First published on 26th June 2024

This essay is about T.N. Mukharji, or Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay (1847-1919), who wanders into the late-19th-century era of spectacle and amplified hubristic display, not unlike our own. To the reader of Bengali, he is renowned as the author of fantastic and comic stories. For scholars like Supriya Chaudhuri, T.N. Mukharji is “an important and neglected witness, who spent a lifetime documenting Indian botanical, agricultural and crafts products for museums and exhibitions”. [1] For our time, he serves as an exemplar who sought to champion the Indian arts practitioner even under a hostile regime.

A member of the Bengali literary elite and an opium expert who advised the British on its opium shipments to China, Mukharji was appointed Assistant Curator in Calcutta’s Indian Museum in 1887. Before the appointment, he had put together important exhibitions representing Indian arts in the context of the British empire. I hope to emphasize the frequently ambivalent nature of his participation in imperial projects. More importantly, I want to highlight how Mukharji’s exhibitionary template has endured, as it continues to be replicated within present-day art institutions.

Mukharji was propelled into a position of prominence as a curator with seemingly little or no preparation. As a latterly famous writer of fiction in Bengali, he was admired by Mahashweta Devi, who spoke of him as an important influence. [2] Rabindranath Tagore translated his stories, and his curatorial work appeared on the scene quite dramatically.

Sometime in 2013, Prithwiraj Biswas, a research fellow at Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, found an album of photographs in the library of Calcutta’s Government College of Art. [3] These were the documents of the 1883 exhibition that Mukharji had curated, and no other copy existed in India. They reveal the display template he used, which will seem all too familiar to contemporary audiences. Like the Handloom and Handicrafts fairs at the Pragati Maidan each year, the sections were divided into different states, like Punjab, Madras, Gujarat etc. Private jewellers from Bombay participated at the event. One of the prime objects on view was the Ossler fountain, which was a huge attraction in the 1851 exhibition.

Mukharji began his career as a second master in the education department in Bengal. By this time, the universal expositions of 1851 and 1856, with their concept of ‘the world in an exhibition’, had become overwhelmingly popular. Indian writers attest to it. As a 17-year-old in Paris, Tagore spoke of nervous exhaustion after viewing the Paris exhibition of 1878, in which 16 million people paid to view curiosities and new inventions, like the telephone, a “black village” of 400 inhabitants from Africa, and a human zoo. [4] Such exhibitions were common in Europe and fed into what Chaudhuri calls the “exhibitionary apparatus of the colonial state”, calculated to display racial superiority, emboldened by the perception of superior scientific and industrial knowledge. Like Gandhi later, Tagore was to emphatically reject the commodity culture of such fairs. Mukharji followed its contours, but also put on record his dismay and unease at the gaze that is cast on the participants from India. In this condition of doubt, he revealed a nascent modernity, an alignment with the growing spirit of nationalism. More importantly, coming at the close of the age of the Holocene, he anticipated the significant loss of material wealth through extractive uses. Across the half dozen major exhibitions of Indian objects that he curated, he assessed that as instruments of revenue generation, the shows did not reverse the decline in economic production in India. As a counter to these trends, he created a personal collection of raw materials.

Mukharji participated in several Indian exhibitions at European fairs and started working at the Indian Museum, after it moved to its present setting across the Calcutta Maidan in 1878. However, his career as an organizer and curator became extraordinarily busy from the early 1880s. Carol Breckenridge speaks of the exhibitions from India as comprising “robes, crowns, jewels, thrones and weapons.” [5] The first exhibition that Mukharji sent to Melbourne in 1881 included “Azamgarh silk, ivory carvings, Benaras brassware, cotton and woollen carpets, perfume from Jaunpur, jewellery from Lucknow, Moradabad inlaid metalware and Agra stoneware.” [6] In comparison, the Venice Biennale, inaugurated in 1885, showed decorative arts such as Morano glass and painted ceramic tiles in 1903 to generate greater revenue.

Mukharji selected objects for the 1883 exhibitions in Amsterdam and in Calcutta. The Calcutta exhibition was surprisingly modern in its arrangements. The visitors could see the representative social types in popular dioramas on view. Mukharji brought in students from the Government College of Art as apprentices. This practice has continued in the working of the Kochi Biennale, which recruits students as volunteers every year. He hung the show as per the different states, a practice followed by the Venice Biennale to date.

