The exhibition India & the World: A History in Nine Stories has an ambitious goal: to use objects to chronicle cultural, economic, and artistic exchange and influence between India and the world. From four-thousand-year-old seals from the Indus Valley found thousands of miles from where they were created to contemporary works of art made out of money and concrete, the wide-ranging exhibition centers on India to address our shared human experiences.
In this episode, Naman Ahuja, professor of the history of art at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, describes the curatorial process for this multi-venue, multilingual exhibition and touches on some of the key objects on display.
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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.
NAMAN AHUJA: There is so much of a rhetoric around in the public domain at the moment about trying to prove that India gave it all to the world, that I think it was relevant to also show, equally importantly, that India also learnt from the rest of the world.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Naman Ahuja, professor of the history of art at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India, about the landmark exhibition, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories.
The peoples of India have been in contact with other people and cultures since the Bronze Age, some four thousand years ago. Evidence of early organized commercial life in the region dates back to the Indus Valley centered in Sindh and the Punjab and its two greatest cities, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa.
The exhibition, India and the World, co-organized by the CSMVS museum in Mumbai and the British Museum in London, includes a Harappan seal that was found thousands of kilometers away where it was made. This confirms that as early as four thousand years ago, people from the Indus Valley were in contact with other large population centers and engaged in sophisticated commercial exchanges.
The exhibition proves this point time and again. People found their way by sea and land, traveling west, east, north, and south to enrich their lives commercially and culturally. For example, a simple cooking pot, likely made in India or Pakistan some 1,200 years ago, was found on the south coast of Iran; while a blue and white Chinese porcelain dish was excavated in southern India with Persian inscriptions on its base.
Naman Ahuja, professor of the history of art at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and co-curator of the exhibition India and the World, recently lectured at the Getty. I took the opportunity to talk with him about the exhibition’s thesis and the effort it took to mount this important, ground-breaking exhibition, funded by the Getty Foundation and the Tata Trust.
Well, welcome, Naman, and thanks for giving us your time on this podcast. You recently co-curated the exhibition India and the World: History in Nine Stories, an exhibition that was co-organized by the British Museum and the CSMVS, or former Prince of Wales Museum, in Mumbai, and which is now at the National Museum of New Delhi. Some two years ago, as the precise content of the exhibition was still in development, I recorded a podcast like this one with Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General of the CSMVS, and Neil MacGregor, then director of the British Museum.
Now the exhibition is up and has been mountainously reviewed, most favorably, I should say, in the Indian press. Give us your sense of the importance of the exhibition and how it changed over the years that it was in development.
AHUJA: Well, thanks, Jim, for having me here. It’s been— it’s been a great exercise and a fantastic learning curve for me because it’s been an opportunity to really start with an exhibition that was all about celebrating the interconnections between India and the history of the world, and looking at the fantastic things and manner in which India has been in touch with the rest of the world’s history. But that might’ve been [the] case when you look at India and China or when you look at India and Greece, or even India and Ireland, which have been in contact for millennia.
But when it comes to looking at India’s relationship with Australia or the history of India with South America, then you find yourself that the historical narrative only takes you back to the sixteenth century. And so ways of being able to, as a curator, display pre-sixteenth century material from India and from South America in the same gallery forces you to really think about how you’re going to present globalization and how you’re going to present these ideas in one space. Themes become more important, rather than historical interconnections, looking at how different people have responded to the same stimuli or to the same provocations. And did they find—
CUNO: Even if they weren’t in contact with each other [inaudible].
AHUJA: Even if they weren’t [in] contact. It just takes you to a shared human response that might be there. And that was fascinating, because it forces curators to be creative. It forces curators to suggest things anew, and not rely on old histories. In fact, one of the things that clearly happened in the course of this exhibition was that up to 30% of the objects that come from India in this exhibition, I seized the opportunity to display completely new things which have never been published before, which are not a part of the canon of Indian art history.
Because it was an opportunity to be able to present a changing view and a more dynamic view of India that was more inclusive, by trying to include histories that were from the folk traditions or the tribal traditions, trying to include them alongside the classical traditions. Because then you might be able to find better parallels with things that were going on in other societies, which were not part of those classical connections and part of the given canon of Indian art history.
CUNO: Given that the exhibition was going to be shown in Mumbai, at a very important and strategic city museum, and then it was going to be at the National Museum in Delhi, did you have a sense of the audience and how different the audiences would be in one city and another? And also the audience is neither of the two cities, that would only know the exhibition by way of the publication of the catalog of the exhibition.
AHUJA: Yes, I did have some indication of what that would entail. And one of the great challenges, in order to be able to reach new audiences in India, is to be able to communicate to them in their languages. And despite a lot of what is written and available about India, English is not the lingua franca. English is something that is commonly understood and is an administrative language of convenience. It is the language of the urban intelligentsia. But that doesn’t mean that it is the only fundamental language. And usually, all efforts at reaching to different Indian publics gets stymied because of the variety of Indian languages.
