Yesterday, on the occasion of ‘World Museums Day’, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled what the Ministry of Culture called the ‘mascot’ of the International Museum Expo, currently being held at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi.
This mascot, according to the culture ministry’s social media handles, was none other than a “stylised…contemporised…life size’ (actually, much larger than ‘life-sized’) rendition of an object that can be identified as Acc. No. HR- 5721/195, held in the Indus Valley Civilisation Gallery of the National Museum.
She is popularly known as the Mohenjodaro Dancing Girl.
Every time I visit the National Museum in Delhi, I am drawn to the original. A small 10-and-a-half centimetre long lost-wax bronze figurine in the Harappan/Indus Valley Civilisation gallery located in the ground floor. I think it speaks in whispers, not just to me, but to everyone who might care to stop and listen instead of just walking by.
Found by the archaeologist D.R. Sahni in 1926-27 in a broken down house in the ‘ninth lane’ of the area designated as ‘HR’ of the Indus valley citadel of Mohenjodaro, this clearly adolescent bronze figure is naked, proudly naked, barring a few bracelets and a necklace with three leaf like pendants.
No one who has seen her can forget her carefree stance, one arm akimbo at the waist, and the other limb loosely, casually held, extending almost to her upwardly bent knee. She is possessed of an uncommon grace. One is always surprised by her diminutiveness, because it is as if, even at just 10 and a half centimetres, she stands tall.
When the Museum Expo Mascot was ‘unveiled’ by a button pushed by one of the prime minister’s 10 busy fingers, she was revealed as a captive giant pigmented a strange shade of pink; as if she had just been subjected to the torture of immersion in vats of ‘Fair and Lovely’ or Lacto-Calamine, just to disguise her dark skin.
Her resplendent bronzed sunburn had obviously disturbed some babu in the Ministry of Culture. Or perhaps it just need be noted that the lighter epidermal shade the Vishwa-Guru has himself attained through the judicious consumption of expensive mushrooms has been considered more appropriate to the matter of this mascot’s pigmentation. There must be a noting in a file to this effect. Who knows, it might even go the distance in persuading the helots that the inhabitants of Harappa and Mohenjodaro were in fact ‘gaura–varna‘ – light-skinned, bona-fide, very pink Aryans.
Frank nakedness abandoned, the mascot is also attired in a hideous assortment of of clothes designed to evoke a fake, ersatz folksiness; the kind that so called ‘tribal dancers’ are made to wear, shivering, despite the bitter cold of the morning of Republic Day, the 26th of January.
No naked human body can ever match the obscenity of this costume.
Not far from the glass case where the actual object is kept in the National Museum in Delhi lie the skeletal remains of a woman from an Indus Valley site. The bones are arranged as if they have just been exposed during a dig. Looking at the aslant jawbone of the exposed skeleton I cannot help thinking to myself about the possibility that the miniature woman in bronze may be a an actual portrait of a human being.
I know that somewhere in the National Museum in Karachi, Pakistan, there is another bronze figure, numbered DK- 12728, found by Ernest Mackay in 1930-31 in the late level II of Harappa in Room 81, House X, Block 9 of the area of Harappa designated as ‘DK-G’.
DK-12728 in Karachi is a twin of HR- 5721/195 in Delhi, and is somewhat unfairly nicknamed the ‘ugly sister’. The only reason why she is called ‘ugly’ it thought to have something to do with the fact that she has a plainer posterior.
Could these two tiny women in bronze, one less voluptuous than the other, locked behind glass in two national museums, now separated by a militarised border, have been modelled after two actual human beings, who lived, loved, danced, breathed and died like human beings always do?
Could their mitochondrial DNA still be coursing through many women alive today, burning calories into energy in countless cells?
Could there be a tantalizingly unbroken chain of causes and consequences that directly link the present realities experienced by human beings today to that distant past?
Could our distant ‘past, which was once the actual ’present’ of two women in an Indus valley citadel, who may or may not have been sisters, work its way into what could be our response, today, to how at least one of these two figures is being manhandled today?
Regardless of whether you a feminist, artist, curator, art historian, art educator, museologist, archaeologist, or historian in India or Pakistan, or of Indian or Pakistani descent, you should speak out against this disgusting violation of the two sisters in our two museums (because a violation of one, as per the principles of sorority, is a violation of the other), both of whom constitute aspects of our common heritage.
