Did you know what were the first weapons used by the human race to hunt? If you are thinking of a spear or dagger, you’re wrong. The answer is a small, but sharp-edged piece of quartzite, cut with utmost precision to create maximum impact on the prey. The weapon is 1,700,000–1,070,000 years old. More such information is waiting to be unearthed at India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum in Delhi, which maps India’s history in correspondence to parallel events that took place in the world at a distinct point in time. It is an effort to place India’s history on an analogous plane with world history in a cyclical manner.
The exhibition is a first-of-its-kind in India, considering that more than one museum is participating in it.
The British Museum (London), National Museum (New Delhi) and Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Mumbai) have contributed to the objects on display. In addition, 20 private players have also contributed. The exhibition has been curated by JD Hill, Aveni Sood, Naman Ahuja and Beatriz Cifuentes Feliciano. Divided into nine sections—Shared Beginnings, First Cities, Empire, State and Faith, Picturing the Divine, Indian Ocean Traders, Court Cultures, Quest for Freedom and Time Unbound—the collection consists of small groups of objects from significant periods in history having a dialogue with each other. The reason behind choosing such objects was to prompt debate and discourse among viewers. The major challenge, as Hill puts forth, was to exhibit India’s history in a global context through objects that would resonate with the Indian audience.
The quartzite weapon mentioned above finds its roots both in India and Africa at the same time. This strengthens the argument that historians and authors share about the commonalities between events taking place across the globe at any given time. A question that assumes pertinence in this context is: what brought about these similarities, despite the difference in culture and the mammoth geographical distance between the places? Hill elaborates: “It was a surprise when you think about the past like this. Today’s academicians would not undertake such projects. But such projects do begin to throw up questions like these. Firstly, there was a lot more connection even way back than we can conceive. Secondly, people were facing similar sort of challenges. But different cultures answered to them in unique ways.”
The evidence lies clearly in front of you at the exhibition. An Indian pot was found at an Iranian site of excavation. What do you infer? Indians travelled to Iran (then the Middle East) for trade and an Indian settlement set up base to boost its trade. In such a scenario, they would need Indian food, and the best way to have some was in Indian utensils. So they built one, and left it for generations millions of years later to discover, helping them join the dots of human history.
The entire exhibition puts you into disparate time capsules—each linked to the other, yet possessing an entirety in itself. For instance, take the section titled Quest for Freedom. On one hand is the Constitution of India—the single-biggest manifestation of our struggle for freedom—on the other are papers documenting the legal trade of slaves in Africa. How are they connected? While for Indians, the quest for freedom was to gain independence from the colonial regime, at the same time, in Africa, abolition of slavery was the biggest freedom the slaves were looking for. Despite being distinct, we were, and are, united by the cause. There is clearly no linear way of understanding history.
Another gobsmacking aspect the exhibition opens up is the intricate divergence within the historical narrative. While Roman emperors wanted their faces imprinted on coins and scrolls to propagate their imagery and ideology among the subjects, Indian kings had very different notions of kingship. “If you look at the sculpture, which has the turban surmounted on top, you realise what Indian rulers thought. The sculpture aptly portrays Siddhartha’s ideas of how a ruler should be. He had no interest in holding the throne, so he gave it up. Roman emperors would never do the same. They were driven by glory, while Indian kings considered righteousness as the path to success,” Hill tells us.
From one section to another, the transition of time through history is extremely smooth. It is not a strenuous exhibition at all, courtesy the minimalistic nature of the textual information provided besides the artefacts. This acts as a great impetus for the younger generation to come and observe history in a context different than the one they are made to learn through textbooks. It is open-ended and forces you to raise questions as per your own observation, something Hill considers the real success of this exhibition.
India and the World: A History in Nine Stories is on display till June 30 at the National Museum in Delhi