From ‘India and the World’, a gallery tour of masterpieces on 200-year-old freedom struggles

 

Ankush Arora

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.

 

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Two-Girls, Amrita Sher-Gil, Oil on Canvas, 1939, Budapest, Hungary, Private Collection. Image: National Museum

 

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.

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Page from a slave register, Paper, 1871, Manatí, Puerto Rico, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

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.

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Execution of mutineers from the album of Canon Richard Warner of Lincoln, Photograph by Felice Beato, 1858, The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi. Image: National Museum

 

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.

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Johann Zofanny with Colonel Polier, Claude Martin and John Wombwell, Johann Zofanny, Oil on Canvas, About 1786-87, Victoria Memory Hall, Kolkata. Image: National Museum

 

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.

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Barack Obama, Kanga, Printed Cotton, 2008, Made in Tanzania, found in Nairobi, Kenya, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

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.

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Throne of Weapons, Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester), Metal, wood and plastic, 2001, Maputo, Mozambique, The British Museum. Image: National Museum

 

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.’

 


276520d7-6209-4f19-a17e-7e4d98264b55Ankush 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.

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Interwoven narratives of Indian and Thai textiles   

 

The revival of Thai’s ‘mudmee’ silk industry is the subject of a new exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum

Ankush Arora

Between the 14th and 18thcentury, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (present-day Thailand) began importing various kinds of Indian textiles for the local market and royal court. These included block-printed or painted cotton from Masulipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), silk brocades from Banaras, and Gujarat’s patolaor double ikat silk—the latter was believed to have been commissioned for the Ayutthaya king during the 1660s.

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Painting of Ayutthaya c.1665, painted by Johannes Vingboons, ordered by the Dutch East India Company, Amsterdam. Courtesy: Wikipedia

 

While the origin of silkworm breeding and silk weaving in Thailand remains unknown, the early hybridization of Indian-made textiles with Siamese (dated term for Thai people) royal court patterns began to take place sometime during the Ayutthaya kingdom, according to a new art exhibition at New Delhi’s National Museum. Adorned with flame motifs, which is a quintessential form of Thai visual art seen in local paintings and architecture, the textiles began to be commissioned exclusively for the royal court.

For the general Siamese public, textiles with simplified patterns (perhaps keeping in mind the cost), including Indian influences, were also produced. These Indian-Thai patterns and motifs can still be seen in mudmee silk of contemporary Thailand, which is the subject of the exhibition, titled ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’.

“The diamond lattice structure filled with lotus-bud-shaped motif…[was] favoured by the Siamese (Thai) court in the past. The structure…is often referred to as Mughal Indian inspiration upon the Siamese court taste,” reads a note in the exhibition catalogue, on an early 21st century natural silk dye from Surin Province. The exhibition, unfortunately, does not highlight the artistic and historic influence of other neighbouring countries, such as China, on Thailand’s textiles.

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Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

Presented in collaboration with the Royal Thai Embassy and the Thai Khadi Research Institute, the exhibits document the history and monarchy-led revitalization of the Southeast country’s mudmee silk, that involves tying off silk yarns, to create patterns, before setting off the process of weaving.

Intricately woven, with complex patterns and vivid textures, around 50 mudmee silk items have been mounted at the gallery, offering a glimpse into the local and royal culture of Thailand, which has been shaped by constitutional monarchy, military rule and Buddhist religion.

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Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

The artefacts on display, roughly covering a period of three most recent centuries, are traditional costumes for both Thai men and women; the collection comprises of tube skirts, hip-wrappers, regular skirts, and shoulder sashes. The artistic precision and detail of these textiles are accentuated by the portrayal of local themes that are related to—mythology, religion, spirituality, architecture, nature and fertility.

Since the early 20th century, however, the western style of dressmaking led to the decline of locally handwoven textiles in Thailand. With the expansion and rapid urbanization of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, and other big cities, mudmee silk was relegated for use by the rural and poor people only. The onslaught of cheaper and machine-made silk sidelined indigenous silk as well. One of the other reasons that may have also contributed to mudmee silk’s decline is the difficulty of wearing Thai garments on a daily basis.

