An exhibition brings together iconic works of art to tell India’s story in relation to the world

‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’ has been brought together from collections across India and the British Museum

December 02, 2017 04:11 pm | Updated 04:11 pm IST

‘Jahangir receiving an officer’ by Rembrandt

‘Jahangir receiving an officer’ by Rembrandt

Fashioned out of white quartz, two little hand axes sit together at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS). They look similar — jagged, oblong, unremarkable. But these tools, dating back 1.7 million years — one from Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania) and the other from Attirampakkam (Tamil Nadu) — are here for a reason: they tell the story of shared ancestry across continents.

And this is the starting point of ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’, an exhibition that tracks the country’s interactions with the rest of the world over a million years through over 200 iconic objects — tools, seals, sculptures, paintings, pottery, textiles. The objects have been brought together from collections across India and the British Museum to commemorate 70 years of Independence.

Pioneering act

Inspired by the incredible success of Neil MacGregor’s (former director of the British Museum) radio show and book A History of the World in 100 Objects, CSMVS director-general Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who had earlier brought in an Egyptian mummy from the British Museum, decided it was time to go big. “Nothing of this scale has been done before,” said Hartwig Fischer, the newly appointed director of the British Museum, earlier this year. “The opportunity to highlight India’s contribution to the world and the wisdom of its past is something we want the people of India at large to see.”

The ongoing exhibition seeks answers to several questions about India’s links to the world: “What is the earliest evidence of human history in India and how does that compare with other parts of the world? What was happening in India when the pyramids were being built in Egypt?... How have different civilisations pictured the divine? How did rulers promote themselves through court, art and propaganda? What have been the routes of civilisational exchange over land and sea that make India a part of the world? And have those exchanges always been peaceful?”

One of the most striking objects here is one of the smallest, a little bull crafted out of banded agate and gold. It looks like the minimalist work of a contemporary artist, only, it dates back to 1800 BC. Discovered in Haryana (similar ones have been found in Anatolia and Iran), the agate was likely mined in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

Humped bull with gold horns

Humped bull with gold horns

In the section titled ‘Picturing the Divine’, Chola bronzes, a rare Buddha from Nagapattinam, and a Bahubali from Karnataka find place. While conversation has been largely centred around the Cholas, the curators have ensured that they touched upon the role of Jainism and Buddhism in those poly-cultural times.

The period between 200 and 1500 CE is the subject of the section on ‘Indian Ocean Traders’. There are beads and fragments of cloth from Gujarat discovered in Fustat in Egypt, where they reached through trade around the 11th century. But besides merchandise, we get a sense of the exchange of philosophies and ideologies. A rare statue of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, discovered in Maharashtra, reflects this.

Dynamics of resistance

The exhibition then looks at court cultures, epitomised by the Mughal period. In one exhibit, a painting (1620 AD) portrays Jahangir looking at a picture of Virgin Mary. The painting sits besides a line drawing by Rembrandt of the emperor receiving an officer. Rembrandt, we learn, had a special love for miniature paintings. This was also when the Chinese and Ottoman empires were at their zenith, and the points of contact are seen through Chinese scrolls, armour, and the blue-white chinaware used at Mughal tables.

In the ‘Quest for Freedom’ section, we see the dynamics of colonialism and resistance. From this era, the exhibition picks the charkha, one of the most enduring symbols of the independence movement. The final section showcases contemporary art. We have a large sculpture called ‘Unicode’ (2011) by L.N. Tallur: a block of cement embedded with coins is encircled by flames characteristic of a classic Nataraja. The dance of destruction is about urban chaos.

Bringing the exhibition together was not easy: it involved transporting several objects from overseas; packing them safely; making sure the museum galleries had the right light and humidity. As co-curator and art historian Naman P. Ahuja puts it: “Why should we not show people things from overseas? Beyond our understanding of Indian history, what of other civilisations? Should the body politic of our country not have access to Rembrandts, Dürer and Picasso just the way our Chola bronzes and Gupta sculptures travel to the West?”

“Our aam aadmi is sensitive, intelligent, and curious and we must cater to them. It shows us not only our history but other histories of the world that were taking place simultaneously.”

The author is cultural activist, philanthropist, businessman, and founder of Prakriti Foundation.

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