The incomparable Meena Kumari’s mesmerising gaze is the first photo of Google Arts & Culture’s latest online exhibition, titled Faces That Launched a Thousand Movies. Curated by the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru, the exhibit displays a little under 40 gorgeous photographs of iconic Indian actresses.

The Museum of Art and Photography, a two-year-old upcoming museum in Bengaluru, is the brainchild of businessman and art connoisseur Abhishek Poddar. The building in which the museum hopes to be housed is under construction and is slated to be completed by 2020. Meanwhile, MAP has been building up an archive of photographs and other material.

Usha Kiran in Dost (1954). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.
Usha Kiran in Dost (1954). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.

The exhibit explores the period between 1945 and 1984, Shilpa Vijayakrishnan, a curator and researcher with the museum, told Scroll.in. “We were looking at early Indian cinema in the post-independence era, because this ties into other cultural debates of gender and societal acceptance and leadership,” she said. “The idea was to start there and look at how cinematic representation reflects that.”

Lalita Pawar and Sulochana Latkar in Sajni (1956). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.
Lalita Pawar and Sulochana Latkar in Sajni (1956). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.

The current exhibit has been specifically created for the Google Arts & Culture platform, Vijayakrishnan said. “They were having a women in culture kind of project, where they look at the exhibits thematically.” MAP has curated two exhibits – Faces That Launched a Thousand Movies (Women in Cinema), and Maharanis: Women of Royal India – for Google. “We are very interested because this exhibit is at an intersection of a lot of the work that we currently have but is not yet out there in the public realm,” she said.

Nadira in Garma Garam (1957). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.
Nadira in Garma Garam (1957). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.

The MAP team pored over hundreds of photographs and lobby cards to create the exhibit. “There are many parts to this – some of the photos are of iconic stars like Meena Kumari and Madhubala, who you really can’t miss if you are looking at a historic trajectory, while others are photos looking at the kind of roles women played and how they changed and were challenged over time,” Vijayakrishnan said. “However, since this is a virtual exhibit and people tend to have a short attention span online, it is important to not overload the viewer.”

Several photos, with few exceptions, are of women looking directly into or in the general direction of the camera, which creates an interesting dynamic between the subject and the spectator, Vijayakrishnan said.

Meena Kumari in Yahudi (1958). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.
Meena Kumari in Yahudi (1958). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.

The exhibit includes a few videos, such as the song Piya Tose Naina Lage Re, featuring Waheeda Rehman in the movie Guide (1965). The use of videos, aided by the technology of the Google platform, allows viewers to make associations, Vijayakrishnan said. “While looking at the stardom of these women and how their bodies are constructed in a certain way, song and dance becomes significant,” she said. “Having video links becomes important and enhances the experience for the viewer.”

Shakila in Hathkadi (1958). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.
Shakila in Hathkadi (1958). Courtesy Museum of Art & Photography.

The idea that a museum doesn’t have to be a physical entity has been gaining favour in recent years. “Digital exhibits definitely give you the opportunity to discard traditional labels of categories and explore multiple narratives, which we are most keen to do,” Vijayakrishnan said.