Exhibition ‘India and the World’
Dr Arpita Mitra

In view of the completion of 70 years of Indian independence, the National Museum, New Delhi, conceived a project that has finally materialised as a landmark exhibition, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories (inaugurated in May 2018 in New Delhi). It has been organised in collaboration with two main partner institutions, who, among others, have loaned their collection for the exhibition — the British Museum, London, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai. The curators of this exhibition are Prof. Naman P. Ahuja (Jawaharlal Nehru University), Jeremy David Hill (British Museum), Beatriz Cifuentes Feliciano (British Museum), and Avani Sood. This endeavor has been supported by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Getty Foundation and Tata Trusts, with additional support from other institutions like the Newton-Bhabha Fund. The exhibition included several backlit maps, activities for children, workshops and special lectures by historians, art historians, and curators. It adopted an inclusive approach by keeping Braille panels as well.

The organisers claim that this exhibition is the first of its kind — both in terms of the scale as well as the theoretical approach in its making. The novelty in the theoretical approach will be clear once we had a virtual walkthrough of the exhibits. According to the organisers, “the Indian objects…are positioned within a global context and serve to explore connections and comparisons between India and the rest of the world, covering a period of over a million years ago to the preset day.” This exhibition “juxtaposes masterpieces from India with the rest of the world, providing a fascinating view of our shared human history.” It presents objects from a new perspective on Indian history — India in relation with global cultures and institutions, as expressed in the title of a lecture by one of the curators, Prof. Ahuja — ‘From India IN the World to the Making of India AND the World’, that is, India as part of a global art history.

The first section was on pre-historic tools. It showcased an Indian stone hand axe, European flint hand axe, Middle Eastern hand axe, a Southeast Asian stone hand axe, and several ancient tools from Africa and India. Then were on display pots, bowls and beakers from Turkey, Egypt, China and Balochistan. The exhibition moved on to the ‘First Cities’ of the world in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Harappa, along with the development of the earliest scripts. There was also a section on non-urban cultures.

Then, we come across artefacts related to the ‘First Empires’ of the world — the Mauryan, the Satvahana, the Kushan, the Han, the Achaemenid and the Roman Empires — all that developed between 600 BC and AD 200. Talking about empires, motifs of power and exchange assume importance. In the midst of the theme of assertion of power, was showcased a piece of sculpture — ‘Festivities around the relic of the turban’. The provenance of this Amaravati style sculptural piece is a Buddhist temple in the village of Phangiri. As mentioned by the curators: “In an age of empires when ideas of kingship were based on the assertion of power, this sculpture reveals a parallel concept from Indian philosophy of not holding on to power.” This artefact has for its model Prince Siddhartha, who gave up kingship, symbolised by the turban, to follow his quest for Enlightenment. This is aptly followed by a basalt edict of Emperor Ashoka from the ancient port town of Sopara in Palghar near Mumbai. The edict reads: “King Priyadarshi, the Beloved of the Gods, speaks thus: “People perform various ceremonies. Among the occasions on which ceremonies are performed are sickness, marriages of sons or daughters, children’s births, and before embarking on journeys. Women in particular have recourse to many diverse, trivial, and meaningless ceremonies. It is right that ceremonies be performed. But this kind bears little fruit. What does bear great fruit, however, is the ceremony of the Dharma (Dharma-mangala). This involves proper behavior towards servants and employees, respect for teachers, restraint of violence towards living creatures, and generosity towards priests and ascetics. These and like actions are called the ceremonies of Dharma.” After this were displayed rubbing (paper) of a Chinese inscription, a Roman imperial inscription from Egypt, and various other insignia of power.

The next section was on imperial coins and had a wide gamut of the same on display: copper Pallava, gold Chalukya, bronze Tang, gold Arab Byzantine dinar, gold Umayyad dinar and Byzantine silver coins. The section on Religion (AD 200-1500) dealt with representation of the Divine across cultures, ranging from bronze statues of Shiva, Narasimha and Bahubali to Taino God from Jamaica, God of War from Hawaii, Virgin and the Child, Huastec Goddess from Mexico, Bodhisattva Maitreya in the Gandhara style, Alam, calligraphy from Quwwat-ul-Islam Mosque in Mehrauli, an Iranian panel showing a mihrab, and of course, several Buddhist statues and icons from across India, Tibet, China, Korea, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. A special section tried to contrast a stone statue of Ganesha, an Indian icon, from Java, Indonesia and a wooden statue of Christ, a non-Indian icon, from Goa, India, to highlight cultural exchanges as well as differences.

One of the most fascinating was the next section on Indian Ocean traders (AD 200-1650). As the curators note: “Indian Ocean trade increased around two thousand years ago at the time of the Satvahana dynasty in India and the Roman Empire, and saw the movement of both raw materials and manufactured goods. Trade led to the spread of different languages, religions, cultures and people across the region.” On display was, on the one hand, a Roman pepper pot (AD 300 – 400) last used to sprinkle Indian pepper on food at a banquet in Britain, and on the other, a bronze figure of Greek sea God Poseidon (100 BC – AD 90) from the Mediterranean, found in Maharashtra. Of special interest were a fourteenth-century Chinese porcelain dish found in Purana Qila, Delhi; a ceramic cooking pot made in India found in Siraf, Iran; a gold coin with the portrait of Emperor Theodosius found in Ajanta; block-printed cotton textile shreds made in Gujarat and found in Fustat and Qasr Ibrim, Egypt; an Islamic gravestone made of marble in Cambay, found in Aden, Yemen; Chinese porcelain bowls found in Sudan and jars found in Indonesia; and so on. The Sultan of Gujarat had gifted a rhinoceros to the Portuguese that travelled by ship from India to Europe. It was also the first rhino to be seen in Europe since the end of the Roman Empire. The famous German painter Albrecht Dürer created a print of the animal and somebody later made a copy. This copy, which is an engraving on paper was on display. All these only go on to show the extent of our inter-connected histories, interspersed with interesting anecdotes.

The next section was on ‘Court Cultures’. Among other things, this section showcased a picture of Jahangir, drawn by Rembrandt, who was much fascinated by Mughal miniature paintings. The penultimate section was on ‘Quest for Freedom’ that captured the struggle of people across the world for freedom in the last two hundred years, be it abolition of slavery, independence from imperial rule or individual liberties.

The concluding part of this Exhibition on history was a special section, ‘Time Unbound’. So long, we had viewing experiences within the bounds of a linear temporality; now, it was time to reckon with the other notions of time — the Indian notion of cyclical time, the Australian Aboriginal notion of Dreamtime, and the Buddhist kalachakra (wheel of time).

In conclusion, it can be said that we look forward to more such exhibitions. Especially welcome would be exhibitions that could represent the story of India’s contact with the world in pre-modern times. While it is easy to display objects that travelled across the world owing to trade, it would be interesting to see how an exhibition could capture the journey of ideas and texts (perhaps through display of manuscripts etc.) — for instance, the journey of the Panchatantra, which by AD 1600, existed in Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, German, English, Old Slavonic, Czech, or Buddhist manuscripts that reached different parts of Asia thanks to Chinese pilgrims, or the Upanisads, which reached Europe via the Persian translation of the same by the Mughal prince Dara Shukoh.


(Images are by the author)

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