You’ve got, whatever, twenty-two or more official languages in the country. And as a result, can you imagine what it’s like for a museum curator who has to have labels in different languages? You’ve got more label text space that you have for the object in a showcase, and that doesn’t really work. And this is where I think the exhibition opened a new door. We weren’t able to completely achieve it, but we realized that releasing material on YouTube and digitally will, in time, prove to be really beneficial.
Recording this exhibition digitally means even subsequently, it can so easily be translated and disseminated digitally in the different languages of India, having a Marathi translation and a Hindi translation, which we did achieve for the exhibition because it was Mumbai, and most of the population there would be Hindi- and Marathi-speaking. That was very challenging, to be able to do that.
The Bombay museum has a fantastic initiative that they send a bus out to different villages all over Maharashtra. And the bus contains a mini exhibition with little replicas of the exhibition. And so people from those villages would gather at the bus, where it would be parked for a couple of days, and go and see the little exhibition in the bus; and then go back and say to their parents, you know, “Let’s go to Mumbai and see the full show.” And so there was a concerted effort being made, at least in Mumbai, to be able to reach their audiences.
Delhi is a slightly trickier city. Delhi is a more mixed city, in some ways, because it’s got a lot of people who are administrators, work in the bureaucracy, work in government, lots of people who work in intellectual pursuits, like in museums and in universities. There are many, many more colleges and universities in Delhi, which attract students from all over the country, than there are in Mumbai. And that gives Delhi a slightly different, more critical reception than one would get in Mumbai. So there is a difference in the two cities.
CUNO: Mm-hm. You talked about translation and the difficulties of translation, partly because of the multiple languages, but also the kind of refinement of where there aren’t the exact equivalents in language from one to another, with regard to the same idea or similar ideas. How did you negotiate not just the numbers of translations, numbers of languages you had to translate into, but the actual difficulties of translating, in and of itself?
AHUJA: Well, to be honest, I relied on the first translation to be done by a professional translating company. And they produced their version of everything, which made it a little easier, because for then it was a matter of editing and improving what they had done. And I found myself tearing my hair out with the translation I’d received, at some points, but it would have been far harder for me to do, had I not a first draft to work with.
Getting that translated draft made me acutely aware of how far removed the translators were from the vocabulary of art and design and industry that might’ve been there in the early twentieth century, that was still very much the lingua franca of India. The language that artisans themselves used. What a stone mason would use when he would quarry. I mean, the tragedy was that we had materials that Indian art is made of that was being referred to by their English equivalents.
The stones were being called by their English names, the materials of the paint and pigment were being called by their English names, quite forgetting that it is Indian craftsmen who’ve made these things for thousands of years, without having had access to the English language. And there was no awareness of what those words were called in Indian languages anymore.
And so that was a bit of a warning bell, really, an alarm for me. It wasn’t easy to translate, but I had to do research, basically.
CUNO: What about the title of the exhibition? Was it easily understood in multiple languages, the subtlety of what you meant by “India and the world”?
AHUJA: Well, quite literally, India and the world has a certain cache in the English language. It immediately tells the public that you’re gonna hear about something about India and about the world, and you’re going to be able to look at the history of India in relation to the history of the world, the interconnections of India and the world, or the comparisons of India and the world. It’s a straightforward title. But the minute you translated it into an Indian language quite literally, it becomes a little bit stultified and boring.
And then there is the entire business of the politics of language in India. Whether you’re going to use a highly Sanskritized term to describe it, or are you going to use the colloquial language, which is laced with a lot of Urdu in North India? And since this was an exhibition that was going to be in two major North Indian cities, I’m talking about North Indian languages. Had it been in Chennai or Bangalore, I would’ve had to have considered Kannada or Tamil in the title.
So while thinking about it, we came up with a variety of titles, and we couldn’t agree for a long time, on what the Indian title could be, till—
CUNO: But you had agreed on the English title?
AHUJA: We had agreed on the English title, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories. That was something that we had come to an agreement on, and that was much easier to come to an agreement on that one. But when it came to the Indian title, what I tried to do was I tried to critique and think about why we have this exhibition at all. Why are we embarking on the project of this exhibition? And it is about trying to redress the kind of growing intolerance in the world, the kind of growing parochialism that we are confronted with, where people…even though we seem to live in a global village, paradoxically, we live in silos. We lived ghettoized. People don’t really know that much about their neighboring country, or even other parts of the world. They don’t know enough about other communities. And textbooks in our schools, in many parts of the world, don’t teach you enough about other countries and other cultures in the world. And so one was hoping that through an exhibition like this, you’d get people to engage with others.
The dilemma for me in India was that othering is not something that we do to foreigners; the othering is as much within India. Upper caste people look upon lower castes as others. You don’t drink from the same well, you don’t sit at the same table, you don’t have conversations across the table. They are your inferior. You treat they differently, you treat them separately.
And these divides are violent. Muslims are treated as a definite other to the Hindu majority in India. And that’s a growing othering that is going on. Women complain about the fact that they are often treated as an other. A tribal person or a village person is not the same as an urbane sophisticate. And so you have this othering that goes on within the country. And I was trying to think—othering, othering, othering; this is an exhibition to combat the othering, to create more sensitivities and bridges to the other. And how do I do that?
