How has Indian history been influenced by and in turn influenced civilizations around the globe? The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) museum in Mumbai, India, is working with the British Museum on a sweeping exhibition called India in the World that aims to address this question. Sabayaschi Mukherjee, director general of the CSMVS, and Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and advisor to the exhibition, discuss this seminal project.
Last spring Jim Cuno travelled to India to meet with partners on a number of Getty-funded initiatives. He also spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival, the world’s largest free literary event that draws over 250,000 attendees to hear author talks and musical performances. This episode is one of three “Postcards from India” Jim made during his trip.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SABYASACHI MUKHERJEE: We all agreed [that] it won’t be possible to represent 10,000-years-old history in a limited space and time. So how do we manage? That’s the question.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, or CSMVS for short, in Mumbai, India, and Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, about their exhibition project, India in the World, slated to open in February 2017.
The CSMVS, formerly the Prince of Wales Museum of Western India, was founded early in the twentieth century with the help of government and prominent citizens of Bombay. It was renamed in the 1990s after Shivaji, the ancient Indian warrior king and founder of the Maratha Empire. The full name is so difficult to pronounce and so impossible remember that even the museum’s stationery includes on its masthead, in parenthesis, “formerly Prince of Wales of Museum.”
The breadth and scope of the museum’s collections are unprecedented in India. They represent the city’s role as India’s cosmopolitan, cultural, and commercial capital, and its history in the sixteenth century when it was ruled by the Portuguese, the seventeenth century when it was ceded to the British East India Company, and then the nineteenth century under the British Empire when Bombay became a major seaport on the Arabian Sea.
The CSMVS museum bears the imprint of this history in its architecture, the style of which is called Indo-Saracenic and derives from earlier examples of Hindu, Mughal, and English Gothic Revival architecture, but also in the diversity of its founders, who represent the legacy of Mumbai’s Hindu, Parsi, Jewish, and Christian communities, all of which remain engaged in the life of the museum and its activities.
I met with Sabayaschi Mukherjee and Neil MacGregor in a conference room at the museum when I was there for a visit earlier this year.
MUKHERJEE: This is one of the finest museums in the country. Was established in 1905, under the act. Act was passed in 1909. An autonomous institute, under the board of trustees, supported by the people of Mumbai. The building was constructed in 1909, by—it was designed by a British architect, George Wittet. George Wittet is one of the very known—well-known architects, particularly for his style, Indo-Saracenic style. It’s a combination of Islamic, Western, and Hindu architectural elements. And construction work was completed in 1914. It was converted into a military hospital immediately after the First World War. And finally, the doors of the museum were opened on 10 January, 1922, without Archeological Survey collection and the Tata Collection. So that’s the history of the museum.
CUNO: But you said from the very beginning, that it was sponsored by the citizens of Mumbai. And that’s unique to this museum? That is, that the citizens of a city rallied to support the founding of and continuing practice of the museum itself?
MUKHERJEE: Yes. I really don’t know. Maybe you know, my museum is one of the very few institutes in the country not supported by the government, but supported by the people of Mumbai. That quite, you know, unique.
CUNO: And its collection is encyclopedic. And was—did it begin that way? I mean, was it—did it start to be an encyclopedic museum? Or did it happen over time, with gifts from the Tata family and other fa— other private individuals?
MUKHERJEE: No, I think that was the vision of the founders of this institute, great institute. They—wanted to create an universal institute. That was the whole intention of the founders. And [the] collection grew with the time. Of course, you know, Tata family contributed a lot. Looking at Tata Collection we feel a bit of everything, you know. All cultures, practically. A bit of everything to offer. And the major collection, European paintings and the Far East collection, quite outstanding, quite outstanding. Besides Indian art, Himalayan art, and other collection. So from the—from the day one, from the beginning, there was a—there was some vision behind the institute. Not to create, you know, a national-level institute, but to create an universal institute, to share our cultural heritage with the world. That was the—that was one of the mandates of the founders.
CUNO: So we’re gonna be talking about that, with regard to this new project that you have underway. But tell us about the name change itself, ’cause it was called the Prince of Wales Museum, and then its name changed.