With the support of royal patronage since the 1950s, led by Thailand’s Queen Sirikit, mudmee silk not only made it to annual silk festivals and international fashion runways, the quality of weaving and sericulture significantly improved. Focusing on the rural and backward parts of Thailand, she launched a livelihood campaign by initiating market reforms, introduced training in textile weaving, encouraged people to increase mudmee production, and eventually made large-scale purchases from the local market.

A fashion icon herself, the queen—who turned 86 this year—has made innumerable public appearances, both at home and abroad, wearing exquisite gowns made from Thai mudmee silk. She even hired French couturiers and Thai designers to design fashionable dresses out of mudmee, opening new doors for traditional silk.

Some of the artefacts at the exhibition, such as a collection of chic mudmee silk dresses, have been loaned by Bangkok-based Queen Sirikit Museum of Textiles, that houses the queen’s personal collection of dresses tailored from Thai textiles.

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Exhibition View by Ankush Arora

However, the National Museum show does not acknowledge the contribution of Jim Thompson, the American intelligence official-turned-businessman who is credited for “singlehandedly saving Thailand’s vital silk industry from extinction (Time Magazine, 2016).”

Thompson, famously called ‘Thai Silk King’, was sent to Thailand on an intelligence assignment, just as the World War II was coming to an end. Duties over, he decided to stay back in Bangkok and build a life there. Charmed by its local silk weaving industry, but equally disturbed by its near-extinct status, Thompson began investing in the market, engaged hundreds of silk weavers, and created a market for Thai silk at home and abroad.

As his silk business achieved fame and the industry witnessed a revival, he built a sprawling property of villas in Bangkok, “along the pulse of Thompson’s new world: on the banks of the khlong (canal) across which Bangkok’s silk weavers lived and worked (Time, 2016).” But it was an accusation—of having stolen five Buddha heads—that probably put his reputation at stake. Ultimately, his story ended with a mysterious disappearance, during a walk in a jungle at the Malaysian highlands. His legacy survives still survives in Bangkok, as The Jim Thompson Museum, originally his canal-side residence that is also a repository of his personal collection of local art and antiques.

The exhibition, ‘Mudmee: A Shared Silk Heritage’, was inaugurated on Aug. 10, 2018, and will be on view until Sept. 25, 2018, at National Museum, Delhi.

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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.

The Curator #1

Do you know that the word Curator means “a person who takes care of” or “the one who heals”? The primary task of a curator was to take care of a collection or a museum. But as times changed the practice of curating involved presenting a collection of works with an interesting theme or narrative. The practice also extended to works outside museums and institutions. Over the years curators have used collections to weave stories, re-define the idea of collections, present new art historical and visual possibilities to understand and see artworks. In this weekly series titled “The Curator”, updating every Saturday, we will introduce you to curators from India who are doing path-breaking works by using art collections and artworks to generate meaningful and participatory exhibitions.
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The Curator #1
Naman P Ahuja
Exhibition: Rupa-Pratirupa
The Body in Indian Art
Naman P Ahuja is the Professor of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. ‘The Body in Indian Art’ was a seminal show curated by him at Europalia in Brussels which later travelled to National Museum, Delhi. The show was important for the wide range of materials it brought together from different museums, galleries and collections across India (largest ever mounted at National Museum with over 350 objects) to address the complex idea about body referring to diverse Indian philosophies and spanning across many periods of history.
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It also foregrounded the plurality of our country by showcasing diverse views, beliefs and expressions in art on the idea of body. The exhibition was divided into eight thematic categories ranging from birth to death and also dealing with heroic bodies to ascetic bodies. Those who have missed the show could take a look at the catalog produced by National Museum which is also very affordable. It also comes with a CD featuring the exhibition music and soundtrack.
– Premjish, Outreach Director, Art1st