And I suddenly had this flash that the title Des Pardes might do it. Now, Des Pardes was a 1970s Bollywood movie. A pardesi is something that everyone understands as somebody who’s not from my region or not from my community; whereas desi is something that is from my region or my community or my village. So it wasn’t necessarily about the foreigner who is outside your country; but it is equally about the alien that is within your country.
And so it would be like saying us and them or us and the other, as the title. And so the concept of the other actually comes into the title now, which is really what this exhibition was trying to combat. So I think we gained something in translation, in this instance, rather than lose something in translation.
CUNO: For an Indian person come across the title India and the World, which suggests, of course, to those non-Indians that there is a single India [inaudible]—
AHUJA: [over Cuno] Precisely.
CUNO: How did you get around that in the Indian languages that you used?
AHUJA: Well, I made a concerted effort to try and use colloquial Hindustani. And when it came to certain technicalities, we had to just abide by the nation-state definitions that exist today. Because you couldn’t do an exhibition that was going to be against government.
So indeed, there are things which today lie in Pakistan, which are part of the very same cultural fabric as what is there in North India. And it is indistinguishable. It is part of the same cultural heritage. There are things that come from Sri Lanka which are very much part of the cultural fabric of the larger South Indian Tamil cultural landscape or the Buddhist landscape. And there are other ways of thinking, rather than thinking about the current confines of the modern, post-Second World War nation-states of the world.
And so what we did was that all through the exhibition, we tried to talk about cultural zones. But when it came to the penultimate gallery, suddenly we had a section with a large display of currency notes that came up after the Second World War, which suddenly now defined the new nation-states of the world as the way we want to geographically now account for and know the world. And so you had currency notes that were pre-Second World War with currency notes that were juxtaposed for the same countries post-Second World War.
And one set showed an older colonial empire, and older symbols on those currencies; and the others displayed these new currency symbols about how these nation-states were trying to define their identities after the Second World War, in their new boundaries.
CUNO: I remember in the early days of the exhibition being in its planning, there was a lot of debate, or discussion at least, about whether it should be India in the World or India and the World. How did you get to India and the World? Why did you leave India in the World behind?
AHUJA: Well, for me, right from the start, the exhibition was India and the World. And then very suddenly I was taken completely aghast one day, I found this note. And I found all this correspondence going on about India in the World. And I received an invitation from you that invited me to a seminar over here to discuss India in the World. And I was just like, this is not just a little editorial mistake that is taking place within the Mumbai museum staff; this has gone all the way up the ladder and now Jim’s inviting me to a meeting to discuss an exhibition which I was never employed to the curator of. I wasn’t going to do an exhibition on India in the world, because that’s rather limiting, ’cause it’s only about interconnections. It’s about how India is a part of the world. And there were so many other cultures in the world that India’s not had historical contact with. And it was important to be able to showcase those cultures, as well.
And so I remember I sent out a little memo to you, and saying, “Can we please do something about bringing the title back to what it was originally intended to be?” Which was India and the World. And we did manage to fix that at that meeting.
CUNO: I think you were wholly persuasive.
AHUJA: Thank you.
CUNO: It didn’t take long. It didn’t take long. What about in the title, also, and in the conception of the exhibition as nine stories? Why only nine stories, and why those nine stories?
AHUJA: Oh, that’s another one. I mean, yes, you’re absolutely right. Why those nine stories? I mean, there could be 900 stories, frankly. Every exhibition is guided by exigencies of space, of time. Somebody has to take a decision at some point about which are the themes that are going to unite and what are the stories that we’re going to tell?
The thing is, on the one hand, we wanted a history exhibition that was going to be chronological. But the kind of issues that were relevant in Mexico in 300 BC might not have been the same issues that were relevant for Australia in 300 BC. You might be able to tell a history of Greece in 300 BC with a whole array of objects; you’d be hard pressed to be able to find one from Australia that can be definitely dated to that time.
And so you have to rely on thematic connections. But then you find that what has been played out with that theme at a given time in a particular place might not be how that theme is being played out at exactly the same time somewhere else. So your chronological parameters end up becoming rather slippery and wide, in favor of a thematic categorization. And these became impossible problems to be able to neatly address editorially, curatorially, in the exhibition.
So when we did achieve our nine stories— They’re actually not nine; there’re really eight stories in the exhibition. And the eight stories were— You know, the first one was about the human species, humankind itself. Let’s start with the story of man, woman. Then we come to the story of sedentary life. The third one was about the creation of a state. The fourth one was looking at government. Religion. Then trade. And then we come to more sophisticated relative matters like etiquette, that culturally inform societies, in a gallery called Court Cultures. And then you come to the final one, which is about the nineteenth and twentieth centuries’ quest for freedom.
And we look at the different ways in which people are trying to define political freedom and justice, in the last one. So we ended up with these eight broad themes, which we thought would be themes that mattered to the world today. But equally, you may argue that we could have had other themes. We could have had a theme like gender or languages or war. These are equally important themes to explore.