MUKHERJEE: That was—you know, that was [a] political decision. We are, you know, helpless. The property, the land, belongs to the government. Though the institute is autonomous, under board of trustees, but we—we function under the act. It was known as Prince of Wales Museum Act in 1909, for many years; and then after independence and when Mumbai—Bombay became Mumbai, a lot of changes took place. So they also changed the name of the act, which is now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Act in 1909. So it was—it was the decision of the government to change the name of the institute. So— But it’s okay, you know. Everywhere, we write, “formerly Prince of Wales Museum of Western India.” We do retain our old identity. Yeah, that—that’s it, you know. [laughter]
CUNO: So the whole question of identity of India and Indian art is central to this new project. And the project is called what, exactly?
MUKHERJEE: India in the World. Initially, we thought India and the World, but now we say India in the World. That is the title of the project, we have decided.
CUNO: And Neil, you’ve been advising or consulting on this project since its very beginning. And it has some relationship to the kinds of projects that you’ve undertaken, or undertook, at the British Museum. Can you tell us about your beginnings, your origin with the project?
NEIL MACGREGOR: Yes. The British Museum has always had very close links with the museum in Mumbai. And one of the things that we found particularly attractive about the museum in Mumbai as a partner is that it is probably the only museum in Asia where you can look at the cultures of the whole world. And that, I think, is because Mumbai has always been the great trading nation. Mumbai exists because it is part of the world trade. And so the same process that made the museum in London, world trade, has been exactly the cause of the museum here in Mumbai. So the connections of—with Europe—European paintings, European decorative arts—but also with China, Japan. And in that context, look at the whole of India, from the south right to the Himalayas. There’s nowhere else where you can do that. And the building itself speaks of that connection across the whole world.
CUNO: In the style of the building.
MACGREGOR: In the style of the building. The architecture is Hindu, it’s Muslim, and it’s, in a strange way, English Gothic. And this mixture of the build—in the building and the architecture, the range of the collection, that’s why it seemed to us the ideal partner to think about a different way of presenting history, world history, through objects. And working with Mr. Mukherjee, the director here, a program, a plan, an idea emerged, which has crystalized in this idea that it will be possible to tell the history of India, a history of India, moments of great Indian achievement, and then to set them in the context of the history of the world. So a story of India in the world. And that’s what the two institutions have been working on now for a bit.
CUNO: Was it clear from the very beginning, among everyone who was part of the project, what was meant by India?
MUKHERJEE: See, but—if you ask me, I can certainly give my opinion. The question, you know—the question we raise, what is our identity? Our identity is our culture. And we are very proud of our culture, 5,000-years-old culture. If you know, you know, the first civilization, Indian civilization, Harappa civilization, the great civilization, 3,300 BC, first time, you know, the concept of urban city, the town planning. The concept of community living started from Harappa civilization. So yes, you know, we are very proud of our culture. And—and this is, you know, this is something we are getting an opportunity, maybe for the first time, presenting our culture in the world context.
CUNO: Neil, from your perspective, from the start, was it also clear what the nation was? It was the physical extent of the nation, the cultural complexity installation—of the nation itself? Was the question of the nation of India ever in contest in the conversations that you had?
MACGREGOR: I think the—the word nation, of course, comes later as an idea, I think. The concept of India is—was much older than a nation. And I think everybody agreed that the story—one of the early moments of the story has to be the Harappa civilization, the great Indus Valley civilization of about 3,000 BC.
CUNO: And locate it for us.
MACGREGOR: This is along the valley of the Indus. And it is one of the first great urban civilizations. We all know, we all learned at school, about ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt. We tend to learn less about the Indus Valley, but it’s exactly contemporary. And these great cities. And the—what survives of them, interestingly, one of the things that survives are seals. Seals which must’ve had something to do with trade. And those seals are found in Egypt, in Mesopotamia, in Central Asia. So right at the beginning, 5,000 years ago, the story of India is part of the story of a much wider world.
CUNO: Was it only when those seals were found—and I’m going to guess it was in the nineteenth century, but you’ll correct me on that—that one became aware of that? When did one become aware of the Harappa civilization?
MUKHERJEE: In 1922, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, both the sites now falling in Pakistan, they were excavated in 1922, by an archeologist, Daya Ram Sahni, and R.D. Banerjee. And then [the] world came to know about the great culture, the great civilization.
