When Rembrandt drew Jahangir

Is India a part of the world or is the world a part of India? A unique exhibition which began on November 10 explores the story

 The British Museum  
The British Museum

Charu Soni & Ashlin Mathew

Prepare to be awed by our ancestors. By the undivided India from Baluchistan in the North-West to Tamil Nadu in the South. A subcontinet whose products and artefacts were covetted around the world from medieval Africa and Europe to the earstwhile, Roman empire. Be prepared also, to imagine ancient travellers from other lands that came bearing gifts, leaving behind, mementos of their visits on our soil.

In this exhibition conceived in 2014 by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director of the Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralaya (CSMVS) Mumbai and Neil McGregor former director of British Museum, London, Indian viewers will get to see a story of India and world and view some incredible finds. From an exquisitely carved bull with gold horns, made of agate stone (quarried most likely in Gujarat or Maharasthra) from about 1800 BC found in Pur village of Haryana to Rembrandt’s mid-17th century meticulous drawings of Emperor Jahangir and the rhinoseros. Copies, the great Boroque portrait painter made from Mughal miniatures that he most likely acquired from a Dutch merchant.

The concept of the exhibition hinges on two ways of seeing. The first is to present our heritage in the context of the world. For instance, Indian oceanic trade which reached out to places far and wide and interacted with traders and travellers that reached our shores has thrown up a Roman figurine of Greek god of the sea, Poseidon (dated 1st centrury BC/AD), in Brahmapuri in Maharashtra and India’s block printed textiles (AD 1250-1350) produced in Gujarat were found in an excavation of a medieval grave in Fustat, Egypt.

The second is to exhibit the stories in a interactive way. Just before McGregor stepped down as director of British Museum, he came up with idea of viewing the British Museum’s collections as “museum of the world for the world” told through 100 objects. In the case of CSMVS exhibition – it is going to be told through 200 different artifacts. What is noteworthy here, is that the Indian exhibition is not just a re-jig of artefacts collection from Indian museums (90 different objects have been sourced from various Indian Museums) but will also include some 120 odd exhibits especially loaned from the British Museum, some of which have never travelled beyond its walls. This is second such exhibition after Cyrus Cylinder and Ancient Persia in which CSMVS has collaborated with the British Museum. Only this time, it is on a far larger scale.

The idea of collaborative exhibitions is not a new one. However, what makes this exhibition exceptional is the curatorial concept, where the host country, is not just focusing on itself in its own world (in isolation), but is contextualised as one of the great civilisations in conversation with other civilizations. “This sort of exhibition, is happening for the first time outside European borders. And we hope that it will provide a model for museums in the future, to share their collections with people across the world. Each section of the exhibition has a story and Indian objects are in the centre surrounded by the objects from the world – the objects are in conversation. This is the whole intention of the exhibition.”

The exhibition titled “India and the World: A History in Nine Stories”, is supported by the Indian Ministry of Culture and the British Museum in London, the Getty Foundation and the Tata Trusts. It will be showcased at the CSMVS Mumbai between November 10 to February 18, 2018 and the National Museum in Delhi from March to June 2018 planned to coincide with the celebrations of 70 years of Indian Independence. This project also includes a travelling exhibition that will aim to take the nine stories to villages and towns of India, a first of its kind initiative.

Following are some excerpts from an interview with the director of CSMVS, Sabyasachi Mukherjee:

What can we expect from the exhibition?

It is about understanding India’s glorious past, in its relationships with the outside world. This whole exhibition is talking about our history – art and culture – in the world context. Each section has a story and Indian objects are in the centre surrounded by the objects from the world – the objects are in conversation. This is the whole intention of the exhibition. The catalyst for each conversation is a specific moment in history, repositioning the Indian object in the global context and exploring connections within India and the rest of the world.

How does this exhibition change the existing Indian history narrative?

When I conceived this project with Neil McGregor, the whole idea was to highlight India’s past, art and culture in a wider global context. There things we didn’t highlight for a long time – the concept of town-planning, of urbanisation and administration, all started around 3500 BC. The concept of globalisation is not of 1990 or 2000, the concept of globalisation started during the Indus valley civilisations – Harappan and Mohenjedaro. The people of Harappan civilisation interacted with Babylonians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians. They were a big nation and this is something we are going to present.

It gives an opportunity to people from diverse countries and cultures to become a part of the world narrative and motivate them to reclaim and re-position their own unique regional and national identity in the changing cultural narrative of the world. The world belongs to us. It doesn’t belong to the five superpowers; we have an equal right to be part of the narrative.

Is the exhibition inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects?

Yes, it is true that the theme of the exhibition was partly influenced by Neil’s radio show but it started with our desire to highlight India’s history, art and culture through iconic art objects from Indian collections that would represent important moments in the country’s history set in a global context.

How long did you take to put it together?

The entire exhibition production process took almost three years and five months to give it its present shape. The CSMVS exhibition team consists of consultants, experts, conservators, curators, educators, and art handlers – approximately 40 experts. The British Museum team was primarily involved with their own exhibits and the continuing research on the World Context.

Apart from Alfred Durrer and Rembrandt are there any other artists whose work will be shown?

Two folios from the Baburnama, painting by renowned Pahari artist Nainsukh (1750 CE), “The Wedding Procession of Prince Aniruddha Chand” by Purkhu of Kangra (1800 CE), “The Grand Vizier” from Turkey (1620 CE), “Two Girls” by Amrita Sher Gil, Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and “John Wombwell with the Artist” by Johann Zoffany are some the artists that viewers will be able to view.

Tell us a little about the textile section of the exhibition?

We have a section ‘Indian Ocean trade’ and in there we have provided ample evidences to show that India traded textiles with Egypt, India exported textiles to South-East Asia. Textiles made in Gujarat, were sent to Africa, Europe and parts of Asia. We have evidences till the 17th and 18th centuries and it continued later on too. It will look back at the history of Bombay – the cotton boom,when many made a fortune with the cloth. Our idea is to show the negative and positive sides of colonial history. In the section, Quest for Freedom, we are talking about the brutality of British colonialism. They also excavated many archaeological sites; they even started to study our ancient language, on the other hand, we have colonial torture. All this is a part of the whole exhibition.

What is the travelling exhibition all about?

The Citi-CSMVS Museum on Wheels will carry this exhibition in the digital format along with a few replicas of the key objects to the interiors of Maharashtra. We see the exhibition as a unique and important educational endeavour providing our Indian audience, students and children, with new ways of viewing their own culture as a result of seeing it in relation to other societies and geographies. All interpretation and communication will be in three major languages viz. English, Hindi and Marathi.

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