Where is Nandi’s home?

Walking along a corridor in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum lined by tiles from the city walls of ancient Babylon, I recently found myself in the company of visitors from all over the world. Street smart people threaded through crowds and reached the Ishtar Gate, the museum’s crown jewel. As one less skilled in this enterprise, I found my movement temporarily obstructed by a humped bull encased in glass. As my gaze came to rest upon its form, I realised that the bull was no ordinary bovine: it was a caparisoned wooden sculpture of Nandi from south India. I asked myself, ‘Is this Nandi’s home? Doesn’t Nandi largely divide his time between Kailash’s slopes and the pillared halls of Shiva’s palatial residences in the country? And doesn’t Nandi mostly venture out on festival days when he conveys Shiva in grand processions?’

The place of cultural property

In Berlin, Nandi is hardly out of place. Across the Berlin State Museums, there are dozens of temporary displays featuring artefacts set in astonishing configurations. The immediate purpose of these displays is to alert visitors to the Humboldt Forum’s opening later this year. This new museum devoted to world cultures will be housed in a reconstructed palace in the city centre. Equally, these displays are nudging visitors to rethink the place of cultural property and inspiring them to reconceptualise their own sense of self and national identity as new immigrants settle into life in Germany, the European Union’s boundaries change, and the Asian century gets underway.

Berlin’s curators are hardly alone in stimulating these negotiations. A high-level commission recently recommended to French President Emmanuel Macron that all artefacts separated without consensus from sub-Saharan Africa and sent to France be returned if countries of origin ask for them. Experts in Paris are now struggling to identify the provenance of thousands of objects, even as a montage of voices in Africa have begun to assert their claims as rightful owners. New disputes on the role of art museums in shaping memory are unfolding across the continent, where many institutions already bear the scars of earlier struggles. Following the signing of the Franco-German Treaty of Cooperation and Integration in January, central Europeans are inquiring whether Mr. Macron’s gesture will reverse France’s waning influence in sub-Saharan Africa and trying to gauge directions their own careers will take as the world order shifts.

Except for sporadic calls for the Kohinoor’s return, in India, national and State art museums are undisturbed by these developments. Geographical distance is hardly a plausible reason for their stasis. Perhaps the real reason is that the curatorial tactics of our government-run museums are more or less ossified, even if physical infrastructure, visitor amenities, and staffing levels have improved since the unflattering reports of vigilant journalists and the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Emblematic of the stasis is a presentation of culture as internally consistent, ethnically bound, and contained within a territorial frame. At the Indian Museum in Kolkata, a constricted vision of colonial administrators who classified objects to suit their needs has mostly been retained. In the National Museum in New Delhi, no clear approach is apparent. For instance, on the second floor, objects are somewhat arbitrarily dispersed in galleries bearing the following names: ‘Costumes and Textiles’, ‘Pre-Columbian and Western Art’, ‘Copper Plates’, ‘Tribal Lifestyle’, ‘Musical Instruments’, ‘Wood Carving’, and ‘Arms and Armour’. At Sarnath, the Archaeological Survey of India’s flagship museum, staffers have installed baggage scanners and air-conditioners but missed the spirit of exhibition guidelines collaboratively developed in 2013 by some of the agency’s far-sighted officers and international experts. At State museums too, the status of objects either as artworks or ethnographic objects, sacred or profane, remains indisputable. Where radical individuals challenged epistemologies and nomenclatures by establishing their own organisations — as Dinkar Kelkar did in Pune — the Maharashtra government, its current custodian, has left certain objects in configurations in which he placed them.

Reorganising galleries

Sheldon Pollock, a scholar of Sanskrit, has observed that culture is “something always in process and not a thing with an essence.” His insight has implications for how our art museums might reorganise their galleries. Instead of casting objects as the nation’s peerless accomplishments, our museums might begin to tell stories of how objects are about resistance and creativity. Like bullocks and vahanas, objects have wandered in different directions. Well before the dawn of electronic commerce and communication, they have goaded inventions, conveyed messages, and changed lives. In addition to using objects to tell such narratives, our public art museums can begin to become more vibrant spaces if they acknowledge their location in particular landscapes. For example, before installing new shows, curators might gauge public interest in particular objects through focus-group testing, revise groupings based on feedback received from stakeholders, and develop appropriate interpretative materials.

Many of India’s museums that are run by non-profit institutions can also serve as models for museum practice and stratagem for government-run establishments. With its self-conscious reconstructions of vernacular homes and imaginative placement of artefacts and poems within them, Dakshinachitra in Chennai is simultaneously inviting visitors to see art as a flow rather than a product. Special exhibitions, dance performances, and lectures at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya are highlighting our subcontinent’s historical ties with other regions and how these associations have promoted the exchange of ideas. Temporary exhibition spaces at this institution are offering schoolchildren and seasoned connoisseurs with opportunities to share their creations and collections with the public. These spaces are catalysing new conversations on ways of seeing. At Mehrangarh Fort, curators are exhibiting cradles, chandeliers, paintings, and palanquins to tell fascinating stories of how Jodhpur’s residents and rulers turned their desert town into a cosmopolitan city by amalgamating beliefs and revelling in hybrid beauty. At Amritsar’s Partition Museum, through the juxtaposition of refugee artefacts, archival materials and oral histories, staff are concurrently preserving the memories of those who lived through the tumultuous days that followed Independence and nurturing the formation of fresh perspectives on the period.

When our public art museums begin to re-engage our pasts, bring together diverse cultures, eras, and perspectives to offer new insights on current issues, then we might also be able to find a new home for Nandi in a new India.

Nachiket Chanchani is Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 10:42:12 AM |

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