And so when we were coming up with all these discussions, there were always so many ifs and buts and caveats that were all equally well-founded, on each side. And I was thinking about this exhibition from the perspective of so many Indian tribal communities that don’t buy into the same concepts of measuring progress. They don’t care for the same kind of city living. They don’t care. They’ve taken a conscious decision, where they watch us at arm’s length, participate in our capitalist mad lives while they live in a separate and an equally difficult set of circumstances. But they choose to live in a forest or wherever they choose to live, and their measure of progress is something quite different from ours. And their perspective on history is equally relevant, as is ours. And so these discussions were getting so irresolute that we included a ninth gallery, the final gallery, which questioned the premise of the entire show, and was called Time Unbound.
And that was story number nine. Which was just our way of saying, this is just an exhibition with nine stories. Some other curator is going to come along and do another exhibition global history, and they’re gonna choose another nine stories; and somebody else is going to choose another 900. And there’re going to be different ways of cutting this pie every time somebody does it.
CUNO: Now, you’ve given us a sense of just how complicated it was, how many discussions you had, how many meetings you had to sort of come to terms with the themes of the exhibition, and even the objects list of the exhibition. But what about working together, the two museums and the staffs of the two museums? That is, one in Mumbai and one in London, and the one in London having an undeniable history of part of the British Empire and the consequence of that empire on, in the lives of Indians and India as a polity. How did the staffs of the two museums come together on this exhibition?
AHUJA: Well, a lot of the museum staff in India is still quite nascent in the way that they haven’t had that kind of exposure; they haven’t necessarily had the kind of detailed education in the history of museum displays, the technicalities of it, or even museum politics. I mean, there is national pride. And so the conversation always comes down to the fact that we must show that India was a great civilization. And there is this requirement constantly to be able to chose the best of India, to be able to show something that is really compelling from India, to be able to try and show that the Indian object is grander, better, better carved, more beautiful, has a greater depth of understanding, a greater sophistication about it, than many of the objects from the rest of the world, because you want the Indian people to walk out feeling proud.
And this requirement makes you think that it’s— It gets a little bit— You have to sympathize. You have to see where that’s coming from, because it’s a society that still has a lot of pressure of having been put down for so many centuries that it’s going to take a very long time for that confidence to come in a society that is going to be calm enough about being able to say, we did it as well as somebody else, or somebody else did it better than us, or somebody else—
We learnt something. We weren’t just there as the world’s teachers, but we were also the world’s students. And that is something that was very difficult to communicate as a curator, to bring that through, through displays; to be able to say that, oh, look, these are the things that we imported. A lot of the art history that has been written on India for the past fifty, sixty years—more—has been extremely nationalist. So it was really putting myself out on a limb, in some ways, to be able to choose those objects that definitely showed foreign influence on Indian art.
Because it would have to be something that no one could deny the impress of Achaemenid or Hellenistic or Chinese civilizations on India. Because there is so much of a rhetoric around in the public domain at the moment about trying to prove that India gave it all to the world, that I think it was relevant to also show, equally importantly, that India also learnt from the rest of the world.
CUNO: Mm-hm. So you had a co-curator in the exhibition, J.D. Hill, from the British Museum. Did you simply divide the responsibility that you would choose the Indian objects and he would choose the British Museum objects?
AHUJA: We didn’t. That was the division that was formulated by the two museums’ administrations. And so those were the terms on which we were hired. And it does give one a little room to think, because I think J.D. knows a lot about Iran; he knows, as a result, a lot about India; he knows a lot about the ancient world, particularly. Those are his areas of real specialization. And I’m sure he would’ve been perhaps better informed than I was about many things to do with ancient Harappa or the period of the Achaemenids and so on and so forth.
And why should it be contingent that the British Museum’s curator must only speak for the rest of the world? And why should it be contingent that I as an Indian curator must only speak for India? Somebody could’ve argued, for instance, the fact that because this exhibition was being held in India, I might have been asked to lend insight on what aspects of world history might be relevant for India, rather than the British Museum’s curator choosing for the world.
You know, there was an equally compelling case to be made for that. But these are matters of museum administration that I think we need to think about as we go forward, what’s going to be a more enabling or provocative pairing of minds, how that’s going to work.
CUNO: I think you had one very conscious motive in selecting the objects that you selected to include in the exhibition. And that was to include as many as you could from as many different museums in India. Especially Indian museums that maybe didn’t participate in this kind of exercise, a big international exhibition. Tell us about that, about how many different museums you borrowed objects from. How was that process?
AHUJA: Well, for this exhibition, I managed to borrow from twenty-five different museums in India. Of those, about a dozen had never lent to an international exhibition previously. It’s important that we use the opportunity of having a catalyzing force, such as yourselves here at the Getty, in helping finance such an exhibition, as well as the British Museum; to have these outside interlocutors, to be able to mobilize a certain kind of sharing within India.
Because museums in India have not been holding exhibitions—have never held exhibitions, really—where they’ve lent to each other. And you’d imagine that a country as massive as India would have set that in place already, where the great treasures of India would at least be in circulation within India. And that hadn’t really happened before. So it was fantastic that the first premise of this exhibition was that this was an exhibition to be held in India, where foreign loans were coming to India, and allowing Indian museums to be able to lend amongst themselves, to mobilize something, catalyze something in India. So that was the first big step.