Given his successes in Amsterdam and Calcutta in 1883, Mukharji was appointed as an expert for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, for which he travelled across Europe for a year, speaking on Indian arts. Industrial Europe was at the pinnacle of world civilizations, and the marker of civilizational value was undoubtedly industrial progress.

In terms of exhibitions, the following decade was crucial. The Indian National Congress was formed in 1885 and decided to hold its exhibitions from 1901-1906. In this binary, the exhibition in Europe marked the height of empire and commerce, while the nascent Congress symbolized the high point of swadeshi values. The idea of the world in microcosm at the fair -- including what is the best of all cultures and leaving out what is not - was adapted for the home country, to encapsulate the nation in an exhibition.

These events conjoin to create a shifting exhibitionary space, one of an aspiration for commerce on the one hand, and the growing nationalist spirit on the other. The Congress sought to subsume caste and community interests under the umbrella of shared economic and political goals. Can we read Mukharji’s influence in making exhibitions an important part of annual Congress meetings? The content of Congress exhibitions has not been fully analysed as contributing to the making of an early 20th-century material culture within the aspiring nationalist framework. Mukharji flagged collaboration and admiration for the imperial systems, but also colonial resistance. Travelling around Europe for a year, he bemoaned the representation of Indians in museums. He wrote: “the museums in Europe where ethnographical specimens from all parts of the world havebeencollectedbringtothemindofanIndianafeeling of humiliation and sorrow.” [7] Mukharji, with his background in agriculture wanted to push for other means of production, probably hoping to stem the decline in Indian agricultural and industrial production. His interventions, according to Chaudhuri, “undercut grand imperial statements by inserting glimpses of the poorest classes of cultivators and craftspersons …. Repeatedly he speaks of lost arts such as the weaving of Dacca muslin, now known only to two elderly women.” [8] He complained that brass inlay work in Monghyr has been reduced to only six or eight craftspersons, as most sought jobs as labour in the railways. He also recommended a proposal to make paper from an unknown wild grass called dhadka, in the hope of setting up an emergent industry.

There are three aspects of Mukharji’s curatorial template that need to be highlighted. The first is the issue of the body of the artist as an exhibitionary model, and the long shadow that it cast on Indian museums of the 20th and 21st centuries. Homi Bhabha speaks of the ambivalence of colonial discourse and its vulnerability to being problematized by the colonized. [9] Mukharji finds himself front and centre of this ambivalence. The human displays affirmed the superior position of the British and European viewing publics, the ‘ones who look’, and the moat of the space between the thronging gaping crowds and the artisanal bodies that represented an unequal civilizational encounter. Housed in the Crystal Palace, the Great Exhibition of 1866 in itself created a kind of mythic space of extraordinary beauty, in which the exhibits received fabular reception. It should be recalled that this exhibition was laid out like an Indian palace, with paintings of Indian princes in a grand setting. In the forecourt, Indian artisans lived and displayed their crafts for six months. Saloni Mathur points out that many of them were jailbirds from Agra Jail, who had been trained to weave or fry jalebis. Live models from India were used at the two principal sites of the Artware and Economic Courts. In the former, weavers and carpenters were seen doing live demonstrations, while in the latter, ethnographic models of Indian village life were on view. The Indian exhibits were drawn from the manipulation of three iconic representations of Indian tradition -- the village, the bazaar and the palace.

Here, Mukharji’s place was odd. He was a part of the structure and system of imperial display. Nevertheless, he was probably the first Indian traveller to the fair to contest these very frameworks and their messaging of power. He rejected the totalizing British approach to Indian tradition, which compared pre-modern India with feudal Europe. Mukharji’s reactions to the actual display were of dismay and outright cynicism. Given that he was in a position of privilege as principal interpreter and selector of the objects on view, the display at the 1886 exhibition aroused a deeply ambivalent response. He critiqued the British notion of civility by defending the display of Naga warriors, writing that the British are as militant and fierce as the Nagas.

