Artists

Is it possible to experience two million years of our evolution in one exhibition? The exhibition India and the World: A History in Nine Stories undertook this challenge by showcasing 228 objects including sculpture, monuments, inscriptions, coins, paintings, jewelry and tools to examine India’s role in the history of the world. The exhibition opened in November 2017 at the CSMVS in Mumbai to coincide with the celebrations of 70 years of Indian Independence that led to a cultural exchange between India and the UK with objects drawn primarily from the collections of the British Museum, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) and the National Museum, and a few other collections. According to Sabhayashi Mukherjee, director of CSMVS, work on the project started in 2014 with former director of the British Museum Neil Macgregor after their project Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia, wherein they jointly decided to curate an exhibition that presented India - her role and contribution within the context of the world through various iconic objects from significant periods in history. The main objective of the exhibition could be understood to present a comparative framework of India’s contribution and influence on the world at large through the evolution of history.

The exhibition was chronologically divided into nine sections: Shared Beginnings, First Cities, Empires, State and Faith, Indian Ocean Traders, Courtly Cultures, Quest for Freedom, and Time Unbound, each denoting different eras of human development, with objects selected from different museums and collections. This required the curators to travel far and wide, as well as engage in a deep and methodological research while thinking about the exhibition. Amongst the treasured objects in the show were some of the most significant artifacts of various periods including Kushan, Gandharva, rare miniature paintings and textile pieces to name a few. However, in an exhibition with such a challenging curatorial agenda, the key questions is the selection of objects and why they were chosen, to which Naman Ahuja makes an important point. For him what was included was just as significant as what was excluded. [1] He said “making one culture's history commensurable with anothers is without falling into the pitfall of essentialism, violently censoring or silencing some histories while privileging others” was key. [2] Looking westwards it could be said the “very enterprise of putting various histories together is being done according to someone's notion of history”. [3]

Making such an exhibition curated in India with an Indian curator (unlike the western curators that have curated most of the significant Indian exhibitions) of great significance and agency. The act of translating the exhibition into Hindi further revealed another lacuna -- whose history was being privileged and what was lost in translation? Ahuja undertook to chronologically place world history, by revealing the complexities, making the challenges a part of the narrative rather than pretending that it did not exist. These moments in the exhibition were among the most engaging and insightful.

For example, the section of the First Cities examines hand axes from various periods and places that correspondingly indicate a developed and urban society. The curators, however, maintain that it does not necessarily suggest a benchmark of a progressive society. Within the same section in the end “beyond the city” reflects on how the parameters of urbanisation were not the only way to measure progress, and how several cultures elected not to live in cities, being more rural, but could be just as developed.

The section Empires showcased the power and might of the early empires with significant pieces such as the Persian Achaemenid relief and Head in the style of Alexander both indicating authority, domination and control. Therefore it was surprising to encounter the contrary, an exquisite sculpture from Phanigiri, Telangana region depicting Siddhartha who as Gautam Buddha relinquished his titles, and renounced his status as emperor giving up his vast empire to seek enlightenment.

The segment State and Faith addressed the role of religion to endorse kingship and strengthen control over people. Buddhism and Hinduism, which originated from India spread all over Southeast Asia, created trade links and political contact between the regions. This section has some of the most exquisite sculptures in the exhibition that include Christ figure from Goa, Bahubali, Shiva, Bodhisattva Maitreya and Chola Buddha, but what stood out was an 8th century Ganesha sculpture from Java, Indonesia. This work unlike its Indian counterparts materially looked and felt like an elephant, but held a tenderness, making it one of more memorable sculptures in the exhibition.

A section on exchange of goods, ideas and cultures Indian Ocean Traders portrayed instruments such as the Astrolobe measured distances on earth and skies, allowing navigation and nautical travel to flourish. Amidst the various objects an uncanny bronze figure of Poseidon made in Europe found its way in Maharashtra. It seems that the God of the ocean did traverse a long sea faring voyage after all. One also witnessed a prized blue and white porcelain dish made in China that found its way into the Tughlaq kitchens in Delhi.

Amidst the opulence of the Mughal, Ottoman and Chinese courts Courtly Cultures presented outstanding examples of paintings from Baburnama, Safavid and Kandra schools. However, two works particularly stood out due to the unusual subjects, the first a Mughal miniature of Jahangir holding a portrait of the Virgin Mary, which refers to India’s early brush with Christian art, and the arriving in the Mughal courts of Jesuit missionaries as early as the mid- 15th century. Another unexpected addition is a drawing of Mughal Emperor Jahangir by notable European Dutch artist Rembrandt. As a result of the maritime trade that circulated these works, Rembrandt’s interest in Mughal miniatures is revealed. The history of the source and inspiration is often unknown, which makes large- scale exhibitions such as these important and necessary. In this case, given the nature of his practice, its no surprise that Rembrandt would be drawn to the fine craftsmanship of the Mughal miniatures, particularly paying attention of the details of clothing and fabric, which he copied, altering the perspective to suit the European palette.

The Quest for Freedom draws the exhibition into a more recent moment of decolonization focusing on the struggles from the British, German and French empire included memorabilia, a facsimile of the Constitution of India as well as currency notes from several newly independent nationsincludingIndiaandAfrican countries. Two works particular stood out for me, the first a figure of Queen Victoria, a symbol of British imperial domination. The wooden carving interestingly comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria that presented their own interpretation of the Queen embodying their stylistic traditions, portraying a humane version of the ruler. The second that resonated appropriately was a Page from a slave Register from 1871, Puerto Rico that formed part of the Spanish Empire where slavery was only finally abolished in 1873. This document gives an account of 25 year old slave Domingo and tells us who owned him and where he was registered. The significant victory of the Haitian slaves who revolted from France in 1804 made it the first independent nation in the Caribbean, where slavery was abolished in 1873.

The final segment Time Unbound questions all the previous sections in the exhibition complicating our understanding of historical time. Opposing the western hegemonic understanding of linear chronological time this section allows us to mediate on the Indian notion of circular time, in which life, death and rebirth form part of an eternal circle of life, much like the Aboriginal Dreamtime which alters our perception of time, past and present. Here along with other works a miniature painting of Rahu, The Consumer of Time a wrathful devourer of time signifies a perfect ending to the show. The in-between time or Rahukaal that takes place between sunrise and sunset is when the unexpected occur, making time itself out of bounds.

India and the World provided a wonderful opportunity to experience objects from several museums all over the world in a unique manner, that opens conversations with objects that have never been undertaken before. The joy of encountering several unexpected objects posits India’s role in the history of the world including her intellectual and artistic contribution, drawing our attention to a strong need for preservation and conversation of our rich cultural heritage. This exhibition could have been curated in many ways, the obvious being to highlight the significant moments in India history per se and showcase the most iconic works. The curators, however, held fast to their interest in juxtaposing India along with the parallel knowledge systems of the world, allowing for a more open-ended dialogue and conversation amongst India and the world to begin.

Notes:

[1] Cited via an email exchange with the co -curator of the exhibition Naman Ahuja, 20/01/2018.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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