"In India adornment has so much more meaning than it does in many other countries. It brings fortune. And in fact, that if you are without jewellery, it's almost considered inauspicious," she says.
In this episode of The Sandip Roy Show, Vidya Dehejia, Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, talks about her new book, India: A Story Through 100 Objects. Edited excerpts:
Sandip: In a time when we seem to be trying to find reasons to take offence at anything and everything, it seems rather daring to try and tell a story of India through 100 objects.
Vidya: Yes, it is indeed a bit daring. By the time the book came out I began to realise that there were a number of issues in it that would arouse people’s interest and curiosity and maybe objections as well. We are constantly surrounded by objects. Whether it’s in our homes or in our offices, we are surrounded by these things, things that enable our everyday life, that dictate them. Mostly they are things that we take for granted. But these objects speak about us and they have a story to tell— a story that reflects our values, our aspirations, our achievements over time, even our dreams. The objects reveal more about us than we realise. You go into a person’s home and you look around and you immediately form some judgment. How do you choose the objects? This was the most difficult part.
I don’t think there’s any such thing as a purely objective point of view on anything. But my idea was to allow these objects to take centerstage and to tell a story.
One of the things that I did want to do was to allow these objects to shed light on the varying priorities that have become evident over time, the differing strands of achievement that arose over the ages and that really created this, what I think of as a very rich, multicultural medley that is today’s India.
Sandip: So did you have a sense of the larger story of India that you wanted to tell and find the objects that fit the story or did the story emerge for you as a result of the objects you chose?
Vidya: That’s an interesting question. No, I didn’t start out with a story and choose the objects. My students at Columbia would also choose objects and send it to me. They were all fascinated. What about this gorgeous thing? And then I would say there’s so much of this type of stuff in the book. I’ve got to enlarge it to tell the story of all of India. It cannot be so heavily rooted either in the Mughal period or in south India. The idea was to expand it geographically, expand it over time. I realised that there were definitely going to be objections on how some objects were not in this book.
But I should say one thing about the objects I chose to illustrate in this volume. To imply that India’s finest objects are all overseas because I happen to have chosen objects from museums overseas is complete nonsense. Our riches are almost entirely here in this country. So why then did I choose to illustrate objects largely from collections overseas? Because our public museums and our other institutions do not carry high resolution photographs of images and they are not very forthcoming.
Sandip: You call this book a people’s history. How did you want it to be different from the story of India we learn in history class at school?
Vidya: It does include objects of the elite, but it shouldn’t be entirely of the elite. I didn’t want it to be a story of the maharajahs and the ranas and the emperors and the various kings. For example, if you look at the beautiful silver Goan Tabernacle Monstrance. It’s a striking bird and the monstrance, which sort of represents the wafer, is the body of the Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ. It was commissioned and offered to the church by somebody who could afford to have created a huge thing in silver, but the people who would come there would be everyday people, people who were going to the church and who would be able to see this beautiful object.
Or the beautiful, granulated jewellery of the first century of this era created by an unknown craftsman. It would have been commissioned and paid for by a wealthy client who wanted to wear it. But very similar pieces are found in Andhra and also near Allahabad, across a wide swath of the country. It’s not just pure beautification; it has a significance of a different type. In India adornment has so much more meaning than it does in many other countries. It brings fortune. And in fact, that if you are without jewellery, it’s almost considered inauspicious.
Sandip: You wanted to tell a story about the sort of multiculturalism that has always been a part of the India story. Like you have this Indian sculpture that was found in Pompeii. What was going on there?
Vidya: Yes, she’s a beautiful piece, she’s just under 10 inches in height, ivory, so obviously valuable material. Lovely little figurine of a woman exuberantly adorned, huge numbers of necklaces, bangles all the way from wrist to elbow, anklets from knee to ankle, gorgeous little piece. And, of course, she is the exact counterpart of the sandstone sculptures of Yakshis on the early stupas, like Sanchi in central India near Bhopal. At the Sanchi stupa, we’ve got an inscription which talks of the ivory carvers of the nearby town of Vidisha. So we know that ivory carving was happening there. And this is obviously a piece created by those ivory carvers who were also with the stone carvers at Sanchi. And what is she doing in Pompeii? It’s part of this extraordinary trade. The first centuries, BCE and CE, were really the age of mercantile enterprise in an extraordinary way. We know, for instance, that pepper was one of the very important items that went from India, and it was a prized item in Rome. We recently found a Roman recipe book of that period with 400 recipes in it, and only five of them do not use pepper.
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