A culture of convergences

A culture of convergences

By Neil MacGregor | | 30 December, 2017
(L-R) The Townley Discobolus, marble, Roman, A.D. 100–199; Statue of a Woman, gypsum, about 2400 B.C.; Yaksha, stone, Satvahana, 150–50 B.C.
To make sense of India, one must understand its relationship with the outside world: its interactions, its analogies, its shifting identity over time and across space. In this essay, author and former director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor writes about a range of objects, artifacts and artworks as symbols of the cosmopolitan spirit that has shaped and enriched Indian history.
What if I were to ask you to look at an inscription? The letters are carved in basalt—it was meant to last—and it comes from an ancient port town near Mumbai.

Written in Prakrit, the words feel intensely local. They are an edict from the Emperor Ashoka for the people of Sopara. They encourage respect for one’s elders, courtesy towards slaves and servants, and gentleness towards all living beings. To read them, you would have had to stop here, in this particular place, in front of this particular stone. Standing before it, as men and women did more than 2,000 years ago, we can try to recapture what the emperor’s suggestions meant for the way of life of this town in western India.

The object alone fascinates—its age, its careful, hand-carved incisions, its soft grey colour. It is one of India’s earliest surviving public proclamations. But does its meaning shift if we cast our gaze more widely? We might discover similar edicts by Ashoka in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh. We can find them addressing their readers not just in a Prakrit, but in any number of scripts and languages, including Brahmi, Kharosthi, Greek and Aramaic. Confronted with several inscriptions, we can see the emperor is trying to foster tolerance among all his people, for Ashoka’s empire spanned five million square miles, and unifying it was no small task. The emperor speaks in a way each community will understand.

More widely still, if we take the time to examine similar inscriptions across the globe, as the world’s first great empires began to spread throughout Asia, we can compare how other rulers strove to consolidate their authority. To understand Ashoka’s power, we might look at an inscription by the Greek general Alexander the Great, or the emperor of China Qin Shi Huangdi. He carved his on the side of a mountain.

India and the World [a recent exhibition, and now an illustrated book published by Penguin] is about the power of individual objects to return us to the past and reveal its fascinating stories. It is also about learning to view such objects in a surprisingly global context: if we know what to look for, we can see how each region of the world inevitably communicates beyond its borders.

Neil MacGregor.

History through Objects

If you are going to tell the history of a land as vast as India, you cannot do it through texts alone. India and the World grew out of a popular series on BBc Radio 4 called “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. Each of the 100 episodes took an object from one part of the world at a particular moment and asked: What was going on elsewhere at that time? The results told a global story that revealed unexpected connections among the peoples and nations of the world.

India and the World takes a similar approach. The exhibition combines objects from the collections of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) and National Museum with loans from across India and from the British Museum. The stories these objects tell are twofold. India’s long history is revealed across a number of themes: the development of cities, states and empires; of commerce and courtly life; of religion and politics. But this is not India in isolation. Visitors have the rare opportunity to compare Shiva in his dance of destruction to a Hawaiian god of war or a Taíno figure from the Caribbean. They can see an Indian rhinoceros made famous in Europe through a woodcut by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, despite the fact that he had never seen one. To make sense of India, one must understand its relationship with the outside world: its interactions, its analogies, its shifting identity over time and across space.

A history told through things has many virtues. One is the potential to be more inclusive. The written record privileges the literate and primarily the victors who write the official version of what occurred. If you want to tell a story that does not unduly favour one part of humanity, you can do it only through things: objects which escape the official record, or survive where no other record does. The process is not straightforward. Writing history through texts is a familiar process, and we have centuries of critical apparatus to help us assess the written record. With objects, an almost opposite approach is required. Instead of criticism, what we need is an act of imagination, engaging with the artefact as generously as we can to evoke the insights it may deliver, returning it to its former life.

A history told through things has many virtues. One is the potential to be more inclusive. The written record privileges the literate and primarily the victors who write the official version of what occurred.

Standing Room Only

A group of large objects welcomes visitors before they reach the main exhibition. At first glance each of these objects, as large objects so often do, stands in its own right. They are not the sort of objects that like to share their space.

They appear, very directly, to represent India and the world. Here are four Indian figures immediately familiar to visitors: Nandi the bull, the winged Garuda, Hanuman the monkey and the Bharvahaka, a yaksha or nature spirit. There is also one of the most famous sculptures of European art: the discus thrower or Discobolus.

They are an improbable juxtaposition. What could be more different? They symbolise East and West. The sacred and the secular. We think we know what is represented here.

But do we? Seeing them together, we begin to notice connections between them. All represent for their viewers, whether in ancient Greece or Rome, Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh, a superhuman strength, from the idealised male body of the discus thrower to the latent force of Nandi the bull. What seems Indian in one context and Greek in another is not so clearly separated when we see the objects side by side: Garuda kneels, ready for flight as the athlete too bends, poised to rise and hurl his discus into the air. Both are physical agents for something else: Garuda as the mount that carries Vishnu through the skies, the Greek as the animating force behind his competitive throw.

What happens when you bring objects from around the world together? Their meanings widen. The local looks outward, what is known is seen from a new angle. What feels familiar is suddenly part of a much broader, more connected world.

India Today

It may seem wildly ambitious to tell the history of India in nine stories. Nine hundred might have been likelier, or even 9000. This exhibition is, however, not “the history” of India, but “a history”. And deliberately so, for the partiality of objects is their strength. Objects are particular: rooted in place and time, made by individual hands for a particular purpose. They may be representative, but their force derives from their specific meaning, the one story among the countless possible that only they can tell.

There could not be a more important time to view India on the world stage. To mark seventy years since India’s Independence, this collaboration between csmVs, National Museum and the British Museum is a tribute to the country’s spirit of international cooperation. Combining outstanding objects to tell a history of statehood, religion and society, India and the World shows, among its many stories, just how global India has been all along.

Extracted with permission from India and the World,  published by Penguin Random House


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