CUNO: Was there any legend, any oral transmission of stories of the culture? Or did it only come into our—come to our attention by the discovery of things themselves?
MUKHERJEE: No, see, they were, you know, literate people. We see the inscriptions on the seals and sealings everywhere. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to decipher them. But what is interesting, what Neil said, you know, they had regular, you know, interaction with the world. We—we find evidences of Harappa and Mohenjodaro in Egypt, in Sumer, Central Asia, in many places. So there was a regular trade and cultural interaction.
CUNO: So there was an awareness of this civilization prior to 1922, but it only confirmed as an historical civilization or historical fact in 1922?
MUKHERJEE: Yes, yes. Yes. It was discovered in 1922. Nobody knew about the existence of this civilization before 1922.
MACGREGOR: One of the things that I think we hope that the rest of the world will find interesting about the exhibition, because I think it’s fair to say that because these sites were excavated so late, the world hasn’t really focused on them. And the excavation’s real extraordinary aspect of the civilization— Uniquely, there appears to have been no military defense at all. And this is very interesting. And it, of course, is very interesting in a particular kind of Indian tradition, as well. That it appears that these were very large society with well-ordered cities, with all the things you’d expect, of roads, plumbing, all the rest of it, but no military aspect at all. That is one of the great questions about them. But these are great civilizations that we need to think about more.
CUNO: Do we have a sense of the chronological extent of the civilization?
MUKHERJEE: It continued till, you know, 1,500 BC. So 3,300 BC to 1,500, 1,600 BC. We—we call it Late Harappa tradition, art tradition.
CUNO: And what objects will be in the exhibition, to give us a sense of that, the complexity of that civilization?
MUKHERJEE: We have, you know, plenty of cultural evidences from Harappa and Mohenjodaro. We are also trying to borrow some star pieces from the National Museum Delhi. They have quite a few important cultural evidences in their collection. Mostly terracotta images and figurines of mother goddess, pottery, large number of pottery we find. Seals and sealings in different material. They—particularly steatite. Steatite, it’s a soft stone they used. And the tools, you know, the different types of tools they used for day-to-day use. And the associated material we find in Lothal. Lothal was one of the important dockyards. Lothal is now located in Gujarat, western part of India. And the dockyard is intact, you know, even today. When you visit, you—
CUNO: The same dockyard where they made ships?
MUKHERJEE: Yes, that trade connection, you know, with other countries, contemporary civilization. And we have found one very interesting terracotta evidence, mummy. Mummy at Lothal, in terracotta. So it shows that, you know, there was a regular contact. Otherwise, you don’t find, you know, terracotta mummy in Indian subcontinent. So that was, you know, quite unusual.
CUNO: So Neil, is the idea to put those finds in the context of actually do—as it were, physically documented trade relations, but also just the coincidence in time of civilizations elsewhere?
MACGREGOR: Yes. The idea is that for the first time, it will be possible in India to look at the civilization of the Indus Valley, of the Harappa civilization, and at the same time, to see things that are contemporary from Egypt and from Mesopotamia and from China, so you can locate the Indian narrative in the story of the wider world. And that, I think’s a very important thing to do, because it reminds us all that everywhere, people are trying to do the same kinds of things. And interestingly, the great urban civilizations begin at the same time in different places. It’s a reminder that the story of humanity is really one story with chapters in different places. And the other point that comes out is that all civilizations, all great civilizations, are trade civilizations. It’s exchange. It’s about dealing with other people, working with other people, trading and swapping. And you don’t just trade goods, of course, you trade ideas, habits, practices, skills. And that, I think, is one of the subtexts of the exhibition, that civilization is something you always do with other people.
CUNO: So I’m guessing that it was easy to know where to start the exhibition. You then had to decide which following chapters to represent the history of the developing, as it were, India. What was the next one?
MUKHERJEE: The emergence of Magadha. Magadha, that is that central and eastern part of India as an empire, under the great King Ashoka. And there is another, you know, important chapter in history that is also equally important, the birth of Buddha and Mahavira, before Ashoka. So those two events, very important historical events, which we are sharing with the scholars. And they—they do feel that, you know, those two important, besides, you know, Harappa, we cannot ignore.
CUNO: So Neil, you said it’s a condition of great civilizations that they be involved in trade, in contact with others in the world. But it must also be a condition of great civilizations that they embrace or explore faith. And so is this introduced at just this time with Ashoka?
