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Other histories of India

Rare artworks from tribal communities go on show in Cambridge

April 08, 2017 04:25 pm | Updated 05:06 pm IST

‘It’s essentially colonial loot; we have a responsibility to understand its origins.’

‘It’s essentially colonial loot; we have a responsibility to understand its origins.’

In 1935, Edgar Stanley Hyde, the administrator of Bastar State (a former princely state, now in Chhattisgarh) was photographed—dressed in typical Raj attire of hat, shorts and boots—attempting to engage with a young Gond woman who stood next to him with her head bowed. “Edgar Hyde showing picture of Aboriginal girls to an Aboriginal girl—but she is too shy to look,” reads the caption on the back of the photograph.

Bhupendra Jaidev Baghel, a sculptor from the Ghassiya Adivasi community in Kondagaon had a different take, and using traditional bell metal casting created a striking statue of the figures standing next to each other: the girl staring defiantly away as though to symbolise ‘Adivasi resistance’.

Baghel’s piece is one of several new works, created by artists from indigenous communities across India, that were commissioned for a special exhibition at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, chosen to mark the ‘U.K.-India year of culture’ with a focus on ‘Another India’, specifically its indigenous communities. Alongside such contemporary pieces, also on display are over a 100 historic pieces ranging from paintings to photographs, metal and wooden artefacts found in the museum’s archives. They were collected from a mix of sources, Britons who worked in colonial India, anthropologists, administrators, planters, soldiers, engineers, as well as Indian and European collectors.

Curator Mark Elliot says he was very conscious of the risk of it ending up as an exhibition by a white man focussing on stereotypical Western notions of “exotic” India. However, Elliot, who conducted his Ph.D research at the Indian Museum in Kolkata and has spent nearly two decades working with museums across India, believes the pieces on display have stories that need to be told, heard and elicited in India as much as Britain. Because the pieces emerged from the museum’s archives, often with scant information about the creators, the exhibition has had to rely much on the voices of those who brought the pieces to Britain. Elliot hopes the exhibition—which will be on show for over a year—will eventually help reveal the stories of the creators and spark discussion and debate on these communities.

‘It’s essentially colonial loot; we have a responsibility to understand its origins.’

‘It’s essentially colonial loot; we have a responsibility to understand its origins.’

Colonial loot

Elliot’s conviction that it’s a story that needs to be told is endorsed by Ruby Hembrom, the director of Kolkata-based adivaani, “a platform for Adivasi expression,” who collaborated with Elliot. In an afterword to the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, Hembrom writes, “These objects amplify the voices of invisible peoples… of invisible pieces….”

The exhibition also takes up another challenging issue: Britain’s relationship with its colonial past (a theme that has recently re-entered the spotlight as Shashi Tharoor toured the U.K. to discuss his book, Inglorious Empire ). The exhibition attempts to show how the objects made their way back to Cambridge through the stories of the people who brought them there and their relationships with the Adivasi communities they encountered or lived with. “It presents a micro-history of colonialism: they are stories of individuals but also contribute towards the bigger picture,” says Elliot.

“We have what is essentially colonial loot and we have a responsibility to understand better their origin. We hope that more people will contribute along the way to the stories. It shouldn’t be an easy exhibition to engage with. Adivasi identity is so horribly complicated and when you throw in the colonial legacy with it, it gets even more so.”

Some of the items on display are pieces made by Britons themselves: such as the defiant bust of ‘Mamie,’ a Bhat woman, who lived in one of the infamous internment camps for so-called “criminal tribes” (uprooted tribal communities designated “habitually criminal” under draconian colonial legislation). The piece was created by Marguerite Milward, an English artist who spent time with tribal communities grew to understand the complexities around their histories, and was critical of the broad-brush way they were seen by other colonials. Alongside creating pieces herself (some 100 sculptures of men and women from over 50 communities) she collected pieces of ornate jewellery (such as a necklace made from coins of the Raj) to combs and other artefacts.

The exhibition is packed with interesting and unusual pieces, including a wooden painted panel of the god Guligan from Pattanur (Kerala), donated to the museum by collectors Eric and Kathleen Miller, who worked with communities in Kerala shortly after independence. There is a cane ‘war helmet’ and a spindle, both collected during a punitive expedition to the Abor Hills in 1911. There’s a striking 19th century wheeled elephant and human figurine from Chhattisgarh, which has one wheel patched up with a British army button. There’s an axe given to a railway engineer by Nagas in Shillong.

The contemporary pieces are the result of a series of workshops organised by Elliot and Hembrom with indigenous communities in villages, where local artists used images of some of the items to identify the ways they wanted to fill the gaps to tell their stories. The pieces—created swiftly by the artists in a matter of months—range from items celebrating traditions and arts (a figure playing the dhodro banam by Santal artist Som Murmu from Bikajol in West Bengal) to those that make strong political statements (‘Ocean of Blood’ a powerful bell metal piece by Gond sculptor Boki Nageshwar Rao that invokes the Manthan myth to symbolise Adivasi communities ground down in the battle between Naxilites and government forces).

“Focusing on minority communities was a way to communicate other versions of India, but we know we have just scratched the surface,” says Elliot. “We’ve had to focus on the voices we have access to: an exhibition is seen as an end point but we are hoping it will just be the beginning—a place that will bring other people in and generate debate.”

ON VIEW: ‘Another India’, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge University, till April 22, 2018

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