Nagas, tribes focus of Cambridge exhibit on India’s marginalised
Hundreds of objects acquired from colonial India – some never before seen – have been put on display at an exhibition at the University of Cambridge focusing on India’s indigenous people, casting a new light on the country beyond Bollywood and curry.
The exhibition, described as a groundbreaking event at the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, features objects brought to Britain by the anthropologist and Indian Civil Service officer, John Henry Hutton, who was deputy commissioner of Assam (then including the Naga Hills) in the early 20th century.
New artefacts by Adivasi and other tribal artistes too are part of the exhibition tited “Another India”. Among the objects on display are a Naga head-hunter’s skull, pieces of the Taj Mahal and a snake-charmer’s flute.
Mark Elliott, the exhibition curator, said: “This is an exhibition about the India – or the many Indias – that most people in the UK don’t know. It’s about 100 million people of indigenous or Adivasi backgrounds who are marginalised by majority populations and the state.
“We didn’t want to do a show about Bollywood, saris and curry, but instead highlight a massive body of marginalised people – numbering nearly twice the population of the UK – who to a great extent aren’t seen as having culture, heritage and history of their own.”
Among the historic objects is a coin necklace from the “Criminal Tribes” settlement in Maharashtra which was collected by Maguerite Milward in 1936. Milward went on an expedition to make portrait sculptures of indigenous and Adivasi men and women.
The necklaces show how Adivasis, whose lives were transformed by colonialism, reappropriated and repurposed coins issued by the British Raj as jewellery, signs of wealth and status.
The objects also include sculptures, the largest of which is 13 feet (3.9 metre) high and the heaviest of which is almost a tonne, that were shipped from the subcontinent and will sit alongside stunning photographic portraits of Indigenous Indians – from the late 19th century to the 21st.
The most recent works include photos of Naga men in their 80s and 90s proudly displaying their tattooed faces and bodies. “We are trying to make this less of a show about dead white guys by living white guys,” said Elliott.
The head-hunter’s skull comes from Nagaland and was worn on the chest by a Konyak warrior who captured an enemy head. Headhunting was a popular but ambivalent topic of anthropology in the first half of the 20th century.
It was an aspect of Naga culture the British sought to eradicate but found fascinating, and which despite the coming of Christianity, remains a hugely important part of Naga identity today, the exhibition’s organisers said.
Ruby Hembrom, a writer and activist who worked closely with Elliott and MAA to plan the exhibition, said: “Another India is the only India we Adivasis know. Identity is belonging and we belong to this India. We belong to the objects of this India and belong to the feelings they trigger and emotions they evoke.”
He added, “The India that ‘others’ use is the one where we are confronting hatred, racism, sexism, exploitation, brutality, dehumanisation and stereotyping in our everyday lives. No matter how much we’ve talked of or engaged in social and political change, very little has changed for us. This is not the India our ancestors sacrificed for, or hoped for us, and this is not the one we want for our descendants.”
Another India is part of the University of Cambridge's “India Unboxed” programme of events organised as part of the UK-India Year of Culture 2017.