‘History is stories and chronology through time’

A collaborative archaeological show documents how Indian history has been inextricably linked to the rest of the world through the ages

November 09, 2017 09:26 pm | Updated 09:26 pm IST

  Living past : The Townley Discobolus, AD 100–200, © The British Museum; (left) Humped bull with gold horns, Harappan period, About 1800 BC © Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Haryana State

Living past : The Townley Discobolus, AD 100–200, © The British Museum; (left) Humped bull with gold horns, Harappan period, About 1800 BC © Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Haryana State

The exhibition, India and the World – A History in Nine Stories , comes at an opportune moment in time. The show, a collaboration between the British Museum, London; Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai and the National Museum, New Delhi will exhibit 200 rare and exquisite objects to inform its viewers how India has always engaged with people from across the world. While India has preserved its culture, it has also adopted from other cultures, states co-curator Naman Ahuja.

Textile stories

For instance, a roughly 500-year-old Golconda textile from the Deccan, that’s part of the show, and sourced from the National Museum shows a yogi staring at a pineapple. “He has never seen the fruit as it comes from South America and the Portugese got them here for us,” explains Ahuja. In the same work, a Persian king is offered a glass of wine, a trader is depicted with Chinese ceramics and another character with pomegranates, which came to Hyderabad via Central Asia. “This piece tells us the story about the things that came to India,” shares Ahuja. Other art objects in the show depict objects that travelled from India only to become a part of another country’s culture. “When we look at this cloth we know that as we have hung on to new traditions, we have also been assimilating new things, which have become our traditions in time,” says Ahuja. All of which makes India and the World – A History in Nine Stories a celebration of how India has absorbed from the rest of the world as much as it has disseminated its culture.

Change is constant

Drawing parallels with another contemporary incident of braid chopping instances across India, Ahuja reflects on how some village girls want short hair. “We know that India is really changing and there’s a lot of anxiety about it. I want this exhibition to be an opportunity for people to see that we have always been changing,” he states. It’s these ideas that together make for the crux of the curatorial approach of the exhibition, which Ahuja admits is selective and subjective. Primarily, because it’s impossible to narrate India and the world’s entire history with a limited number of objects that are parts of the show. Most importantly, India remains pivotal to each and every story that’s part of the show.

The curators decided to choose significant moments of India’s history and tell us a gripping tale in nine different parts. It starts with ‘Shared Beginnings’, the first section of the exhibition that talks of early man and his cultural evolution. A stone tool from Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu, dating back to 1.7 – 1.07 million years ago is one of the highlights of the section. It marks the end of a wandering way of life and the beginning of settled agriculture.

The story dubbed, ‘First Cities’ travels back to 2,500 BCE when man settled down in urban dwellings. What does it take to make these cities? You need government and somebody to run the city, an administration. An agate bull with real gold horns dating back to 1800 BC, from the Harappan civilisation, is in this section’s spotlight. Efficient governance systems now become extremely crucial, which gives rise to different empires like the Roman, Egyptians and the Ashokan and Mauryan empires.

Other sections focus on the great ‘Empires of the world’ (500 to 2000 BCE), State and Faith (400 to 709 CE), talking about how rulers used religion to endorse kingship and strengthen their grip over land and subject. “The great empires of the world need a model basis to run them and the means for the public to legitimise and believe in their king,” says Ahuja.

Bartering ideas

The most significant part of the exhibition – ‘Indian Ocean Traders’ (200 to 1500 CE) showcases the period when the exchange of goods, ideas and cultures began. That’s when different societies and world cultures interact with each other, exchanging ideas, philosophies, arts and customs. “We initially thought of focussing on the Silk Road, but zeroed down on the Indian Ocean trade as Mumbai (the host of the exhibition) is a port city,” shares Ahuja. This segment looks at the lives and stories of the Indian Ocean traders. It looks at individual objects and how it transformed people’s lives and person-to-person contact.

Crucial to this story is that cross-border trade and commerce is prospering as are the kingdoms. It’s all about different methods of control, which ultimately leads to the 19th and 20th centuries’ struggle for freedom.

What is history?

‘The Quest for Freedom’ draws the exhibition into a more contemporary time frame focusing on the struggles that different countries waged again conquest and colonial oppression. The ninth story, ‘Time Unbound’ questions the notion of history and the premise of the show. “We have to remember that not everyone can be painted by the brush of how we are defining what was the main moment in those eight stories,” says Ahuja. “For instance, while there were several great cities in the world, there were also those who chose not to live in cities. It’s their choice. So, are they or not part of that time?” The works of this last, intriguing section discuss the concept of time, its validity and what is or not is part of that time. Ahuja says it was necessary to add the last gallery, “History is stories through time. It’s about chronology.” says Ahuja.

The section exhibits a huge aboriginal, Australian work from the British Museum called ‘Bush Potato Dreaming’. Ahuja explains, “[The aborigines] believe that there is something called as dream time and the painting deals with that. They believe that you communicate with land and its spirit through dreams.”

India and the World: A History in Nine Stories will open at the CSMVS, Fort on November 11 and will show until February 18, 2018.

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