While much of the history of India’s ancient past is being rewritten, it is important to reflect upon how historic museum collections can be reinvestigated to serve as tools of historical enquiry and reframe India’s cultural heritage.
Most museum collections in the country lie neglected, continuing to adhere to 19th century orientalist ideologies, where artifacts from the past lie frozen in time, gathering dust. It was, hence, refreshing to see how the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai is finding new ways to reinterpret its historic collection.
The museum is currently hosting an exhibition, ‘Ancient Sculptures: India, Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome’ in partnership with three other institutions: the British Museum, the Getty Foundation and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. The exhibition is a part of the larger ‘Ancient World Project’ of CSMVS, which was meant to commemorate 75 Years of Indian independence. The goal is to bring works of art from other cultures to Mumbai to enrich the understanding of a shared human history.
Espousing an exceptional narrative, this is one of the few exhibitions which has used ancient sculptures as historical evidence to determine cultural connections between different ancient civilisations. By underscoring the ritual, architectural and philosophical meanings behind these sculptures, the exhibition emphasises India’s centrality in the ancient world, rather than merely placing Indian art in comparison with the classical cultures of Greece and Rome, as is often done.
Most significantly, for the first time, we see a shift in curatorial perspective. The exhibition has been conceptualised with Indian museum visitors in mind, many of whom might never have the opportunity to travel. The goal is to provide them with the chance to experience the art and culture of other parts of the world, and to open up new ways of viewing their own culture through its relation to other societies.
Encouraging the Indian audiences to engage with these ancient sculptures, ask questions relevant to them and interpret the objects from their own cultural understanding could unveil a multitude of meanings within these museum artifacts. A second objective of the exhibition is to collaborate with local schools and universities, urging students and educators to expand their learning beyond the classroom and view material culture and museum collections as vital sources for historical methodology.
The study of ancient history as a discipline is still framed from a European/ Mediterranean perspective. This process of audience engagement will hopefully encourage a new kind of knowledge tradition and also nudge historians towards writing more global histories of the ancient world.
Sculptures in museums
Academic interest in India’s ancient sculptures began from about the late 18th century when European travellers and officers of the English East India Company began to travel to different parts of the subcontinent, surveying its topography and people, discovering its history and documenting its architectural and archaeological remains.
Initially, religious sculptures began to be collected for their fine craftsmanship, but later they became objects of intellectual curiosity. Given their many heads, multiple limbs and voluptuous bodies, they were often labelled as monstrous, barbaric, vulgar and irrational. Sculptures were initially shipped off to Britain as souvenirs of the empire where they were scientifically studied and critically analysed, especially in comparison with those from classical Greece and Rome.
While the intellectual focus at the time was to collect Indic manuscripts and inscriptions and to translate, decipher and interpret these, sculptures were seen merely as archaeological artifacts, investigated for their aesthetic qualities and assessed for how accurately they represented related ancient texts.
With the establishment of museums in India, the colonial British government decided to preserve India’s rich archaeological and ethnological materials within the country. The first museum was founded in Calcutta in 1814, known as the Imperial Museum, and later named as the Indian Museum.
Museums in the subcontinent became integral to the orientalist enterprise of knowledge production regarding its Indian colony. They played a role in systematically classifying, organizing scientifically, and disseminating this knowledge among the Indian public.
Religious sculptures became highly prized objects within museum collections meant to showcase India’s ancient religions and document its rich artistic heritage. Sculptures were neatly categorised on the bases of religious denomination, male and female attributes, the placement of their hands and feet, mudras and as representing the dramatic moments of the mythological universe. Museum displays were also organised around the great epochs of history and dynastic achievements, where religious sculptures were grouped under broad chronological and dynastic labels. Royal patronage seemed to provide the only kind of explanation for the production of art with little or no lay participation. It is still fairly common to find sculptural galleries in Indian museums named as Mauryan art, Gupta art, Chola art and so on, in honour of the great ruling dynasties. By focussing on their aesthetics and materiality, the early museums set a broad template within which religious sculptures came to be viewed and studied in various academic disciplines.
Sculptures in conversation
The ‘Ancient Sculptures’ exhibition is one of those rare instances which addresses many of these lacunas. Ancient sculptures are framed to trace networks of connections and exchange of knowledge traditions between India and the wider world through artistic themes, philosophies and religious beliefs without drawing civilisational comparisons.
On entering the imposing Indo-Saracenic building of the CSMVS, a stone lotus medallion, a fragment from the great Amravati stupa, is placed at the museum entrance to greet visitors.
The lotus is known as a symbol of peace, prosperity, purity and beauty in many cultures, including India, Egypt and China. The centrepiece of the exhibition, however, is a majestic Yajna Varaha sculpture from Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh, which is strategically placed under the grand rotunda of the museum. It automatically draws the visitors to the centre of the exhibition. The intricately carved Yajna Varaha has 350 images of divinities engraved on its body and Bhu Devi (Earth goddess), standing next to it clinging to its snout. At the tip of its snout sits Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, and images of the sun and moon, the lotus bud, various aquatic animals embellish the different parts of its body. The snake and garuda symbolise its association with Vishnu, and figures carved near its legs represent the cosmic directions.
