengal being limited exceptions – and the scale of what is required to even put a dent into doing justice to the task.

“Our attitude to the past is often marred by this unsettling malaise that allows for chest-thumping mythologisation but disallows critical enquiry and care,” said Abhay Sardesai. “The idea of heritage as a continuously growing and expanding category that encompasses the journey of the past into the present is linked to the notion of a dynamic archive of images, objects, stories and sounds. Unfortunately, we do not have many institutions that support such initiatives. Supporting such institutions requires both courage and imagination.”

Sardesai agrees there’s urgent need for more efforts in the vein of Bahulkar and Ghare’s encyclopedia. “As we know, an act of documentation is also an act of intervention,” he said. “I feel that emphasis must be placed in pedagogic institutions on creating diverse records of our pasts – there are not too many art schools that do this with rigour. Private collectors and patrons also need to re-orient themselves to support academic work that aims at preserving our layered histories. Only then will we be able to re-animate them in all their complexity and create vibrant sources of real cultural reassurance. In the process, we will create and add value to our collective lives.”

Twinned conceptual ambitions

That’s precisely what has been achieved with Visual Arts of Maharashtra, which illuminates kaleidoscopically each time it’s cracked open. For example, when I checked out the entry for Narayan Ganesh Pansare, the superb modernist sculptor whose work adorns many of Mumbai’s beloved Art Deco landmarks, I immediately got sucked into the beguiling biography that followed – over four full pages of almost unimaginably colourful exploits – of Bhawanrao Shriniwasrao Pant Pratinidhi, the former ruler of Aundh.

Part of the attraction of this encyclopedia is its twinned conceptual ambitions: the authors clearly intend to expand the focus of art in the region far beyond Mumbai, and they also want to contribute considerable heft to make the case that the modernist impulse in Maharashtra was every bit as consequential as the absurdly over-hyped Bengal school. But the more you read, another subtler significance emerges, which is the limpid and elegant prose. It’s an unusual feat for any reference book, let alone one in translation. The more I read the more one name began insistently pressing itself forward in my mind. I looked in the credits, and there she was: Shanta Gokhale.

Two months short of her 82nd birthday, Gokhale is one of the most versatile writers anywhere, in any language. Her quietly spectacular career has spanned journalism, fiction (both stories and novels), playwriting, screenplays (for television as well as feature films and documentaries), criticism, editing, and an astonishing range of landmark translations from and into Marathi. To cite just one favourite, her 2019 memoir One Foot On The Ground: A Life Told Through The Body is, in my view, one of the very best autobiographies of our times.

I emailed Gokhale about Visual Arts of Maharashtra, and she wrote back that “correcting the translations often involved checking back on facts. So it was slow going. In view of the way I worked I never did get an overall idea of how it was structured [but] I realised that there was a lot of anecdotal writing which one doesn’t normally find in encyclopedias. I also noticed that the aim was not to create a canon but to cover every single artist whichever form he practised from modern art to traditional to Ganpati making, calendar art and advertising.”

Hard at work midway through yet another translation, SV Ketkar’s novel Brahmanyaka, Gokhale gave me the example of theatre to demonstrate “how languages divide us.”

“Mumbai has four languages with four language theatres,” she said. “Marathi and Gujarati speakers watch English and Hindi theatre. But Marathi and Gujarati theatre is not watched by people outside those linguistic groups. When scholars ask me what they can read on Marathi theatre I have to say to them there is much, but it’s all in Marathi to which you don’t have access. This is how our languages keep us apart.”

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.