The field of museum administration is, by and large, in the hands of government in India. And yet there isn’t a cadre of trained specialists amongst the administrators at the highest levels, because the Indian Administrative Service, the IAS, which is India’s most controlling body of bureaucracy, doesn’t actually acknowledge art history as a discipline for its entrance exams. So as a result, you don’t have any administrators in government who’ve been trained in art history, ever.
And so the larger bulk of India’s museums lie languishing and there is a certain resistance to new scholarship. And it takes a catalyzing force from outside to come in, to mobilize them and to start publishing their collections and getting them better known. So choosing 30% of the exhibition that was entirely new, hopefully, will take people who will read this catalog to those little museums tomorrow and ask to see those objects.
And perhaps they will see the deplorable conditions in which they are displayed. Perhaps they will be provoked by seeing the terrible conditions in which they are published and how they are maintained and what’s going on over there. And if there is sufficient public outcry, then there will be a move to make a change. But if we stay complicit and quiet and we don’t draw attention to these things, we’re just going to keep Indian art frozen to the same canon of the same celebrated iconic objects, and we’re going to end up doing nothing for the sake of all the provincial museums of India, which desperately need our care.
CUNO: Well, let’s get to some of the individual objects in the exhibition. And first, show us or talk to us about the examples of Harappan jewelry that date between 2000 and 1700 BC.
AHUJA: Well, that’s a great example to actually talk about of the new objects that have never been published, I selected some things that come from the state of Haryana. Haryana is on the borders of Delhi, just north of Delhi, and the entire province that stretches between Delhi and Chandigarh. And it’s an ancient war zone. It’s the ancient agricultural belt of India. People always make jokes about the fact that culture? Haryana? The only culture Haryana has is agriculture. And here we were, and they’ve been doing, the University of Cambridge and the Archaeological Survey of India have been doing fantastic excavations across Haryana, and they’ve been discovering Harappan period artifacts that are dated to the second millennium BC.
And amongst those things I found, lying in a steel cupboard in a basement of the office of the Department of Archaeology of Haryana— They don’t even have a museum. And in that steel cupboard, in little boxes, were bits of Harappan jewelry. And amongst the pieces of Harappan jewelry there was a tiny, little banded agate bull. Agate is this extraordinary stone which has lots of bands of white in shades of dark orange or sometimes black. And this is an orange-colored bull, a rust or orange-colored bull, with these white bands in the jewel. And it has horns which are made of pure gold. So it’s quite dramatic. The object was—
CUNO: And the size is what, precisely?
AHUJA: About two inches. Two inches across. So it’s a sizeable jewel. And—
CUNO: To be worn, do you think?
AHUJA: I doubt it. The horns are very sharp and they’d poke your skin. So I think it was, I think, a jeweled burial object that must have been a sacred bull buried with someone as a charm or something like that, for the afterlife. I suspect that’s what it was related to.
CUNO: Do you have a sense of how far a distance this stone would’ve had to have traveled to where it was found?
AHUJA: So the nearest quarries for agate are in Maharashtra, Aurangabad. And the bull is found in Haryana. So that’s about a thousand kilometers across. Or more. But the design of a bull with golden horns is seen in the Nile Valley; it’s seen in Turkey; it’s seen in ancient Iran at the same time, in the Bronze Age. And so you know that these are people living in Haryana who were in touch with the sensibilities and design vocabulary and aesthetic of people thousands of miles away in a completely different part of the world.
CUNO: Whom they never saw, of course, had no contact with.
AHUJA: No, they did have contact with, because they were trading. And we know that they were trading because actual Harappan seals have been excavated in Iraq. And we were able to show some of the oldest Harappan seals that have been found, that were ever found.
Even before the excavation of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, Harappan seals had begun to be excavated in sites in Mesopotamia. And they baffled archaeologists for years because they didn’t look like cuneiform; they didn’t look like Mesopotamian seals, which we were familiar with; and instead, you had a completely different set of pictograms and animals on these deitite seals. And then a few decades later, when the cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa were excavated, archaeologists understood that these were seals that must have been used in trade that went all the way from South Asia to Iraq, where they were being excavated.
In fact, we found some Harappan seals that are— Well, strictly speaking, not seals, but sealings, so impressions of seals when they were stamped on jute gunny bags, on clay, as clay seals for trade goods. So we found an impression of a seal, which has the impression of the jute bag on the reverse. And so you know that they were attached to sacks of traded goods. And these ones with the gunny bag impression, with the jute bag impression, were actually excavated out of Iraq. They weren’t found in India. So that clearly shows that these must have been used for trade.
CUNO: They’re extraordinarily beautiful, these seals. The impressions of the carving out, the sense of a depiction of an animal. And sometimes they’re magical animals, or at least an imagined animal. But they also have inscriptions on them. And have the inscriptions been interpreted? Do we have access to that [inaudible]?