Sometimes, putting clothes on a figure that has been portrayed proudly naked for possibly 4000+ years, can also be a form of assault. And I mean precisely what I am saying – the undertaking I’m referring to here is an exercise in the realisation of the imagination of sexual assault, paradoxically, through an aggressive and insensitive act of clothing.
The people who fantasised this, executed this and endorsed this, have the dirtiest and most racist of minds, because they obviously think that the original figure is obscene. It is anything but obscene.
I have rarely seen such vulgar, shameless fetishisation (here, clothes are the fetish) being paraded in the name of culture. The man who inaugurated this ‘mascot’ of the ‘International Museum Expo’ in New Delhi is in a hurry to show off his ‘cultural capital’ these days. The truth is, he has none. Nor do any of his cronies.
What are the minions of the Ministry of Culture going to do next? Put speedos, cod pieces, langots, or strategically placed QR code tags, on Jain icons?
A thousand curses on all those, including the sleazy men and women in positions of power that you can see in the video where the mascot is ‘unveiled’, who are complicit in this gigantic obscenity. Each one of their knowing glances tells us that they are ashamed to consider the figure of a young naked female from 4,000 years ago.
How dare they shame the bodies of real women in this way, have they absolutely no shame?
The National Museum website lists No. 5721/195 as “One of the rarest artefacts world-over” and goes on to describe it as “…a unique blend of antiqueness and art indexing the lifestyle, taste and cultural excellence of a people in such remote past as about five millenniums from now, the tiny bronze-cast, the statue of a young lady now unanimously called ‘Indus dancing girl’, represents a stylistically poised female figure performing a dance.”
The word that strikes me most in the above description is ‘unanimously’.
We are not told how and why the curators of the National Museum divined that the figure is now ‘unanimously’ a dancing girl. The archaeologist who excavated her, John Marshall, spoke of the ‘insouciant’ gesture of the standing female figure.
Another British archaeologist, Mortimer Wheeler, even spoke of her ‘Balochi style face with pouting face and insolent look in her eyes’.
Gregory Possehl said of the statuette – “We may not be certain that she was a dancer, but she was good at what she did and she knew it”.
Men who want to see clothed women without clothes, and men who want to cover naked women in clothes, are actually not pursuing very different ends. Some men in positions of power, regardless of whether they happen to be archaeologists or prime ministers, never seem to change. Men with opinions about a young woman, about what she can be, how she must appear and what she must have on, never seem to change either.
And now, the narrative around the woman of ‘ninth lane’ of Mohenjodaro has morphed again, without changing in essence.
Works by twelve contemporary Indian artists were assembled at the National Gallery of Modern Art, in a synchronised gesture of genuflection towards the prime minister’s radio broadcasting talent. The National Gallery of Modern Art is at a walking distance from the National Museum where the ‘Mohenjodaro Dancing Girl’ is now held.
I took note of the fact that in one of these homages to the PM at the NGMA, executed by a noted South Indian artist, HR- 5721/195’s adolescent figure had to be subjected to the strange and totally unnecessary transmogrification of being made to embody ‘motherhood’ – in several Indian languages. The work apparently had to do with sanitation workers. What HR- 5721/195 had to do with sanitation was not clear to me, although we all know that the Indus Valley civilisation had sewage. Was the artist suggesting that the Mohenjodaro Dancing Girl was the mother of sanitation? It seemed unclear.
What was clear was that there is something unshakeably sleazy about this compulsion to view a pubescent girl in ‘maternal’ terms. I have seen a recent photograph of the artist and the prime minister admiring this transformation. Whatever else it may have been, It didn’t seem very ‘Beti Bachao’ to me.
It is also abundantly clear that Indian culture is plumbing new depths these days, with considerable support from the Ministry of Culture. A 4,000-year-old girl from Mohenjodaro has to bear the consequences of these moves, twice over, in the nation’s capital, all in the space of a single ruthless 21st century month.
I hope that Delhi’s museums, and contemporary India’s cultural climate, can recover someday from the damage that is being done. And I wish that people could just leave HR- 5721/195 be, to dream her 4,000-year-old dream.
This article is based on a series of Facebook posts by Shuddhabrata Sengupta.
The section on the object (Acc. No. HR- 5721/195) in the National Museum in Delhi is extracted and adapted from an earlier essay by the author titled ‘Infinity on Trial: The Notional Museum’ published in ‘Museum Futures’, edited by Leonhard Emmerling, Latika Gupta, Memory Biwa, and Luiza Proença, and published by Turia & Kant, Vienna, 2021. A version of this essay is available online here.