MACGREGOR: The Ashoka episode will, I think, allow the—again, thinking about the rest of the world, to think more clearly about the extraordinary achievements of Ashoka. This is one of the first great rulers who establishes his rule on the basis of what he—his obligations are to the people he rules. This is, in political terms, quite revolutionary. You can’t imagine Alexander the Great talking about his obligations to the people that he rules. Ashoka does.
CUNO: And we know this on—by the scripts that were made.
MACGREGOR: And the way he publicizes this is he puts stone inscriptions right across the empire, which goes across the whole of Northern India. And he writes it in the local languages, explaining what the duties of the ruler are. This is astonishing, that you have a ruler talking about his own duties, not—every other ruler talks about the duties of his subjects. And so we will be able to show the Ashoka material. Of course, some of the great things are in the CSMVS in Mumbai. Others are elsewhere in India. But from the British Museum, we’ll be able to present something of Alexander, of what later, Augustus does, what Chinese rulers do, to show just how very different this idea is. And although Ashoka himself embraces Buddhism, he articulates a very particular view of the relation of the state to religion, which is quite new and of great importance for the world. Most rulers want their religion to be the religion of their state, and use religion as a way of fostering state identity. That’s the traditional view. Ashoka insists that the ruler, while he will have his own faith, must respect all faiths, and that power should have an equal distance from all faiths. So it’s a secular view of government, which is not an anticlerical one. It’s much more like the American model and not like the French one, in that sense. The idea is that the state approves of religion, but doesn’t have a religion. It allows other people to have their own. All this is set out very clearly, and can be demonstrated. This is one of the great moments of Indian achievement which has shaped modern India. Ashoka’s example was very important in the shaping of the constitution for independence by Gandhi and Nehru and Ambedkar. So it’s about the modern world as much as about the world of 2,000 years ago. And that’s why this kind of exhibition is, I think, really important. Because the relation between faith and society, between religion and government is, as we all know, of great importance. It was addressed and a very particular solution was proposed in India at that date. These are the kind of ideas we hope will come out of the exhibition. Things that will make clear that there was a way of seeing the world and connecting to the world should, I think, become obvious to the visitor.
CUNO: So with Ashoka, we come—we get to the first historical figure in the history of India, as an identifiable history.
MUKHERJEE: History begins with Ashoka, yeah, because for the first time, we are in position to decipher the script which he embedded on stone. And that is why they survived, and they will survive forever.
CUNO: And that’s how he will be represented in the exhibition, by script?
MUKHERJEE: By script and some other historical facts, evidences from different cultural institutes.
CUNO: What is the next chapter in the narrative?
MUKHERJEE: The next chapter, that’s another, you know, another question, you know, big question before us. We are—we have been debating for some time, the contribution of Kushana Dynasty. That’s very important. Of course, you know, they came from outside Central Asia. They ruled India almost 150 years.
CUNO: And what are those dates?
MUKHERJEE: First century BC to first century AD, Kushanas ruled India. And they introduced many things. The coin technology, what we see, you know, Indian coin, is set during that time. The depiction of Buddha, because they, again, you know, embraced Buddhism. And the depiction of Buddha appeared first time in Kushana coins. So that is—that is very important historical fact.
CUNO: Neil, if you could locate the center, or the capital, as it were, of the Gupta Dynasty. And then— And I assume that’s gonna put it still up—keep it up in the north, in part of the subcontinent. And what about the extent of occupation?
MACGREGOR: I think once you start thinking about the extent of India, you realize what a—why this exhibition cannot possibly be a story, a history of the whole of India. It’s some key moments in the story. That’s very important, because after all, it would be like trying to do a history of Europe. And now and then you have to be in Denmark; now and then you have to be in Italy [chuckles] or Greece or Britain or whatever. So it’s always going to be selected moments, not a continuous narrative. And one of the questions is getting a balance between North and South India. And Mr. Mukherjee, I know, has been thinking about that a great deal.
MUKHERJEE: I’m very keen to, you know, cover the southern part of India. The problem we are facing today, eastern part of India is also culturally enriched. There are four regions: northern, eastern, western, and southern. Chola comes in the context of trade, eleven—tenth, eleventh century. Chola comes in the context of Indian Classical art, tenth, eleventh century. How we are going to incorporate in the—in the whole narrative, that’s the challenge before the curators, before the curator team. So much, you know—so much historical facts before use. What to add and what not to add is a huge challenge before the curatorial team.
