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Comparing artifacts of ‘India and the World’ brings out unexpected & united purpose

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The book compares the ways in which world cultures found solutions to similar societal needs which were aesthetically varied but united by a common purpose.

An exhibition in Mumbai last year took key artifacts from Indian history and juxtaposed them with artifacts from other world cultures that are either contemporary in time or are similar in function or intent. This allowed us to compare the ways different cultures found solutions to similar societal needs; things that are aesthetically very different from each other turn out to be united by a common purpose.

India and the World: A History in Nine Stories catalogues the major Mumbai exhibition that has just opened at the National Museum in Delhi. The exhibition was conceptualised by the former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, and the director of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, Sabyasachi Mukherji, while the exhibition was curated and the book written jointly by J.D. Hill, research manager at the British Museum, and Naman Ahuja, professor of art history at JNU.

The chapters in the book are arranged thematically while also following a broad chronological sweep. The first section, ‘Shared Beginnings’, showcases Palaeolithic stone tools and ancient pottery from various locations. ‘First Cities: 3000-1000 BC’ reminds us of the social complexity needed to create urban centres in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, and shows us how bricks, toys and clay tablets can be read as evidence of social hierarchy, centralised planning and production and record-keeping.  ‘Empire: 600 BC-AD 200’ brings us portraits of kings and stone edicts from the Achaemenid, Roman, Han, Kushana and Mauryan empires, and shows how art was harnessed to propagate the image and word of the emperor across far-flung lands.

‘State and Faith: AD 100-700’ highlights a tricky aspect of empires. Having amassed vast territories, emperors had to deal with the diversity of their subjects. Would they tolerate multiple faiths or impose a state religion upon all? Since coinage carried official imagery throughout the empire, the chapter uses numismatics to show how ancient empires accommodated diversity or promoted a single faith. The fifth chapter, ‘Picturing the Divine: AD 200-1500’ explores the way cultures gave physical form to the divine. Icons drawn from Indic, pre-Hispanic, and Christian tradition show anthropomorphic divinities, while early Buddhist and Islamic materials reveal how aniconic faiths solved the problem in very different ways.

The sixth section, ‘Indian Ocean Traders, AD 200-1650’ testifies to the intense connections of lands across seas – from Hellenistic sculptures found in India to India-made artifacts found across Asia and Europe. Chapter 7, ‘Court Cultures: AD 1500-1800’ discusses objects made for opulent courts across the world, when advancements in navigation allowed unprecedented flows of objects, people and riches across the world.

The eighth chapter, ‘Quest for Freedom: AD 1800-Present’ takes us into the age of colonial empires and of decolonisation. This was also the age of photography and print and many of the artifacts discussed here are postcards, printed books, and so on that show the resistance to colonialism and the surging hopes of new nations. Particularly poignant here is the collection of currency notes of newly partitioned nations – East and West Germany, and India and Pakistan – which, like the coins in the fourth chapter, are an ideologically loaded images of the state.

Finally, ‘Time Unbound’ lifts itself out of history, to a more abstract and philosophical reflection on the nature of time itself, and the ways in which different cultures have given it visual expression.

The Indian objects included here are drawn from a range of collections within the country, while the ‘world’ objects come from a single institution, the British Museum. This partnership allows juxtapositions of artifacts that are seldom seen together, bringing unexpected pleasures and insights. I knew for instance that Islam shies away from image worship, and early Buddhism avoided images of the Buddha, but I had never thought to see Islamic and Buddhist aniconism side by side. The book shows how one faith rendered an absent presence through symbols while the other embellished words until they turn into images in their own right.

The show’s broad scope is appropriate to our global era that is interested in connections and discontinuities across the world. Yet, projects like this are not essayed often. One predecessor for India and the World would be the Metropolitan Museum’s The Year One, which studied artifacts made across the world around 1 AD. Such exhibitions are the best defence for large repositories like the British Museum that have come under attack in recent years. Collections as expansive as theirs could only have been made in colonial times — how else could one country acquire artifacts and treasures from hundreds of others? Their wealth bears testimony to inequities of the past. Today, these museums defend themselves against calls for repatriation of their artifacts; they claim they make the world’s heritage available to the world. In practice, however, the treasures of such museums belong to the lucky ones who live in or visit the first-world cities where they are located. A collaboration like India and the World makes good on the promise of sharing their collections with the rest of the world.

A commitment to equity seems also to inform the exhibition’s attitude towards the objects that are included within it. We are invited to look carefully at a string of beads, an inscription on a stone, a drawing by a famous artist, or a chalice made of gold,  in a way that suggests no hierarchies between ‘greater’ or ‘lesser’ cultures or ‘major’ or ‘minor’ things. Each object is a window into a world of complex thoughts, needs, and aspirations. There is an important lesson to be learned here, in how to look upon India, and the world, with equal eyes.

Kavita Singh is a professor of art history at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’ by J.D. Hill and Naman Ahuja has been published by Penguin India.

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