Why India should know its place
There is a need to reclaim the grand narrative of India’s historical achievements in the global context
As is well-known by now, the advent of economic liberalization in India in 1991 was accompanied by a political and cultural reaffirmation of the idea that this change signified not only economic renewal but also India’s emergence on the world stage to take its place at the top table as it were.
This was quickly followed by an upsurge of nationalist fervour, whose foot soldiers insisted that India has always been a “great nation”, that it was time to recognize its historical greatness and that it was time Indian history was rewritten to reflect its ancient glory.
A remarkable exhibition that has just opened at the National Museum in Delhi after a spell in Mumbai fulfils some of that aspiration.
It doesn’t actually re-write history to pander to any sentiment—nationalist or otherwise. Instead, a visitor is likely to come away from it with a sense or perception of Indian history that will defy easy categorizations.
Called India and the World, the exhibition is a telling of Indian history in a way that no schoolbook has ever taught—by putting key moments in this nation’s history (the appearance of the idea of nation itself is a pretty recent occurrence) in the global context. It chooses nine ‘stories’ to illustrate its grand narrative.
These are (and it’s important to get your head around them): shared beginnings (1.7 million years ago to 2000 BC), first cities (3000-1000 BC), empire (600 BC to AD 200), the state and faith (AD 100-700), picturing the divine (200-1500), Indian Ocean traders (200-1650), court cultures (1500-1800), quest for freedom (1800-present) and, lastly, a section called time unbound, which deals with concepts of time.
The unique exhibition is the brainchild of Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India (this change in itself illustrates the surge in nationalism that India has witnessed. The museum was renamed for the great Maratha king after the city of Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1995 at the insistence of the Shiv Sena party). Mukherjee had been intrigued by the landmark ‘History of the world in 100 objects’ series that BBC Radio ran in collaboration with the British Museum in 2010.
In Britain, a small island-state that loves history in a way that I have not seen anywhere else (right down to the family and neighbourhood—which may have something to do with the large number of outstanding historians it continues to produce), the BBC series was a huge success. The 100 objects that specialists described and discussed over 13 minutes every week included four from India (the Indus seal and the Gandhara seated Buddha were filed under Pakistan). They were: an Ashoka pillar (238BC), a gold coin from the era of Kumara Gupta I (415-450 AD), a Shiva and Parvati sculpture (1100-1300) and a Mughal miniature (1610).
Tangentially Indian, there was also German artist Albrecht Durer’s 1515 jaw-droppingly inaccurate and fantastical portrait of an Indian rhinoceros. A rhinoceros had been gifted by Sultan Muzaffar Ali Shah II of Cambay (today’s Gujarat) to the Portuguese, who then shipped to Lisbon. Durer never actually saw the rhinoceros and made a woodcut entirely from oral and written accounts. The result is an armour-plated rhino that could have walked out of a Hollywood fantasy film. It’s part of the current display.
What was the idea of the Indian exhibition? Mukherjee told me, “I wanted us to see and understand India’s history, culture and heritage in the world context. I wanted people from diverse cultures to become partners in the world narrative. It’s a celebration of diversity which we are forgetting with time.”
After Mukherjee discussed the idea with Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum (which periodically holds such exhibitions and has an unrivalled collection of objects from around the world), former British Prime Minister David Cameron mentioned it to Indian PM Narendra Modi in London in 2015. Flagged off by the top bosses, a team of specialists began working on the idea, zeroing in on 224 objects drawn from the National Museum, British Museum, and 28 regional Indian museums and other collections in India—all displayed in 12,000 sq. ft of exhibition space, divided into nine sections.
There is, however, a subtext, which is not entirely surprising: this exhibition is also about reclaiming the story of India’s historical achievements in the global context, helping the viewer form a mental picture of India’s place in the world through the ages. The Harappan civilization, for instance, holds evidence of the earliest examples of writing (along with Mesopotamia and Egypt), although the scripts of Harappan seals are yet to be deciphered.
“The history of writing goes back 5,000 years,” said Mukherjee. “The era of Enlightenment started 5,000 years ago… The world does not belong to five superpowers. Globalization began during the Harappan and Mohenjodaro civilizations. How do we tell that story?”
That’s a question every nationalistically minded modern Indian from Nehru onwards has grappled with. One way is to remind the world of what are commonly acknowledged to be the salient features of Indian civilisations—spiritualism is one. Modi emphasizes yoga.
“The sacred East and the secular West,” is how the British Museum’s J.D. Hill described it to me, although there is, equally, evidence of the secular in the East and the sacred in the West. Less obviously, the Science Museum in London recently held an exhibition on Indian science and technology, including a focus on ancient Indian mathematics.
Another way, as the India and the World exhibition does, is to take the interested Indian to a calmer place, where India sits comfortably with the cities, nations and peoples of the world. Indeed, there is no sense of rancour or rivalry between the rubbing of a Chinese inscription, written on the side of a mountain on the orders of the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi projecting his power, and the edict of Emperor Ashoka, written on a rockface, propagating respect for elders, courtesy to slaves and servants, gentleness toward all living beings and liberality toward all. Once more then, the study of history should take us all to a calmer place.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1