AHUJA: [over Cuno] No. In fact, it’s an extraordinary script. We’ve found more than 400 symbols and signs. And scholars have been working hard across the world, on trying to decipher this ancient script. There hasn’t yet been a Rosetta Stone that’s been found that’s produces this script alongside another, for us to be able to find a code. But I’m rather hopeful. And the reason for that is that we’ve come back into an age of pictograms.
You know, we use emoticons all the time in our world, and so perhaps when our brains are now becoming used once more to be able to communicate through symbols, we might be able to read what these things say one day.
CUNO: Just the manufacture of these seals, the carving of the images, it’s fantastic. Now, what about the sculpture from—I may mispronounce it, but— Phanigiri [Ahuja: Yes] from the south of India, dating from about 150 AD?
AHUJA: It’s one of the most exquisite pieces made in a famous style of Indian art called Amaravathi style. Amaravathi was this grant stupa that was on the southeastern coast of India, which was made of this exquisitely cream-ish, beautiful whiteish cream limestone. And the carvings are extremely delicate and sophisticated carvings, very fine relief carving.
They’re all from Buddhist stupas. And more than sixty stupas have been found around Amaravathi, on the southeastern coast of India, in the state that used to be Andhra Pradesh, but is now divided into two, Andhra Pradesh and a new state called Telangana. And Amaravathi and the site of Phanigiri are in the new state of Telangana.
These Buddhist stupas were made rich by the trading monks who set sail from the eastern coast of India and traded with the Roman Empire. So all along the eastern coast of India, we’ve found hundreds of Roman coins, amphorae of wine and oil that came from Turkey and from Syria and from Egypt, and even from Italy. So we know that they were trading in various goods that were being imported into India, inasmuch as India was exporting all kinds of fantastic things to the Roman Empire.
And these Buddhist sites, these sites grew really rich on the trade, and merchants, as an act of thanks, would give donations to these monastic complexes. And in the art of Amaravathi, there is a lot of Roman art, there’s a lot of Roman influence. There’s Alexandrian Roman influence that is embedded within it.
The style may have little bits of Roman influence, but overwhelmingly, the narrative is something which is compelling in terms of its Buddhist history and its Buddhist message. [Cuno: Tell us about that] And the message of this piece, this particular piece that we chose for the exhibition, that was something quite extraordinary. The whole sculpture is in the shape of a turban. And every turban for every prince has a jewel. A jewel in the crown, you may say.
And the shape of the jewel in this turban shows how the prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, sacrificed his turban. He forsook it for the sake of spiritual knowledge. He didn’t want to hang onto his material inheritance, because he wanted something better. And the jewel in the crown of Phanigiri is all about how you don’t hang onto material wealth, for the sake of something better, which is knowledge.
And I thought that was rather apposite for this exhibition. Because the most beautiful jewel in the crown in the British Museum is, of course, the Amaravathi marbles from India, or the Amaravathi stone sculptures from India. And rather than fight for the repatriation constantly of Indian artifacts to India, which is only about seeking materiality, perhaps the message of Siddhartha, which is that, you know, you hang onto knowledge instead, is a nicer one, and sets a better terms for sharing for our times.
CUNO: Yeah. Has this prompted this conversation, as you’d hoped it might?
AHUJA: Not entirely. Not yet. I think the— It’s still a stage where you’re— one’s hoping that the exhibition itself is going to start provoking people to think. The message is out there. It is almost stated in absolute terms, each of these things, but it’s not stated. It’s there, it’s provocative; but it leaves the audience to be able to come to that final punchline on their own.
Stopping short, I feel, of making that punchline, just short of making that punchline, is usually quite good, because then the audience feels that they’re rather clever and they’ve come to it themselves. But I live in hope perhaps. Many times, you realize that the audience doesn’t quite get it, and then you’ve failed. So I don’t know.
CUNO: Well, staying in the sphere of things Buddhist, what about the Buddhist triad from Mathura?
AHUJA: Yeah. Beautiful object again. An important object, because it’s datable. Well, sort of datable. It’s got an inscription on it that says that it was gifted by a monk called Virana, in the winter of the thirty-second regnal year of the emperor. Well, the problem is we don’t know which emperor.
It’s probably the thirty-second year of Kanishka, the Kushan emperor. And the thirty-second year of Kanishka would make it about the winter of AD 159-160. That winter, he donated this sculpture. And it’s a sculpture of the Buddha sitting in the middle, with his hand raised up, telling people not to have anything to fear. And on his left and right are two bodhisattvas.
The figure on his right is Vajrapani. Vajra literally means a thunderbolt. And he’s the bearer of knowledge, which is like a lightning strike. It’s what transforms you forever. And it comes like electricity through your mind.
And on his left is the bodhisattva of compassion called Avalokiteshvara, who holds a beautiful lotus in his hand. And compassion, grace, and knowledge are the two bodhisattvas that will lead Buddha to be able to say there’s nothing to fear, because knowledge and compassion bring that.
But the format in which this relief sculpture is set is what we call a triad, which is that there are three sculptures, three figures together in a block and on a stele. And triads became the standard way in which Buddhist deities would be shown subsequently in all parts of the Buddhist world, whether it was in Gandhara or China or Japan and Korea, and wherever else you may go in the Buddhist world.