CUNO: And I assume if you will include the Cholas, which it would be hard not to, the question of bronze manufacture comes up. And so the history of technology is a big part of this. And—
MACGREGOR: But this is, again, where the—putting that aspect in the context of great bronzes from the rest of the world would be so interesting. That one of the things that many different cultures achieve separately is discovering the casting of bronze. And to show some of the Chola bronze in the same exhibition as bronzes from Western Africa, from Benin, from Ife, from the Mediterranean world, from China—this would, again, allow one to think differently about the Indian material. And that, of course, is really the point of the project.
CUNO: What is the current thinking about what brings civilizations to that degree of complexity that is associated with the refinement of artistic materials and forms like these great bronzes?
MACGREGOR: I think that—that one could go right back to the very beginning and saying that all human beings like to make difficult things. We like to set ourselves challenges and to do what is very difficult. And once people get into the sort of— And once people discover the potential of metal, then making metal in more difficult shapes clearly becomes a problem that everybody around the world sets themselves. And it’s a part—simply the fact that we all have these curious minds. That’s why we are such difficult people living together. That’s why we keep making the world differently. But it’s also the fact that given the same materials, we will try to do—we will address the same problems. And making sculptures out of bronze to look like things we see around us is a very, very difficult thing. And you need, of course, a great deal of technological experience. You also need the wealth to gather the metal, and you need a stable enough society for skills to be fostered and transmitted. And some sense of competition, so that people want to do better than the others. And that appears to be the precondition everywhere for these kind of achievements whether it’s in bronze or in textile or in ceramic.
CUNO: I think we’ve been talking mostly about the coincidence of things occurring in time and over space. But there— And in some sense, of trade, obviously, in the very beginning, talking about the development of cities and this and that. But there is one example, there’s one historical development in which trade is extremely important in the diffusion of artistic imagery is extremely important, and that is in the development of—in Buddhism in the image of the Buddha himself coming out of Sarnath, shall we say. And then making its way across Southeast Asia. Is that aspect of cultural development gonna be explored, as well?
MUKHERJEE: The impact of Buddhism on Southeast Asia.
CUNO: Yeah. And the canonical—the formation of the canonical image of the Buddha himself and how that becomes, in its form, so influential to the development and diffusion across the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal across to Southeast Asia.
MACGREGOR: The image of the Buddha which everybody now has in their mind is one of the great gifts of India to the world. It’s an image which is first created in India when Buddhist practice moves from representing the Buddha through symbols to a human figure. And that figure and the posture of that figure is defined, is crystalized in India, and then is transmitted to the world. So it’s a very good element in the exhibition, I think, or an easy way of showing one of the ways in which a great Indian event then impacts on the rest of the world.
CUNO: I remember being in Chennai a couple years ago and coming across evidence of there being Roman coins found in south of Chennai or in the greater region of Chennai. So—and that’s about the same time, let’s say, as the Buddha’s form is being transmitted across the Bay of Bengal. So we have—we have increasingly great knowledge of the contact of India with the world at this time in the third century or second century AD.
MACGREGOR: Yes. One of the of the big developments of recent Roman history has been the economic importance of the trade with India and the Indian Ocean in the Roman Empire, and that some of the products of India are central to the economy of the Roman Empire. Pepper is a very obvious example. It’s almost certainly coming from India. And which is highly prized, of course, across the Roman world. But it’s a symbol of the fact that these worlds are much more connected than we, most of us, grew up imagining. That the Mediterranean world itself was, of course, also part of a much wider world, which involved India and the Asia beyond.
CUNO: Last night, you mentioned that the Indian Ocean is the true Mediterranean.
MACGREGOR: Yes, the Indian Ocean has, for just as long as the Mediterranean, been the water around which people trade goods and ideas, and religions move. And because of the patterns of winds, you can circulate easily around the Indian Ocean, effectively, from Indonesia to East Africa. It’s, again, something that the European and American histories that we grew up with at school and university tend not to focus on. We tend to start thinking about the Indian Ocean when the Europeans get there. What the Europeans do is not create an Indian Ocean trade; they disrupt [chuckles] an Indian Ocean trade that’s already been going for millennia. And that, I think, is one of the reasons why this kind of exhibition is so important, because it’s a history told from somewhere else. And that’s what we need. We need more and more histories told from somewhere else.
