Massive ‘India and the World’ exhibition to open at Mumbai museum this weekend
Exhibit with 210 objects — some dating back 170 million years — from 28 museums across the world will narrate the story of global influences on the Indian subcontinent
If you had to tell your story in 10 objects, which ones would you choose? It’s not easy, is it, even when all you’re mapping is one life.
So it’s no wonder that the massive exhibit opening in Mumbai this week took five years to pull together.
It tells the story of India vis-à-vis the world in 210 objects — and it’s a triumph. The museum world is already celebrating.
“This might be a model for how museums and cultural organisations around the world can work together in the 21st century,” said JD Hill, curator with the British Museum and co-curator of the show, along with Naman Ahuja.
Many of those who have watched the exhibition unfold long-distance will be in Mumbai for the opening — 55 top museum directors and curators from across Europe and the US, including the Louvre in Paris, the Guggenheim in Spain, Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
They will convene at the city’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum from November 16 to 18.
A joint venture between CSMVS, the National Museum in Delhi, the British Museum and the central government, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories will display objects from 28 different museums and collections in India as well as the British Museum, supported by the Tata Trust and the Getty Foundation.
Some date back 170 million years, others are precious artefacts from our times; these are found in different parts of the world, including Syria, Egypt, Greece, Rome and, of course, India.
While there have been projects that have brought different museums from around the world together for an exhibition, bringing objects and staff together has allowed for the creation of something none of them could have done on their own, said Hill. “This is a first not just for India but for the world.”
The idea for such a large-scale exhibition was first discussed five years ago, right after the much-talked-about Cyrus Cylinder exhibition at CSMVS, in 2013.
Also organised in association with the British Museum, that exhibition brought to India for the first time an ancient clay cylinder dating back to about 539 BC, bearing in Babylonian cuneiform an account of the Persian king Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon.
It’s a tiny artefact — just 8 inches long — but it created a sensation as it toured the world in that year, because it is considered the first-ever charter of human rights.
After that triumph, CSMVS director-general Sabyasachi Mukherjee began considering how to bring a long-held dream to life — an exhibition on India’s history with a global context.
“I discussed the idea with Neil [MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and author of the bestselling A History of the World in 100 Objects] and he agreed to help,” Mukherjee says.
This exhibition, in fact, is in a sense inspired by his revolutionary radio show and book, where he used objects in the British Museum collection to explore how civilisation evolved and inter-connected through millennia.
MacGregor and Mukherjee worked on the India concept together and, by 2016, the two men had decided on the nine stories that they would use to tell the history of one of the oldest civilisations in the world, viz-a-viz that of the world itself at that time.
The first, Shared Beginnings, traces man and his cultural evolution 1.7 million years ago. First Cities discusses early civilizations like Harappa and Mohenjodaro, going back to 2500 BCE. Empires (2000 to 500 BCE) is an adventurous account of how the great kings of the world established their kingdoms. State and Faith talks of how and why rulers began endorsing religions from between 709 and 400 BCE. Indian Ocean Traders (200 to 1500 CE) showcases the era when trade flourished. Courtly Cultures depicts the life and times of the Mughal, Chinese and Ottomon empires.
Picturing the Divine (200 to 1500 CE) explores how different cultures interpreted the divine.
Quest for Freedom highlights the struggles as different countries fought free. And the last and perhaps most interesting, Time Unbound, questions the concepts of time, Man’s relationship with it and, in a way, the chronology of the exhibition — through objects such as LN Tullur’s installation, Unicode.
COORDINATION AND CURATION, A BIG TASK
Delhi-based curator Naman Ahuja calls it the ‘mother of all exhibitions’. Coordination alone was a mammoth task, as was the logistics of shipping, insuring and even making room for the objects in the 15,000-sq-ft museum premises.
Some had to be installed with climate-control; others needed special lighting.
The most crucial of all processes, the curating, alone took two years of research and planning, scanning the thousands of objects available across the different museums and collections, and selecting the 210 that would be used to tell this story.
“The exhibition has always been about placing key moments in India’s history in wider perspectives, to reflect what was happening in other parts of the world at broadly the same time. As this is a Museum exhibition, not a book or television series, the central challenge is to choose objects that can speak for themselves about these periods of the past, and not just act as illustrations for a story told through the writing on the labels,” Hill says.
For instance, the 1,000-year-old grey cooking pot found at an ancient port on the coast of Iran. “It’s a cooking pot made in South Asia that was carried by boat to Iran so that Indian merchants and sailors and their families living in Iran could cook their traditional food in a traditional cooking pot from home,” says Hill.
One of the stories the exhibition tells is how India has been at the centre of international trade for thousands of years.
Ahuja picks as an example a Roman necklace made with exquisitely fashioned gold, pearls, sapphires and emeralds. “It was found in a Roman context, but the pearls are from Sri Lanka and India,” he says.
YESTERDAY, TODAY, TOMORROW
An interesting contemporary work is the 2002 Throne of Weapons, created by Mozambique -based Cristóvão Canhavato from machine guns and rifles. It is both a testimony to the violence that has afflicted many parts of the world in the last 50 years, and an object of great hope, as it was made as part of the reconciliation process that took place at the end of the Civil War in Mozambique.
“It is now a well-travelled chair, having been seen in many different parts of the world. But it still provokes discussion and reflection whereever it is seen,” Hill says.
That’s what the exhibition wants to do — intrigue people. “I hope the exhibition will have a great impact. Our cultural relationships are already very strong and long may that continue,” says Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum. “The exhibition will serve to inspire and perhaps provide a template for the wider international museum community.”
WHAT YOU SHOULD NOT MISS
So you’re at the museum, eager to tour history in 210 objects… but where to begin? Here’s a list of the exhibits that you absolutely must not miss:
The Townley Discobolus
An edict of Emperor Ashoka
Head of Roman Emperor Hadrian
Jahangir receiving an officer
TEXT: ANESHA GEORGE