Making sense of the subcontinent



“India and The World: A History in Nine Stories” brings alive our layered past through fascinating artefacts

Whoever said history is boring could not have been more wrong. This is precisely what the ongoing exhibition, “India and The World: A History in Nine Stories”, at the National Museum, proves. Divided into nine sections – “Shared Beginnings”, “First Cities”, “Empire”, “State and Faith”, “Picturing the Divine”, “Indian Ocean Traders”, “Court Cultures”, “Quest for Freedom” and “Time Unbound” – it takes the viewers on a seamless journey into the past. A time travel showcasing the region’s spectacular past and its links with the outside world since antiquity, providing glimpses of global events along the way. Thus, the oldest hand-axe in the world (1700000-1070000 years) from Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu shares space with one found in Olduvai in Tanzania (800,000-400,000 years old). Likewise, the ‘Dancing Girl’ from Harappa (about 2500 BC) is juxtaposed with the statue of a woman (about 2400 BC) discovered in the early Sumerian city of Mesopotamia.

In an interaction, Prof. Naman P. Ahuja of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who has co-curated the exhibition with Jeremy David Hill of the British Museum, talks about how the grand show came into being, its challenges and how it reflects shared histories.

Making sense of the subcontinent

Edited excerpts:

How did it come into being ?

We live in curious times: on the one hand we are all increasingly international, at the same time this is causing us anxiety, and people are becoming insular and nationalistic, afraid of losing their culture. History shows us, however, that India has always been interconnected with the world – quick to learn from the advances made by other societies and equally capable of impressing others. Addressing this was the common goal of all the investors in the exhibition.

The idea of the exhibition was based on the radio programme by Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s former director, called “A History of the World in a Hundred Objects” and Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai, had already taken the initiative to forge a collaboration to bring that project to India. The same objects, however, could not be brought from the British Museum to India, and neither would be emphases given to certain objects in an exhibition or radio programme in Britain be as relevant to Indian audiences. The need for a shift in the narrative led them to one called: “India and the World”.

What were the challenges of co-curating this show?

From the very initial concept note I was invited to draft, I was keen to highlight that this exhibition provides an opportunity to see how unique different parts of the world are. Whereas it is exciting to discover how interconnected India has always been with other cultures of the world, this exhibition also provides an opportunity to also see objects from those parts of the world with which India has had far less contact. Inasmuch as it shows great glories of Indian culture that have impressed the world, it also affords us a chance to see how much we have absorbed and learnt from other parts of the world.

The unique thing about this exhibition is that it allows people a way to study history and culture through objects: which are proof, or visible evidence of past society. As the old cliché goes: a picture (or an object) says a thousand words. During our curatorial discussions,we decided we would create strategic conversations between an Indian object and one from another part of the world to act as a nodal or symptomatic window for an Indian visitor to not just learn something about another culture, but also learn something about his or her own. The ideas and society that those two objects came from are further explored through other objects in the room, and slowly still other objects, from other cultures are also added to the mix. Selecting these objects meant that my associate Avani Sood and I had to travel to 25 different museums and research hundreds of objects carefully so that we could reliably compare them in the exhibition with what our colleagues at the British Museum were selecting. Many curatorial sessions followed, and it was seen that some objects did not work together intellectually, or the visual pairing was not aesthetic, sometimes the objects made us change the narrative, sometimes the narrative changed the choice of objects.

Making sense of the subcontinent

Tell us about the subtitle “A History in Nine Stories” and the final section “Time Unbound”

Not everyone sees history in the same way. In fact, not everyone even measures history in the same way. Comparisons of objects led me to question the models for measuring history through the ideals of any one society. What we count as civilisational progress need not be someone else’s yardstick. The same theme was not important at the same time across the world. The questions raised in the process of creating this exhibition forced us to be sufficiently self-reflexive and include a last gallery on the relative positions of time and history called “Time Unbound”.

Further, and pertinently, why the exhibition’s subtitle is A History in Nine Stories, since these nine stories may not be the most important nine stories to tell. We were quite aware that someone else may have selected a different nine, or why even nine: the history of the world has thousands of stories to tell. And that was precisely why it was important have a ninth story, our conclusion, to simply admit that we have put forth what we could in this exhibition, future curators and writers would have other stories to tell through the rubric of world history. This is a vast subject with no conclusions, but an eternal and insatiable process of discovery. It was appropriate to end the whole exhibition on a question: rather like Rahu, a picture of whom ends this exhibition: that character of chaos that comes with insatiable hunger, so we may be able to have such projects again and again, and reinvent newer and interesting narratives each time.

Elaborate on the shared histories that are reflected in this exhibition

All cultures are not “in tune” with each other at the same time — that is why an effort was made to respect difference in this exhibition. Thus while shared histories forms one strong narrative, differences also emerge. For example in Gallery 5, “Picturing the divine”, the spread of the image of the Buddha from India to the rest of the world shows interconnections in the spread of the idea; however every part of the world developed the image of the Buddha in their own unique way — where he became the deity of their community, taking on their features.

Or, in the gallery on “Empire” one will see while every culture in the world, including India was keen to develop instruments for kings and the state to hold on to power, the sculpture of Siddhartha's turban from Phanigiri in India also offered an alternative – preaching the sacrifice of all trappings of power, wealth and material inheritance. The gallery on “First Cities” reveals the significance of urbanism, we also have a counterpoint to that narrative, with a section called: “Beyond the City”, which reveals that not everyone wanted to live in the city, or 'in tune' with city-life, even though they knew about it and its technologies. An example of this is the “Rhinoceros” (1500-1050 BC) in bronze.

Which was the most difficult section to curate?

The “Quest For Freedom” was one of the hardest galleries for us to curate. There have been so many developments in the past 200 years and it was understood right from the start that it is not possible to encapsulate them all in a single gallery. However, deciding what would, should or could work as a necessary editorial filter took many meetings and discussions and truly revealed the collaborative nature of the project. Contrasting the currency notes various countries printed in the 1940s with what they used in the 50s was a strategy used to encapsulate the shift in national identities from colonial states to independent ones following the World War II.

The very title, the ‘Quest For Freedom’ presumes that there has been something oppressive or limiting: and thus the gallery could focus on the continuing demands of different societies for equality in race and gender, freedom to practice religion and choose one's place of domicile, and so on. As the text for the chapter / gallery states: ‘The quest for freedom does not end with independence from colonial rule. The struggle for freedom, from a national to a personal level, is an ongoing quest.’

(On till June 30 at National Museum, New Delhi )

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 7, 2020 8:08:15 PM |

Next Story