The Varaha avatara of Vishnu is the symbol of the cosmos, yet it tells many stories, such as the story of the cosmic yajna (sacrifice) and the myth of the churning of the ocean. In a similar fashion, the exhibition narrates multiple stories through these sculptures.
Several icons from the Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythologies have been ingeniously displayed around the Varaha to create several strands of conversation between the deities across cultures. A marble bust of the Greek deity Zeus, (Jupiter in Rome), and elegant, nude torsos of Triton, Apollo and Dionysus display the beauty of the human form.
Yet unlike traditional art historical scholarship, which overemphasises the artistic and intellectual superiority of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the exhibition uses these classical sculptures to highlight a shared religious and visual idiom within the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, but more significantly with other parts of the world, such as with India and Egypt.
The accompanying object descriptions, labels and wall texts include details of the original architectural and geographical locations of these images, thus highlighting that sculptures were not merely representations of beautiful bodies but had a religious and cultural purpose, and they were meant to be placed on structures such as temples, the city centre, gymnasiums, burial places and so on.
The exhibition curators have undertaken painstaking research to show site maps and multimedia images of temples and altars, such as the Greek Parthenon, Temple of Artemis and so on.
The exhibition also juxtaposes select sculptural masterpieces from India against Greek, Roman and Egyptian pieces to draw out certain themes and beliefs perceived as common to all ancient cultures, such the appreciation of the feminine form, control of river waters and the turbulent seas, ideas of cosmos, divine kingship, encounters with death and recurrent animal motifs in art. For instance, the Hindu deity Varuna (a sculpture from the museum’s own collection) is brought in relation to Greek Triton (Roman Neptune) to convey the human desire to control turbulent sea storms and navigate across vast oceanic waters. Similarly, depictions of the ‘desirable’ and the ‘ideal’ female form continue to be popular across cultures.
A delicate image of Greek Aphrodite (Roman Venus,) the goddess of love and passion from the Berlin Museum, is drawn into comparison with similar female forms, such as apsaras and yakshinis, which adorn the walls of the Hindu temple. The museum has chosen to focus on the Didarganj Yakshini, particularly to highlight the feminine ideal from ancient India. Even though this prized icon, dated to the 3rd century BCE, now preserved in the Bihar Museum, Patna, is not physically present in the exhibition, its detailed description and images convey the idea.
Similarly, a sandstone image of Hapy (goddess of annual flooding of the Nile) from the British Museum is set in dialogue with one of the earliest depictions of the Ganga carrying a water pot, made of terracotta now in the National Museum, Delhi.
Through this unique curatorial approach, by tapping into collections of other museums, even though the objects cannot be physically brought in, the exhibition makes a noteworthy effort to make the museum visitors aware of these iconic masterpieces and highlight India’s artistic repository.
The exhibition also underscores both the complex philosophical underpinnings of Indian sculptures as well as their ritual purpose. Visitors are invited to explore the museum’s vast and permanent collection of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religious images, thus extending the exhibition beyond the rotunda and into its galleries.
In recent years, the museum has made consistent efforts to re-examine its historic collection of ancient sculptures and present these with a fresh narrative and state of the art display. The object labels in the Hindu gallery have been carefully crafted moving beyond the basic information of nomenclature, chronology and material of fabrication to address questions of geographical provenance and architectural and ritual placement in the Hindu temple.
For instance, in a city guided by the rhythms of the annual Ganpati festival, what is the significance of a 7th century, stone image of Ganpati from Gujarat for a common museum visitor. Moving away from the textual interpretation of sculptures, as has been the norm, the gallery opens up crucial conversations about the ritual practices of Hindu religion: the fact that religion was constantly evolving, who were the practitioners of the faith, questions of religious syncretism, the veracity of local and regional traditions as also the practise of the religion into the present day.
Similar is the case with the newly opened Buddhist gallery, which focusses on the historical and ritual context of Buddhist objects and icons through five principal themes. Firstly, how can sculptures be used to get a glimpse into Buddhist mythology which shaped the doctrines of the religion? Second, what was the impact of the philosophy on Buddhist art, such as the change from the aniconic to anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha. Third, the variety of patrons and worshippers across genders and classes, including both lay and monastic orders. The range of Buddhist objects in the gallery from different regions, some of these from outside of India, speaks of the global expanse of Buddhism. Most importantly, at a time when museums around the world are addressing issues of provenance research and object histories, the Buddhist gallery also addresses issues of modes of collecting and museum acquisition in the 19th century.
The ‘Ancient Sculptures’ exhibition, along with the fresh curatorial approach adopted by the CSMVS team, injects new vitality into these ancient images. By distancing itself from Eurocentric narratives and traditional art historical rhetoric, it paves the way for innovative methodologies and tools in the field of history writing.
In the next phase, the museum aims to establish an ancient world gallery. This involves acquiring objects from partner museums on long-term loans to present pivotal moments in India’s history within a broader global context and to explore ancient connections between India and the rest of the world.
Salila Kulshreshtha teaches History and Art History at New York University Abu Dhabi. She is the author of From Temple to Museum: Colonial Collections and Uma Mahesvara Icons in the Middle Ganga Valley and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Hindu Temples.