CUNO: So we’ve gotten—we’ve got about 3,000 years of the history of India already, but soon enough, you’re going to get to the Mughal conquest. And then you’re going to initiate a history that is one of occupation for hundreds and hundreds of years. How complicated is that in the telling of your story of the history of India?
MUKHERJEE: Well, the part—when it comes to, you know, the power of authority, the Mughal India, we can’t deny the fact Mughals, yes, you know, they came from Central Asia. They ruled in India for almost, you know, 200, 250 years. And particularly during the time of the great Emperor Akbar. The concept of secularism established by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who had faith, who had faith in different religions, and he established a new religion, Din-e-Illahi, if I remember correctly, based on different living religions in India he just tried, you know. So that is something incredible in Indian history context. How we are going to place it, the great, you know, Mughal history—art, architecture, religion practices, policies, trade relation[s], European. You know, we see the emergence of Europeans during Akbar’s time, much before, you know, Jahangir. So that was the time, you know, India was opening to the world. And a lot of cultural interaction started during that time. So that particular period, historical period is very important, from the exhibition point of view.
CUNO: It’s one of the ironies of foreign occupation that it does encourage contact.
MACGREGOR: Yes. One of the ways in which people interact—I mean, trade is one; war is the other. And the two often go together, of course. And interestingly, war is also a great mechanism of exchange of ideas in both directions. And obviously, the story of the—of trade when you get to the East India Company, is a story of trade and of war and of occupation and political control. That’s a very important part of the narrative. And the narrative of the East Indian Company, the British conquests, and then the independence movement are clearly critical parts of this—of this story. What is interesting, as Mr. Mukherjee has just said, is that the process of conquest is also a process of enrichment in due course, and absorption and exchange of ideas. And that’s why I think it’s particularly appropriate that an exhibition like this should be held in a building like this. Because when Amartya Sen talks about India and identity, one of his great arguments is that we all have many identities and that identities coexist and overlap and enrich each other. And that is, of course, the story of any great culture; certainly the story of India. But it’s so evident in the architecture of this building, that the different histories, which are partly the result of trade, partly of conquest, have all been absorbed into one very complex identity with many different aspects.
CUNO: I would think that one of the most difficult parts of this exhibition and its planning, and ultimately its execution, is choosing the right objects with which to tell the stories, but also the balance between what—you know, there are periods of time in which one has very few objects, however rich they might be in terms of the stories they tell, and there are other times one—when which has many, many, many objects, objects infinite almost in number, with which one can tell a story. For the experience of the visitor to the exhibition, how do you balance all of that?
MACGREGOR: I think that itself is part of the story, because I think it’s important that the visitor understand, experience the fact that for different periods, there are different kinds of evidence and different quantities of evidence. And sometimes we have to construct our story from rather limited evidence of what survives. It’s obviously true of Stone Age cultures. How were people living 10,000 years ago? The evidence is limited. And as we get nearer, there’s more of it. And that, again, is part of the story. That at different moments, there are different volumes of evidence. And that, I think, adds variety to an exhibition and to a narrative. But the space is not enormous. This is not really a huge exhibition. So in each case, the objects are going to be chosen, I think, for the story they tell. And I don’t think you need very many objects to tell very powerful stories and to talk among themselves, which is really the point.
CUNO: Mr. Mukherjee, we’ve come to the point in the narrative in which the British play a big role. And you’re going to be organizing this exhibition with the British Museum. How complicated was that for you as an Indian? Or how complicated is that for your team as they’re telling the Indian story, to be working with one of the great museums that represents one of the great foreign powers that ruled over Indian for a period of time?
