India and the World: A History in Nine Stories

Bahubali, Bronze, AD 800–899, Karnataka, India, © CSMVS, Mumbai.

History is an intangible survivor of the past and its distinct yet interdependent dimensions only make it more interesting. An object excavated from the depths of the land ceases to be just detritus when anecdotes accompany its existence, entering the realm of a designated relic or artefact. An exhibition titled ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’ at the National Museum, New Delhi showcases the pre-historic and historic collections of the British Museum, LondonNational Museum, New Delhi; and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai, supported by the Ministry of Culture and planned as part of the commemoration of 70 years of India’s independence. Over 200 objects from the British Museum, twenty other museums, and private collections from India were showcased for an intellectual and artistic conversation between civilisations and cultures of the past.

The show chronologically exhibits prehistoric weapons, Neolithic and Palaeolithic tools, invaluable jewellery and painted pottery that takes us through the display strategically organised between imperial ages and states; religions and faiths, the decorative arts and more. Such segregation carefully accentuates the relic’s purpose and significance fuelling a greater curiosity. 

A model of a two storey funerary establishment called ‘The Soul House’ from the 12th dynasty (Middle Kingdom, Egyptian civilization) chronicles the concrete social discrepancy, inherent ritual executions and disparate economic statures of the time. While the custom of mummification is a virtue of all Egyptians, the elaborate liturgy becomes the reservation of the highest echelons relegating the ceremony of the laity to miniature mould preparations. The itinerary for the after-life luxury like fish, vegetables, bread, cuts of meat and jars composes the front yard of the premises. Among others, an accompanying artefact is the renowned c.a. 2600 BCE, ‘Royal Standard of Ur’ from the Sumerian city of southern Mesopotamia regally staging its panels of war and peace narratives in limestone, bitumen, shell and lapis lazuli.

Taking on a religious perspective, an interesting and powerful wooden figure of ‘Boinayel, the Rain Giver’ revisit terms such as ‘Taino’ to explore diverse origins, varying beliefs and a spectrum of social organisations transforming the link between cultural diversity and identity in the Caribbean. The sculpture from Jamaica enchants, with its precarious perch, channelled down cheeks, protruding chest, the peculiar arrangement of the limbs and grotesque features. Buddha from Tibet, Jain miniature paintings, and relics from other faiths form a beguiling part of the exhibition. A figurine of Bahubali (c.a. 800-99 CE), son of Rishabhdev, the first Tirthankara from the Jain family of gods, ascertains firm iconography and embodiment of spirituality.

Vijnaptipatra, Painting on paper, about AD 1600–1700, probably Surat, Gujarat, India. Karl and Meherbai Khandalavala Collection
© CSMVS, Mumbai.
Harappan brick, Terracotta, about 2500–1800 BC, Mohenjodaro, Sindh, Pakistan. © CSMVS, Mumbai.

Deciphered Mauryan edicts, Cenotaphs of the kings, Indo-Portuguese teak & silver constructions of elaborate libations, Akbar’s armour, a cast axe-head showing a boar attacking a tiger which is, in turn, is attacking an ibex in bronze from Iran found in Pakistan, intricately painted and carved swords and shields of the Rajput kings from Mewar, Tang dynasty’s scroll paintings showing the everyday life, Mughal miniatures, Islamic manuscripts, Pahari miniatures by Nainsukh and a hoard of other items sing of the imperial, feudal, palatial and barbaric confrontations of the time.

The exposition further commemorates the celebrated Indian artist Amrita Shergill. Her signature style reflects in this c.a. 1939 painting titled ‘Two Girls’ with two young naked women from distinct ethnicities. One is a light-skinned European standing with her arm on the shoulder of the other, a darker-skinned Indian who is seated.  It’s the artist’s characteristic depiction of freedom, equality and identity as a global citizen through angular faces and a sombre palette.  A painting titled ‘Johann Zoffany with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell’ by Johann Zoffany is an 18th-century oil on canvas displaying the incessant attempts by the British to record, report and document the culture, landscape and people of India.

An edict of Emperor Ashoka, Basalt, Mauryan dynasty, about 250 BC, Nallasopara (near Mumbai), Maharashtra, India. © CSMVS, Mumbai.

Politics of the world also make an appearance with the authentic 19th century medals, pages and certificates from a slave register; grim photographs by Felice Beato showing the dead and the dying mutineers from the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi; Gandhian souvenirs; photolithographs of the Constitution of India;  Indian, Pakistani, German, Cuban, Indonesian, Ghanian, Angolan and Korean banknotes; an ode to the introduction of biometrics and a commemoration of an African American- Obama’s victory as the president of the United States.

‘India and the World’ is an immaculate attempt to demonstrate an unforgettable acquaintance of India with its co-resident countries articulating the conflicting yet consistent manner of cultures through specific periods in history.

The exhibition will remain open at the National Museum, New Delhi, till the 30th of June, 2018.


All images used with permission.