Why London Science Museum’s show on India was strangely bloodless

Tux brushing tussar, cards being exchanged like cocaine packets, billionaires mingled at Illuminating India

Updated - November 13, 2017 12:45 pm IST

Published - November 11, 2017 05:17 pm IST

 Bhugola, a spherical metal box engraved with a map of the world, dating from around 1571, on display at the Science Museum

Bhugola, a spherical metal box engraved with a map of the world, dating from around 1571, on display at the Science Museum

You can tell it’s a Big Show. It’s not just the queue of well-dressed people snaking from the entrance of London’s Science Museum to the counters where they are checking the names on the invitation list; nor is it the buzz from the area in front of the stage that’s been set up for the occasion. If you’re standing outside in the brisk October evening, you can watch the Jaguars and Rolls-Royces pull up to disgorge the toffs in their evening regalia — not just desi toffs, but also gora ones.

Inside, on the ramp leading down to the atrium and stage, there is hardly any space to move. As the senses adjust you can see that there are two service areas from where the high-end ingestibles are emanating, one for the food and one for the drinks.

Someone’s clearly pushed the boat far out for the catering and that’s not a surprise — the assorted rich who are gathered here all seem to have had some hand in sponsoring the twinned ‘Illuminating India’ exhibitions: ‘5000 Years of Science and Innovation’ and ‘Photography 1857-2017’. Besides the well-endowed wallets, there is also an impressive smattering of other ‘India Hands’, academics, artists, designers and such like.

From the young and trendy to the old ‘ koi hai ’ dodderers, everyone is getting into the swing of things, eating the preciously constructed nibbles and drinking the bubbly and cocktails, waving furiously to show everyone how many people they know, hunched in conspiratorial huddles, evening tux brushing tussar silk sari , cards being exchanged like cocaine packets.

The good and the great

As peak crowd is reached, the air is rent with the sound of live drumming. From the well, we can see a line of drummers giving it all they’ve got, suspended above us on one of the museum’s connecting bridges. This is followed by speeches and videos by the good and the great — the suave director of the museum, the erudite Indian High Commissioner (who has a distinct whiff of the secular about him), the sincere and cheerful Tory Minister for Science on video, with a vote of thanks from the shady bestselling writer Jeffrey Archer’s lady wife, who is clearly some high bobbin in the museum.

The message that’s drilled into the cocktailers goes thus: India is Great! India was always Great! Britain is also Great! The India-Britain partnership is, well, Great! Indian Science has been, like OMG awesome and amazing since yonks, since like 5,000 years! The Indian government is not only amazing, it’s amazing on science! So is the British government! Not to mention both our Prime Ministers, who are Honourable! And the sponsors! Thank you, you big dawg Oligarchs have just been ummbelleeevable! It’s all superb! And the photo show is also great!’

No, I’m lying. Actually, the measured and heartening speeches by the eloquent dignitaries were received with fulsome applause by the august company. The speeches and ribbon cutting were then followed, quite appropriately for an exhibition on Indian science from ancient times to today, by a group of young women and men bouncing on to the stage like bhangra protons and neutrons. The troupe then belted out traditional Indian songs with scientific and architectural themes, such as ‘ Unchi hai building, lift teri bandh hai, kaise mai aau? ’ and ones alluding to age-old piston mechanics such as ‘ Balam pichakari, jo tuney mujhe maari ’.

As the entertainment ended, we get down to the business of really hitting the food and drink. The nibbles, not being under the control of any veggie-Nazis, include some desi-spiced prawn invention and a very nice lamb pasanda deconstruction; additionally there are modernised chaats and other simulacra-ed street snacks to keep the non-meat eating customers happy. There is no discernible kanjoosi on the prosecco, decent wines — white and red — plus beer and some hard liquor. In the middle of all this, the invitees make forays into the exhibitions on the second floor of the museum.


The ‘5000 Years of Science and Innovation’ show is interesting enough, moving as it does from the Bakshali manuscript that has ‘the earliest example of our numeral zero ever found’, and weights from the Indus Valley civilisation through old coins, astrolabes, maps and manuscripts to the camera used by ISRO’s Mars orbiter.

The lure of old objects works its magic, whether you’re looking at an intricately carved astrolabe from the mid-19th century; the compensation bars used by George Everest’s surveyors to measure the fluctuating lengths of the chains they used while mapping the sub-continent; or the contraption used by J.C. Bose to torture plants. There is great beauty in the old illustrated manuscripts — a page from the Akbarnama, a Jain map of the universe.

A lot of the stuff in the show is no doubt fascinating.

Toeing too many lines

And yet, as a whole, the exhibition is strangely bloodless. Everything is present and correct, but the display puts you in the middle of a defunct mortuary rather than an exciting laboratory.

There are klutzy juxtapositions such as a modern tower in a long photo print coming out from behind an ancient statue; there are nods to Indian jugaad , with tiffins from Mumbai’s dabbawallas and an old bioscope, complete with a gramophone horn on top, but somehow there is no life, no humour and little sense of wonder conveyed by the show. You get a strong feeling that the curators and organisers had to keep many different masters happy, that they tripped up, while trying to toe too many different lines. The ‘Photography 1857-2017’ part of ‘Illuminating India’ does far better and deserves a review, which this column is not. (Disclosure: the curator Rahab Allana is a friend, and one whose work I generally like.)

The journey begins with the arid, post-apocalyptic landscapes and architectural studies made just after the 1857 bloodbath, the visual spoils of the conflict also belonging to the European victors. Moving through portraiture and early coloured photographs, one comes to modern times and the iconic Cartier-Bresson and Bourke White frames from the time of Partition and Gandhi’s assassination. There are classic images from the first decades after Independence, the documentation of the great architecture projects in the times when ‘nothing was done’ according to our current rulers, moving back there are the superb ‘family photos’ taken by Amrita Sher-Gil’s father.

Following this come Raghubir Singh’s street images from the ’70s and ’80s that are echoed and contrasted by Mitch Epstein’s street work from around the same period; Epstein to my mind coming out as the better bhakt of the Robert Frank-Lee Friedlander-William Eggleston trinity.

Moving to the contemporary, there is the wonderful work of Vasantha Yogananthan who finds the Ramayana in the quotidian lives of people living in the small towns of northern India.

With Yogananthan’s dry and poetic faded colour images we come full circle, in a way, to the sparsely populated images of Felice Beato and Samuel Bourne with which the show first welcomes the visitor.

While the science part of the exhibition can’t help but be interesting and informative despite its shortcomings, the photography part is the one that is genuinely illuminating.

The columnist and filmmaker is author of The Last Jet-Engine Laugh and Poriborton: An Election Diary. He edited Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories and was featured in Granta.

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