MUKHERJEE: [chuckles] That’s a good question. See, we look at the British Museum as one of our partners. We have been working quite some time. And this is not for the first time we are doing a major show. We did several major exhibitions in the past. But this is, you know, something for the first time to do with Indian art and culture. Yes, it’s a challenge. It’s a huge challenge for the management and the staff. How do we present the narrative without, you know, creating any problem or controversy? That’s the issue, you know, how we maintain balance, how we reach out to people. That’s another question. Are we creating the story, the narrative, keeping a particular section in mind? This is a public institute. We have to reach out to everyone, and the language has to be understood by everyone. So that’s another challenge, you know, from communication point of view. The language of the exhibition should not be, you know, show, you know, academic—that common people [are] not able to understand your exhibition language. So that’s another problem, another challenge before us, that how do we maintain a balance? What we are thinking, BM and the CSMVS team, taking help of technology. We all agreed, looking at space, looking at infrastructure, and the budget [that] it won’t be possible to represent 10,000-years-old history in a limited space and time. So how do we manage? That’s the question
CUNO: We talked yesterday about the exhibition ending well before independence itself, 1947, so it ending perhaps in the 1920s or so. What is the reason for that?
MACGREGOR: The—well, the reason, I think, is because one’s got to choose particular moments. And we want to have a moment from now. The independence movement is one of the—again, one of the great achievements. The way Indian independence was struggled for without violence, the way the debate was conducted, became a model, a moral model for the whole of the world, and gave Indian a very particular standing in the world after independence. That’s why that seems the moment to focus on.
CUNO: The sort of terms of the independence movement, rather than the conclusion of the independence movement.
MACGREGOR: Exactly. It was the terms of the independence movement, as constructed by the great leaders of that movement, which have shaped the moral framework of independence conversations round the world ever since, and gave India a commanding position in the 1950s and the 1960s, in what became the non-aligned world. So that’s why it seemed the key moment to focus on. The ending of the story, if you like, is, I think, in the area of technology. The fact that this exhibition may, we hope, become a tool for teaching across India will be possible only because of technology. But if there is one thing that India, modern India means now to everybody around the world, it is technology. And right across the world, people know that India is the center of the new digital universe. And while we know the entertainment side through Bollywood everywhere, it’s the digital world that India has made its own. So in a sense, the technology with which the exhibition is presented becomes the latest chapter in the story of India. And it is classic, the history of India in the world, India across the world, because of technology. So it goes right back to the beginning, that this is a cultural phenomenon that is made possible by trade and where India in the world is playing a very, very particular role.
CUNO: And that role has to do, or it’s carried out by means of technology, as we—you just described, but also by means of the diaspora. So through the technology, you’ll be able to link this exhibition in this place, in this museum, with the great diaspora of Indians around the world.
MUKHERJEE: Yeah, that is the whole intention, that is the whole intention, how we connect with the world.
CUNO: I guess it’s inevitable, also, that this will become a template for other such exhibitions about other parts of the world.
MACGREGOR: I think that’s the hope. The—for obvious historical reasons, the collections where you can attempt to tell a story of the world are found only in Europe and America—and the United States, because of the economic and the military dominance of Europe and the United States over the last 200 years. We now want to tell stories elsewhere, and we want to tell them from elsewhere. And the hope would be that this story of India, told by Indian scholars drawing on the resources of India and one of those great collections, is a model that can be replicated elsewhere, so that other stories of other cultures can be told in the same way—told telling—looking at the world from a different place. At which point, it becomes a new world and a different world, which we all, all of us want to try to understand.
MUKHERJEE: I would like to add a line of what Neil said very rightly. The people of Mumbai, in particular, and the people of India in general, they get an opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to see different cultures. In our history book, usually, you know, school-level history books, we cover Indian history. We talk very little about world cultures. In university level, yes, only history students, they get an opportunity to study world cultures. So this is for the first time, for visitors, domestic audience, getting an opportunity to see and understand the corresponding cultures and the connection between cultures, I think quite unique.
MACGREGOR: One of the characteristics of the history of India is the series of foreign cultures, foreign powers that have come to India. What is the striking phenomenon of the last 200 years is that Indians have now gone to the whole world. It would be impossible to think of modern South Africa, modern Britain, modern Canada, the modern Caribbean without the Indian contribution. So that is very, very striking. And it’s a key bit of the story of India. But a lot of that story is now being told across the world, and not only in India. It is a world story.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on iTunes, Google Play, and SoundCloud or visit getty.edu/podcasts for more resources. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SABYASACHI MUKHERJEE: We all agreed [that] it won’t be possible to represent 10,000-years-old ...