An oil painting by Amrita Sher-Gil, recently mounted at New Delhi’s National Museum, showed a confident-looking European girl with a comparatively demure Indian. The European, painted in bright yellow, had her arm around the shoulders of the visibly dark Indian girl. While the painting has been interpreted as an exploration of the artist’s mixed identity (she was born to a Sikh father and a Jewish-Hungarian mother) and her corresponding artistic influences, it also deals with a transforming social and political landscape.
‘Two Girls’ was painted by Sher-Gil during her brief visit to Budapest in 1939, around the time Europe witnessed the rise in fascism, and India a nationalist, anti-colonialism struggle against the British rule. The artwork, by one of the greatest avant-garde artists of the 20thcentury, was part of a large-scale, transcontinental collaboration that offers a unique perspective on India’s history by placing it in a parallel global context.
Titled ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’, the exhibition brought together nearly 200 iconic objects from New Delhi’s National Museum, Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), London’s British Museum, other Indian museums as well as private collectors. Inaugurated at the Mumbai museum late last year, the exhibition was open for public viewing at the National Museum until June 30.
Spread across nine galleries, each section juxtaposed masterpieces from India and rest of the world through different themes focusing on—the beginning of time; the emergence of first cities; empires; the relationship between state and religion; divinity; trade; court cultures; struggle for freedom; and the representation of time in art.
Sher-Gil’s figurative painting belonged to the ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery, which told the story of different kinds of freedoms—from slavery, imperial rule and patriarchy—covering a period of more than 200 years. The timeliness of this particular gallery, with its wide array of paintings, photographs, posters, everyday objects and contemporary artworks, is significant as the entire exhibition was launched ahead of the seventy-year celebrations of Indian independence.
It is a well-known fact that India was the one of the first countries to gain independence from European imperialism. The freedom gallery charted a timeline of India’s story through a series of landmark events, such as the colonial masters’ discovery of the country’s history and art; the 1857 revolt; swadeshi movement; the adoption of Indian constitution; launch of the first currency notes; universal adult suffrage; and the contemporary project of digitally mapping populations.
One of the biggest draws of this exhibition was an original copy of the Indian constitution, designed by a team of Bengal’s Santiniketan artists led by Nandalal Bose, and calligrapher Prem Behari Narain Raizada. According to exhibition co-curator Naman P Ahuja, “The constitution is not just an important piece of legal document, it is also extremely beautiful and aesthetic. It brings together a variety of Indian art styles and episodes from Indian history, mythology into a united modern Indian art style.”
In India, Mahatma Gandhi’s charkha, or the spinning wheel, became the rallying point for freedom from British exploitation of Indian raw material, and eventually from their rule. The advent of indigenous textile mills in India, presented in the exhibition through a 20th century advertisement, found resonances in the African artworks made of cotton which celebrated freedom from colonialism and male domination.
The ‘Quest for Freedom’ gallery dramatically recorded the scale of violence involved in the freedom struggle, particularly in the Indian context. For instance, a photograph taken by famous war photographer Felice Beato, known for re-staging conflicts in order to document them, re-constructed the devastation of a building and loss of life during the 1857 revolt. Another image showed two Indians, identified as mutineers, hanging from the gallows.
Parallel histories, war and reconciliation
Viewed together, the gallery’s various artefacts attempt to stitch together a web of trans-border histories, through paintings, sculptures, archival documents and textile material. A grand self-portrait by German artist Johann Zoffany, who lived in British India during the latter half of 18th century, is placed close to a Nigerian wooden sculpture of Queen Victoria, the symbol of British imperial domination.
The theme of slavery, which was abolished in the 19thcentury, was explored through a Puerto Rican slave register, containing details about a twenty-five-year-old slave. In another artwork, a striking Tanzania-made kanga (East African garment) celebrates the victory of Barack Obama as the first African American to hold U.S. presidency.
In the end, the exhibition curators could not have thought of a more befitting way of rounding off the Freedom gallery tour, showcasing objects representing peace and reconciliation.
A Mozambican throne, made by welding together pieces of decommissioned civil war weapons, became the symbol of hope and transformation in post-war Mozambique, which is still suffering from the effects of a 16-year war that ended in 1992. The context behind this installation is the country’s post-civil war project that encouraged people to exchange weapons for agricultural, domestic and construction tools.
Complimentary to this installation was a bronze sculpture by Colombian artist Alex Sastoque, who has modified the barrel of an AK-47s rifle into a cultivation tool, while retaining the rest of the weapon. The object is titled ‘Metamorphosis – A Symbol of Peace.’
Ankush began his career as a journalist in 2008, and has since covered multiple stints in print, television and digital media in India. In 2016, he took up a communications and outreach assignment for an American social innovation organisation, which works with the Tata Trusts in India. He is currently working, in Delhi, as a media publicist for art practitioners. He tweets @artandculturediary, and shares his photography on Instagram.