India and the World: Exhibition at Mumbai's CSMVS narrates history through 200 objects

Over three years of planning and execution, 228 artefacts from museums in two countries, and an exhibition divided into eight sections — if you walk into the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralay (CSMVS) right now, you will encounter India and the World, a unique telling of the story of our country in the context of the world. This is denoted by the use of the world 'and' in the name of the exhibition; it is indicator that these curated pieces talk about how India has evolved over the years, in comparison to the cultures of the world. This first-of-its-kind exhibition is largely unmatched in terms of scale, and it is a joint effort by the CSMVS, National Museum, New Delhi, and the British Museum.

The nine sections — Shared Beginnings, First Cities, Empires, State and Faith, Indian Ocean Traders, Courtly Cultures, Quest for Freedom, and Time Unbound — denote different eras in human development. The historical objects displayed in them make the interconnectedness of the world evident; while Rembrandt's sketches of Mughal miniatures rest on one wall, a porcelain dish created in China and used by Muhammad bin Tughlaq lies on another platform.

Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General of the CSMSV and one of the minds behind the conception of this exhibition, spoke about the objectives they had in mind. Apart from the desire to showcase important moments from the history of India, they also wanted to explore and compare the collections possessed by India and the rest of the world. They wished to provide an opportunity for those people who cannot afford to travel abroad to learn about the historical artefacts displayed in museums outside the country.

Humped bull with gold horns, Haryana State Archaeology

Humped bull with gold horns, Haryana State Archaeology

"India and the World is the mother of all exhibitions, in terms of scale and extent," said Mukherjee. Dr Hartwig Fischer of the British Museum said that he takes pride in this exhibition's ability to contribute to cross-cultural discourse and for the beauty of its economy, because narrowing down the choice of objects requires both scholarship as well as curatorial knowledge. "You don't just see the objects created by people from different time periods; you also encounter the people who left their mark on them," said Dr Fischer.

But this is not merely a collection of historical objects; there is a distinct narrative running through the whole exhibition, and it has an underlying political comment to offer. Dr Fischer spoke about how India and the World can serve as a model conceived as a new kind of co-operation between organisations to tell stories that cannot otherwise be told.

He added that as opposed to telling the story of merely victors or dominant groups, it also sheds light on the lives of "simpler" people in societies, as is evident in the section where traded goods are displayed. It directly addresses political issues, such as empires and independence struggles, but is not about party politics, he explained. "It highlights what unites and binds together people, it shows how there was an exchange of mutual inspiration which could not be stopped by obstacles such as conflict. This is what human culture is about — not wars," he said.

Mr Mukherjee spoke about the significance that this exhibition holds for both the CSMVS, as well as the country in general. "It shows us about how we are equal partners in the world narrative. The world belongs to us, not five superpowers," he said. Additionally, India and the World also seeks to question widely held notions about history, such as the dominant interpretation of the 'Dancing Girl' sculpture of the Indus Valley Civilisation. During a guided tour, this writer was offered an alternative explanation for what the subject may have been. If her "practical" dressing sense were to be taken into consideration, it would appear that she was a worker rather than a dancer or a member of royalty.

Naman Ahuja, one of the two curators of this exhibition, talked about what goes into staging an event of this magnitude. In order to pick artefacts and objects, he said that having a clear narrative in one's head. As an art historian, his job was to become familiar with vast amounts of the histories of Indian art and archaeology. He had to be familiar with what is lying in the major museums and storerooms, including those objects which aren't on display. Apart from Indian museums, he also had to gain familiarity about the relevant historical objects which could be found in territories which used to be part of pre-Independence India, such as Burma and Pakistan, or which had close connections with out country, such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

"It's only with the knowledge of this that you can arrive at a correct assessment of Indian history," he says. As a result of building an archive of tens of thousands of photographs of Indian artefacts from museums, archaeological sites, as well as private collectors over the years, Ahuja was aware of what strengths and weaknesses the country has in terms of museology and the preservation of artefacts. He faced several curatorial challenges, such as the sheer unavailability of certain historical objects, such as Mughal paintings and Gandharan art, both of which can be found in abundance in the West.

Pelican altarpiece, Museum of Christian Art, Goa

Pelican altarpiece, Museum of Christian Art, Goa

Cherry-picking some objects and thereby privileging them means that one is consequently silencing many others. "Every object has been lovingly made by somebody and it is representative of that person's community or history. So you feel a certain burden as a curator about not telling that person's history. As a historian, I was very conscious that we live in times when people's histories are being silenced, and we have to be able to tell their stories too, while telling the main story," he explains. Another challenge was finding those pieces which would allow him to tell a nuanced kind of story.

But the joys of putting together India and the World were several, too. It gave him the opportunity to travel to every part of the world and to see some of the most interesting artefacts and photograph them. "To be overjoyed and humbled by the sheer excellence of what you see around you, to have the opportunity to work with such a highly skilled team, to learn from their experiences on how to curate, and the joy of being able to introduce them to something they never knew," he adds.

For Ahuja, the greatest behind-the-scenes stories of this exhibition came from two states of India where he did not expect to find such treasures -- Haryana and Telangana. He was taken by surprise when he realised that Haryana has such an important and rich historical past. Recent excavations from Haryana have been awe-inspiring, and some of the jewels from the Harappan age which were discovered in this state have been exhibited as a part of India and the World, he said. "The Director of Archaeology of the state of Haryana kindly gave me access to their collections. They don't even have a museum to house their collections. In the Godrej cupboards placed in a basement storeroom, they had various things lying around in plastic boxes. I couldn't believe what I was looking at inside these boxes. At that moment, I realised I was looking at something absolutely historical and extraordinary, that gave me a chill," he recounts.

Discobolus

Discobolus

The second grand behind-the-scenes moment was in Telangana. At a site called Phanigiri, which has dozens ancient stupas, he found a piece of carving depicting Siddhartha (Gautam Buddha) giving up his titles and renouncing his status as king. Ahuja said the quality and intricacy of the carving far exceeded the Amaravati-style sculptures he had seen in Guntoor, Vijaywada or even the British Museum. "It was an astonishing new discovery," he added. This carving is an example of how the curators have managed to place the objects in a manner such that they seem to be in conversation with each other. It talks about giving up worldly concerns like empire building and power, and it is juxtaposed on all sides by symbols of kings, such as busts of rulers carved out of stone.

It may be divided into seven sections on the basis of time periods, but India and the World has an eighth section which questions its very premise as well as the way that history is told, because humans don't know how to measure history. In Time Unbound, we find ideas of ancient wisdom and modernity colliding, as well as the representation of those people who live in what we call modern times, but do not wish to subscribe to modern ways of thinking and believing.

When asked what he hopes visitors will gain from this exhibition, Ahuja says, "I think the biggest takeaway is that we must have a certain sense of openness, that we must be able to come to an exhibition with a sense of curiosity, and the awareness that people may have behaved the same way across cultures or across time periods. The spirit of questioning is very important for me too."

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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2017 12:12:16 IST

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