Responding to the racialized gaze in the midst of the 1886 Colonial Exhibition, he wrote: “A dense crowd always stood there, looking at our men as they wove the gold brocade, sang the patterns of the carpet and printed the calico with hand …. We were very interesting beings no doubt, so were the Zulus before us, and the Sioux chief at the present time. Human nature everywhere thirsts for novelty, and measures out its favours in proportion to the rarity and oddity of a thing.” [10] Further, he was sensitive not only to the mechanics of display but also to the fact that the British import of Indian goods weakened India’s own potential to industrialize. There were also discomforts with classification -- the products, even as they were praised for their beauty, were described in the British press as born of indolence and decadence. In the process, Mukharji sought greater parity -- “We look upon our European brethren to teach us how to develop the resources of our country, and to share with us the profits arising from it. Neither should we think of them as intruders, nor should they think of us as mere hackers of wood and drawers of water.” [11]

Even as accounts of the displays trickled into India, reactions were often swift and furious. Like Tagore, among the first to respond was Jawaharlal Nehru. He wrote on the 1908 Franco British exhibition in London: “There is by the way, going to be a Typical Indian Village in it. I shudder to think of what it will be like. A congregation of half-naked people I should imagine.” [12] Nehru’s elegant shudder was followed by much sharper critique by Gandhi, fuelled by the rising spirit of nationalism and his own address to the body of the artisan.

The 1924 British Empire exhibition at Wembley was the last major such grand event. Created at the height of empire, it had replicas modelled after the Jama Masjid and the Taj Mahal which bore Mughal domes. There was a sharp contrast between the scientific and industrial content of the Western pavilions, and the sites of primitive communities on display at the Eastern pavilions. This drew widespread criticism of the Indian and African bodies on display, with Indian leaders refusing to allow the live participation of artists after that.

How enduring has this exhibitionary model been? One may argue that all displays of arts and crafts in India -- the Crafts Museum being an example -- put the artisan on display. In 1886, the Indian exhibits were about “artisans weaving tapestries”. How different is this from the display at the newly founded Nita Mukesh Ambani Centre in Mumbai? As you walk down the main concourse, weavers are standing at their looms, weaving Banarasi sarees, Kanjivarams and other objects of consumption. Titled Swades, in the manner of the freedom movement, they work even as the gaze must rest on contemporary art objects, family shrines of devotion, chrome, marble and glass.

If the artisanal body on display was a subject of unease, there were other aspects such as the history of science and material display that Mukharji was quick to seize upon. In fact, he was a very aware traveller in the age of the Holocene. In his personal collections, now housed at a museum in Victoria, there are over 750 samples of raw materials. Mukharji represented a dyad. Between 1901 and 1906, the Congress held exhibitions of agricultural raw products and industrial goods. From being visitors to the event, Indians were now producers and organizers. Mukharji’s role was important, because he recognized that the exhibition was an instrument to assert the meaning of nation, colonial power and modernity. The taxonomy of objects on display amounted to an affirmationofcuratorialpower.


[1]SupriyaChaudhuri,“ExhibitingIndia:ColonialSubjects,Imperial Objects, and the Lives of Commodities,” in Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World, edited by Supriya Chaudhuri, Josephine McDonagh, Brian H. Murray and Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan (London and New York: Routledge, 2017), 61.

[2] “Mahasweta Devi: Writer, Activist, Visionary,” edied by Radha Chakravarty (London and New York: Routledge, 2023), 198.

[3] Soumitra Das, “Retro Look: Unseen Shots of 1883,” The Telegraph, June 20, 2024.

[4] Chaudhuri, “Exhibiting India,” 56.

[5] Carol A. Breckenridge, “The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at World Fairs,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31, no. 2 (1989): 204.

[6] Cherie McKeich, “Colonial Objects: T.N. Mukharji and Melbourne’s Indian Collections,” in Landscape, Place and Culture: Linkages between Australia and India, edited by Deb Narayan Bandyopadhyay, Paul Brown and Christopher Conti (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011), 108.

[7] T.N Mukharji, A Visit to Europe (Calcutta: W. Newman & Co., 1889), 324.

[8] Chaudhuri, “Exhibiting India,” 64.

[9] Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October, 28, Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (1984): 125-133.

[10] Mukharji, “Visit,” 99.

[11] McKeich, “Colonial Objects,” 112.

[12] Chaudhuri, “Exhibiting India,” 59.

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