At first glance, there appears to be a discordant disconnect between an Ashoka inscription, a mountain inscription of the First Chinese Emperor Qin Shihuangdi and one from the times of Roman Emperor Domitian.
Yet, placed alongside, the inscriptions, from different historical epochs, tell varied, yet shared stories, says internationally renowned art historian Neil MacGregor, a former Director of the British Museum.
“These stories belong to all of us. We decode our past through objects as much as texts and it is these objects which prise open our world and our history,” said Mr. MacGregor, emphasising that it was “vital today for museums to share their collections to allow people to experience different stories about one world”.
Mr. MacGregor, author of Germany: Memories of a Nation and A History of the World in 100 Objects , was speaking at the Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts on Wednesday. He is collaborating with the Mumbai-based Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) for an exhibition titled ‘India and the World — a History in Nine Stories’.
The ethics of power
“The comparative inscriptions tell us about the exercise of power and how you run the Empire after bloodshed and the conquest,” he said. For the Greeks, it is the head of Alexander representing the great Conqueror’s “will”.
In the case of Ashoka, it is radically different.
“The Ashoka inscription is about how the citizen must ideally behave and is written in different languages indicating the Emperor’s efforts to reach out to different peoples. This emphasis on quality directly leads to Ambedkar’s ideals enshrined in the modern Indian Constitution,” said Mr. MacGregor.
In the case of the Chinese Emperor, the grandiose inscription is in a single language and signifies the moment where the whole of China adopts one script — something which has remained to this day.
“It is an astonishing demonstration of how Chinese politics work. In stark contrast, Domitian’s inscription from Roman-occupied Egypt about the Emperor’s ‘achievement’ in building a mere bridge, signifies a completely European way of thinking and is a very material notion,” said Mr. MacGregor.
Another interesting exhibit is that of a woodcut of a rhino. One might think that medieval German painter Albrecht Durer, ensconced in 16th century Nuremberg, could not possibly have anything to do with India.
Yet, Durer’s woodcut of the Indian rhinoceros — sent by Sultan Muzaffar II of Gujarat to King Manuel I of Portugal, reaching Lisbon in 1515 — remained a fixture in German textbooks well up to the 1920s. “No such animal had been seen in Europe since the fall of the Roman empire. Durer’s drawing of the rhinoceros was brilliantly exotic and fierce, and he, who had never seen it, imagined it from a description,” Mr. MacGregor said.
The historian said that, very often, artefacts were a demonstration of cultures trying to make sense of each other. “Whether the legendary sculpture of the Greek Discus Thrower and its subsequent (and funny) appropriation by Mao’s Communists or the Indian jewels worn by a rich Moroccan lady in ancient times, it only proves that we have been living in a globally connected world since times immemorial,” said Mr. MacGregor.
Recounting a number of fascinating anecdotes, he noted that part of the ransom paid by the Romans to appease rampaging barbarians in A.D. 410 was, in fact, paid in the form of Indian pepper.
Another significant artefact on display is the Indus Valley Civilisation seal. Urging youngsters to nurture an archaeological spirit, Mr. MacGregor observed how the Mohenjo-daro excavations in the 1920s helped ascertain the greatness of the Indus Valley civilisation as one comparable to that of Mesopotamia.