History & Culture

The keeper of history

Under a striking sketch of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, you least expect Rembrandt van Rijn’s credit. Yet, after walking through the ongoing exhibition, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, the Dutch artist’s little-known fascination with Mughal miniature paintings, isn’t bewildering. The art work is much in tandem with India’s story, where the exchange of ideas, goods and philosophies was far more globally interlinked than one would comprehend. Rembrandt’s Mughal art is a typical example of inspiration sought in the East, but it’s only one of the over 200 carefully curated objects at the exhibition that document the evolution of India in the last 1.5 million years.

It’s no surprise that to put together an ambitious project, which traces the history of India vis-à-vis the world, required an international collaboration between three museums: Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), the British Museum in London and the National Museum, New Delhi. Previously, the CSMVS and the British Museum have collaborated on a few focused exhibitions like The Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia and Mummy: The Inside Story, in their decade-long partnership. “Besides the exhibitions there has also been lots of skill sharing,” informs Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum. Before the German art historian became the first non-British director of the institution since 1866, he held the position of director-general of the Dresden State Art Collections. During Fischer’s tenure at Dresden, he initiated research and exhibition projects with the CSMVS, sowing the seeds for a partnership that eventually culminated in India and the World.

Cross border collaborations

Fischer informs us that the CSMVS remains the main partner for the British Museum in the city, with a continued focus on skill sharing and training programmes. “Where can we go beyond museums [in Mumbai] is what we’ll find out in the future, we’ll explore that,” says Fischer.

Once limited to their home turfs, museums around the world are increasingly seeking out partnerships and collaborations to take their brand across the globe. The Lourve, for instance, famously set up a museum in Abu Dhabi in November last year. “The Getty is also extremely active and so is the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg,” observes Fischer. “There has also been an explosion of fairs around the world, so there’s a lot of globalising taking place since the last two three decades”.

India and the World, therefore, may seem like an extension of the British Museum’s efforts to establish a global presence, but the art historian insists otherwise. “Museums have copulated for years and decades, doing exhibitions together and granting loans, but doing an exhibition like this together and putting that question, ‘How does the world relate to India and how does India relate to the world?’ through two millions years of human history, that is a new dimension,” he explains.

A hard look

Evolution of a society is inevitable, but Fischer notices that the political change globally has been unusually dramatic, more so since the time the exhibition was conceptualised to the day it finally opened. “The exhibition is very timely but even beyond what we had imagined, because of claims that have grown louder – to say, ‘Put up walls’ or ‘We come first’, and close yourself to the influx of people from abroad,” observes Fischer. “Human development without migration is nothing”. Taking that thought forward, the exhibition strives to provide a historical perspective on the current times by not just documenting an interdependent past but also the modern times of struggle, perseverance and victory over colonialism.

It could be rather tricky to curate a chapter on colonialism when the museums involved are British and Indian. How does one then thread the line between colonial guilt and glorification? “There isn’t any glorification of colonisation in this exhibition,” Fischer clarifies. “But there are the hard aspects of colonial domination, of colonial exploitation because here we are, we are always the result of the good and the bad things our parents did, and I can’t rip the bad things out of my own existence.” India and the World, he says, directly addresses the colonial past rather than pussyfoot around it. “That’s perhaps the more powerful action: to face it, to say it than to sink down in guilt,” he states emphatically.

Apart from colonialism, the exhibition refrains being critical in its telling. Is there any particular reason for that? “If you want to take a critical stance when it comes to Stone Age, what would you say?” questions Fischer. The emphasis for the art historian is on successful exchange across generations and boundaries, than faltering ones. “It focuses on the peaceful cross fertilisation than violent inquisition,” he adds. “That, in a way, is a critical stance too.”

As the title suggests, the history is being told in nine stories, which makes it inevitable to ask from whose perspective the stories are told. “I think the exhibition is actually shifting perspectives, according to which region you look at. I think you could not say it is only one narrative. It’s moments in history,” says Fischer. In a way, museums too are keepers of history and the truth that can be shared and agreed upon. “As Hegel said, ‘The truth is the whole thing’, that, in a very light way, is what the exhibition achieves,” he concludes.

India and the World: A History in Nine Stories will be ongoing at the CSMVS till February 18

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 1:06:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/the-keeper-of-history/article22636190.ece

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