The actual figures who constitute the triad kept changing. So the earliest triads in India might have been with the gods Brahma and Indra, and then with the bodhisattvas. And gradually, these triads became different and you could have three buddhas of the trikaya Buddhism, of the three different worlds of Buddhism, in Mahayana and then in Vajrayana Buddhism. But the visual format of having a triad was established quite early in the late first, early second centuries AD. And this mid-second century AD piece clearly shows that.
CUNO: Hm. You mentioned the history of the spread of Buddhism a bit coming from India and making its way north, coming down the coast from China in the reverse direction—that is, not from India, but toward India—through the Indian Ocean, all the way to Iran. And you’ve represented in the exhibition by a Chinese dish from the Yuan or the Ming period in the fourteenth century.
AHUJA: It’s not Ming, it’s earlier. It’s Yuan. And that’s what’s so interesting about it. It’s fantastic. For people who do marine archaeology, looking through the South China Sea, through the Indian Ocean, they find hundreds of junks and these ancient dhows that are lying submerged. And they contain masses and masses and Chinese porcelains.
And the Chinese porcelain that we were able to show is remarkable, because it comes from a place called Tughlakabad. Tughlakabad is in Delhi, and it was the capital of the Tughlaq sultans of Delhi. And it must be made in the 1320s. And that’s a very interesting moment in history because a trade corridor between China and Iran had opened up on the land route at that time, had become really active. That was when the Ilkhanid Mongols were in Iran and the Yuan Dynasty was in China.
And raw material from Iran, like the cobalt blue which we see in blue and white ceramics, had started going from Iran to China. Previously, China didn’t have access to this high-quality cobalt blue; they used a weaker blue in their ceramics. With the access to the raw materials from Iran, the Chinese potters were able to use this very intense, what we now know as the standard deep blue and white ceramic ware. And that only started in the early fourteenth century.
And curiously, we have a traveler’s account from that time. There was a very famous North African traveler, a man well versed in the Sharia, well versed in the Quran, called Ibn Battuta, a very famous traveler who wrote an account called the Rihlah. And Ibn Battuta reached India, became a minister in the court of the Tughlaq sultan of Delhi, and wanted a get-out clause— the sultan was a maverick man with too many bright ideas. Muhammad bin Tughlaq wanted to do all kinds of mad things, and Ibn Battuta didn’t quite want to remain in his employ forever.
And so when somebody reported that monasteries on the Silk Route needed repair, and because they fell in the domain of the Muslim sultan of India, the sultan deputed his minister Ibn Battuta to go up to the Silk Route and supervise personally the repair of those Buddhist monasteries.
Instead of doing this very noble thing which the sultan wanted him to do, Ibn Battuta turned course and went instead to the western coast of India, got on a ship and set sail for China. And reached China and went and saw the kilns were these fabulous blue and white ceramics were being made at that time. And he writes about it in his account. Ibn Battuta eventually went back to Morocco, from where we got his account. But we’ve found Chinese ceramics, meanwhile, from those dates in the Sudan; we’ve found Chinese ceramics from that date in India. And that just shows us how active China was in shaping kitchen design for the past 6-, 700 years.
CUNO: This is particularly interesting, I think, ’cause it has an inscription [Ahuja: Yes] in it that can actually locate this plate in a particular place in the hands of a particular person, almost.
AHUJA: Yes, it tells us that it was used in the imperial kitchens of the Tughlaq sultans of Delhi. And that’s quite important because it allows us to see that this comes from a group of the earliest surviving deep blue and white Yuan ceramics in the world.
CUNO: When I asked you to select a few objects to talk to us about, the last one you wanted to talk about was this Deccani painting of an African nobleman from the early seventeenth century. Tell us why you chose this to be the culminating object to talk about, and what we know about the painting.
AHUJA: This painting was made by artists from a region called Ahmednagar, which is in South India, what we call the Deccan. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, there was the early days of what we call indentured labor and slavery.
We put two objects beside each other: an exquisite Benin bronze that had an image of an African emperor on it, which now lies at the British Museum; and beside it, we had another African, who was this man who’s possibly a portrait of a man called Malik Ambar or his son, Fateh Khan.
Malik Ambar was a remarkable man. He was born destitute in Ethiopia. He was sold into slavery as a young boy of five or six. He was sold repeatedly from one owner to another. He found he was being traded a lot in various Arab principalities and kingdoms. He found his way to Jerusalem a couple of times in his life, and eventually found himself being sold to an Indian merchant, who brought him to the Gujarati port of Surat.
Malik Ambar, however, was a brilliant man who spoke several languages, knew the Quran, was highly educated. Obviously, completely self-taught in his years as a servant, as a slave, and got manunited[sp?]. He won his right to freedom from his last Indian owner, who thought that this man was too brilliant to keep as a slave. And he got into the employ of the sultan of Ahmadnagar, where he was spotted. And this man rose mercurially through the ranks in the army, and ended up becoming the general of the Ahmadnagar army. And then eventually, became prime minister of Ahmadnagar.
