An exhibition of artefacts that suggests collaboration is the way forward

A visitor at the exhibition captures an image of a bronze head of Roman Emperor Hadrian
A ceramic cooking pot leaves the Indian subcontinent as part of the travelling paraphernalia of traders headed for the ancient port of Siraf on the Persian Gulf. Its owner is possibly one who, unlike his fellow travellers, didn’t just wait for the monsoon winds to help him sail back home but chose to settle in coastal Iran. Now, 11 to 14 centuries later, the pot has temporarily shown up at its “native” place.

An exhibit brought from the British Museum, London, the cooking pot is one of nearly 200 artefacts on display at an ongoing two-month-long transcontinental exhibition titled India and the World: A History in Nine Stories at the National Museum in New Delhi.

A walk through the galleries on the first floor of the museum is akin to stepping into a theatre. The exhibition, together with its tactile exhibits and aids such as audio-visual clips, provide a multi-sensory experience. And the mute objects tell their own story — be it the oldest known hand-axe in the world (1.7-1.07 million years) from Attirampakkam, Tamil Nadu, a replica of the Dancing Girl of Mohenjodaro (2500 BC), a figurine of Poseidon unearthed from Maharashtra or a marble head of Alexander.

A first-of-its-kind event in India, the Delhi leg of the exhibition follows the inaugural one in Mumbai. London’s British Museum, New Delhi’s National Museum and Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya collaborated for the event that also includes resources from about 20 private collections. The exhibition (on till June 30) has objects representing the theme in nine galleries — Shared Beginnings (1,700,000 years ago to 2000 BC), First Cities (3000–1000 BC), Empire (600 BC–AD 200), State and Faith (AD 100–750), Picturing the Divine (AD 200–1500), Indian Ocean Traders (AD 200-1650), Court Cultures (AD 1500–1800), Quest for Freedom (1800–present) and Time Unbound.

National Museum Director-General B R Mani says 10-15 events are organised annually at the museum. “But in the last few years, none have exceeded 200 artefacts, that too celebrated ones from India and the British Museum. It’s the first time that the British Museum has sent such a large number of objects (124). And they are very hopeful that in future we will have even better coordinated efforts for such exhibitions in India or the UK.”

The exhibition is supported by curatorial walks, lectures and educational activities especially for the young, such as stone tool-, Harappan seal- and bead-making, currency design, scroll painting, clay moulding, blindfold photography and sculpture-making.

Even as the exhibition has drawn appreciation, questions have been raised over the omission of some objects that were part of the installations in Mumbai. These include the Townley Discobolus, the Discobolus in Zhongshan Suit by Jianguo Sui of China, Unicode by L N Tallur and two Japanese scroll illustrations from Teikan Zusetsu (Illustrated Mirror of Emperors). Referring to Mani’s explanation of logistical problems and the objects being “too bulky”, art critic Meera Menezes questioned the decision, in The Wire, as a possible “form of official censorship”. The curators of the exhibition were not available for comment.

However, the omissions haven’t dimmed audience responses. Venu Vasudevan, Mani’s predecessor, described the collection as a rare event. “For India, it’s very significant because we are seeing some of the most beautiful objects from the British Museum. Also, the strength of collaboration in terms of how you place seemingly unconnected images together to take a narrative form is a learning experience.”

The event should inspire Indian museums to collaborate, he feels. “They don’t talk to each other. And here museums are talking to each other across continents,” he says.

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