And it is such an extraordinary story of a man who was born as a destitute slave, in one generation, in one lifetime, transforming himself to the prime minister of South India. His story is even more remarkable because he created a fantastic kind of governance. He created a standing army for the state of Ahmadnagar that we are told by historical accounts had 100,000 soldiers. Of those, 33,000 were Hindus; 33,000 were Muslims; and he imported 33,000 from Africa. So he created an army where no one would have majority and there was always going to be an external force that was going to keep the balance. Rather like the way the Getty Foundation was in this exhibition, right?
CUNO: You’re very kind.
AHUJA: And that was very important because he created something so amazing that this became an absolutely unbeatable army, and became the bane of the Mughals who ruled North India. For twenty-six years, the great Mughals were trying to conquer the Deccan sultanate. And they were trying to South India, and they couldn’t get past the armies of Ahmadnagar because of Malik Ambar, the great soldier and prime minister of South India.
So it’s an important story to tell, his story. And it’s also important to be able to look at it alongside other objects that came from Africa, because the vicissitudes of Africa changed forever after that. And slavery and the nature of indentured labor, labor and slavery, became something quite different after the sixteenth century, after the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, when slavery became far more punishing afterwards. And so this was one of the last objects in the gallery called Court Cultures.
And then when we went upstairs to see the penultimate gallery called A Quest For Freedom, there Africa was referred to as a land that had been colonized and conquered instead.
CUNO: Extraordinary story. Thank you for that. Now, near to the very end of the exhibition is a contemporary work by a man named L.N. Tallur. Dates from about 2011. It’s called The Unicode. You didn’t choose to speak about this, but if I could ask you to speak about it, because it is an incomparable work, and one that brings the exhibition to a proper close, it seems to me.
AHUJA: Yes. It shows an explosion of concrete and money in this sphere. It’s this mass of concrete and money that’s exploding, but it’s put inside a halo, the way in which Indian gods are put inside haloes in sculpture. And it’s got a godly halo around it. And God usually tramples on some demon of ignorance or the other. Shiva usually is shown trampling on the demon if ignorance. And you see that demon of ignorance at the bottom of this halo.
But there’s no Shiva. Shiva instead is a Unicode god. Now, Unicode is a word that we all know, are those fonts that can be used in any operating platform. And so your— what you’ve written doesn’t go awry[?] as you move from one computer operating system into another. Well, if computers are the new nations of our times and are the new platforms through which we must express our identities, well, Unicode runs the risk of homogenizing us all.
But the Unicode god of our times, which is what Tallur, the artist, is trying show us, this concrete and money, this explosion of concrete and money— So we think we’ve all worshipping the same god of concrete and money, which is the new god of our times. And yet we all hang onto our packaging. I’m an Indian. And our memory of, I come from a rich cultural history, which is an Indian cultural history.
So looking at this sculpture, you see this explosion of concrete and money and you think, maybe there’s a memory of an Indian god inside there. Maybe somewhere in there, there is a Nataraja dancing away. Maybe there isn’t. Well, you never know that. You’ll never be able to know whether there is a sculpture that has been entombed in that ball of concrete and money. But whether the god is there or not, Indians are perfectly capable of packaging even their new god of concrete and money in a distinctly Indian way, to make it seem all their own.
CUNO: That’s very good. Now, one last question. Unrelated to a particular object in the exhibition, but again, to the museums that participated in its organization, CSMVS and the British Museum. These are encyclopedic museums, museums with representative examples of the world’s many cultures in their collections. You’ve said before of encyclopedic museums that they aspire to providing everyone access to knowledge. That was your great hope in this exhibition, I’m sure, that sense that maybe from objects, one could come to a greater understanding of the complexity of the world. [Ahuja: Indeed] Talk to us about that.
AHUJA: I have great faith in museums and in objects. I think they tell us very rich and layered stories. I think objects are to be treated as visible evidence. You don’t treat the evidence that you keep lodged in a law court with the scant regard in which you treat our museums in India. And these objects tell us histories that challenge the dominant narrative of what’s been forced down our throats sometimes, which is politically guided or guided by various ulterior motives.
And here, you come to see a parallel history. And the evidence is out there. Just go to the museum and see the objects for yourselves. And they’ll tell you a completely different history of religion and of the world. It’s important, therefore, to be able to mobilize the museum and get the museum to reach out to more people in India and in South Asian countries. This exhibition tries to do that. There’s a certain cache to being able to bring a world class museum like the British Museum to India. It will, hopefully, bring more people to museums in India.
And maybe this exhibition, if we plan it right and if we play it right, the message of this exhibition will actually reach out to embolden others to be able to have more such exhibitions in the future.
CUNO: Well, it’s a fantastic and extremely important exhibition, Naman, so congratulations to you and to your partner curator, J.D. Hill. I know it was a lot of work to get this off the ground and into the museums in which it’s being shown, and we’re grateful that the Getty could be a small part of this.
AHUJA: That you very much for having me here, and it’s been fantastic to be able to work here at the Getty on this exhibition for so many years. So thank you.
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 Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. 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.
NAMAN AHUJA: There is so much of a rhetoric around in the public domain at the moment about trying...