How I Rediscovered the Indian Body

Naman P Ahuja
Grist Media

When Europalia, a major international arts festival established in Brussels, approached the Indian government as part of its effort to include the arts and culture of BRICS countries in the festival, I was given 15 months to create The Body in Indian Art. This was the nodal exhibition at Europalia that ran from October 2013 to January 2014, and is now on at the National Museum in Delhi until June. Fifteen months is an impossible timeframe. Writing a comprehensive book, conceptualizing an exhibition, designing it and putting together the 300-odd artefacts for it was never going to be an easy task.

Truth be told, I’ve been systematically documenting the contents of museums in India and their storerooms for two decades now and I also maintain a very large personal archive. So to find all the objects I wanted for the exhibition, I first went through my personal archival collections and my library resources. By and large, I knew what was in which museum, and I could ask the Ministry of Culture for specific access where required.

The exhibition as it finally took shape presents 300 artefacts collected from 44 institutions across the country and categorized in eight sections: Death; Aniconism, or what we jocularly call ‘Anti-bodies’; Birth or Re-birth; Astrology and Cosmology; The Body Ideal (Supernatural, Heroic, Ascetic); and Rapture. I wanted to traverse our arts and culture from northeast India to Afghanistan to be able to showcase our plurality, as well as see that the body cannot be understood outside of its context. A context that is geographical, that relies on a variety of south Asian rituals, performances as well as material culture. For this, my team and I took 12 field trips across 13 states in India in those 15 months, where we visited about six sites each time. Each trip, undertaken usually with two assistants, had a crazy story of its own.

While many of the journeys were challenging, the trips in Andhra Pradesh were probably the hardest. I especially remember the trip to Phanigiri, a site beyond Hyderabad on the way to Amaravati. It’s a recently discovered site which has the most extraordinary and beautiful Amaravati style sculptures. The museum there is like a godown – it’s a room in somebody’s old and crumbling house, and we saw the most astonishing treasures there, but the situation was tricky because we didn’t know whether we would be borrowing from Andhra Pradesh or the about-to-be-formed Telangana. Were we going to write on our labels that it was the property of Andhra Pradesh or would we have to say Telangana? Ultimately, we couldn’t borrow anything from Phanigiri – which was deeply disappointing – and I’m still not sure what the reason was. I don’t think they knew how to deal with my request.

We also went to Nagarjunakonda on that trip, an island in the Nagarjuna Sagar in Guntur district in AP. Even though we were there on official work for the Ministry of Culture, we were not told that the museum would be closed on the day we were arriving. It takes a 45-minute ride on a ferry to get to the island, but it does not operate on days when the museum is closed. We were only going to be there for 24 hours, so if we didn’t get into the museum’s storeroom that day and see the material there, we’d never be able to borrow anything from them.

We had to try many things. The first problem was that the museum’s curator said it was his day off and he wouldn’t be able to open anything for us. I had to call officers in various departments in Delhi to instruct him to show us the collection, even if it was his day off. Next, he changed his tune: he said the real problem was that there was no boat to take us across that day. We then contacted private boat operators, the Andhra Pradesh Department of Irrigation and the Department of Flood Management to see if they could arrange a boat for us. Eventually, a boat was arranged and we did manage to get across. We selected two or three objects, but they were later deemed too fragile to leave Nagarjunakonda and so never arrived.

At the Rajasthan Oriental Research Institute in Jodhpur, there was another extraordinary episode – the director refused to entertain my request. For days, my request for access just lay in his office – he would neither give me pictures of the objects I’d selected nor would he allow me to take pictures of them myself. He wouldn’t even let me borrow their facsimiles until I had to get the Culture Secretary of Rajasthan to intervene. Were it not for the goodwill of some of the bureaucrats who helped us, many of these objects would never have arrived for the exhibition.

Travelling in Bihar is always a challenge. My team found that they were held up by a baaraat blocking the road from Nalanda to Patna for several hours late at night, and they had to call the police to rescue them and escort them out of there so they could get to Patna, which they reached in the middle of the night.

But not all our trips proved difficult.

The Mehrangarh Museum in Jodhpur is located in the Mehrangarh Fort, which has apartments for visiting scholars. Candlelit dinners, exquisite art and royal hospitality in one of the most majestic forts of the world… one cannot complain.

Our visits to Bhubaneshwar and the interiors of Odisha made a particularly good trip. Things were very well organized: the museums in Ratnagiri, Lalitgiri and Bhubaneshwar that we visited opened on time, and their storerooms were accessible. The most amazing objects we got from Odisha were the Ashtadigpala  – the guardians of the eight directions – which are the jewels of the exhibition. They are exquisitely carved and are in pristine, crisp condition – almost as if they were brand new. They were discovered by the Odisha government about 35 years ago and are our best-preserved medieval sculptures.

Madhya Pradesh is also very well organized and has great riches – it’s littered with temples everywhere and is among the biggest lenders to our exhibition. The Madhya Pradesh civil service has been sensitive to matters of culture for the last 30 years or so, and was one of the first to develop heritage tourism in India. They’ve done a lot to set up museums across the state where these objects can be preserved and displayed. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement, but there is at least an infrastructure of some kind, which is often not the case in other parts of India. We’ve borrowed some fantastic sculptures from the Bhopal Museum, the Vidisha Museum and the Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya.

My most memorable field trip was to Kannauj a few years ago, from where the extraordinary Saptmatrika panel and the Ardhanarishwara eventually made their way into the exhibition. I first went there to see and photograph the masterpieces in the museum. I had to take a train from Kanpur, and I arrived in Kannauj to find there was no public transport available to take me to the museum, save for tongas. And on that day, there happened to be a strike by the Kannauj union of tongawalas. Incidentally, I had brought a car battery with me since I knew there might not be electricity in many of the villages and small towns I’d visit. The battery was to power an extra light to help me take photographs. So there I stood luckless in Kannauj, with my camera equipment, a tripod, a light, a car battery and my backpack, and there seemed no way I could possibly get to the museum. I finally found a tonga who agreed to take me if I paid double his normal rate – a whopping Rs 20. I gladly agreed to be fleeced!

I knew I wouldn’t be returning there in a hurry and so I very systematically took my photographs and documented the site. To take those photos, I had had to get clearance from the Archaeological Survey of India, both in Delhi and in Lucknow, and carry those letters of permission with me. Getting permission has perhaps been my hardest battle over the years – getting access to the reserve collections of museums is very difficult for scholars. But for The Body in Indian Art, putting everything together in the time available was the hardest part. And it was only due to my previous years of field trips, such as the one to Kannauj, that it became possible. Knowing where the two objects from that collection were, I didn’t have to go there in person this time around.

Although we only exhibited around 300 objects during the exhibition, the original list I submitted to the government had around 650. I designed the exhibition and our way of working to allow for mistakes (of which there can be many). I had learned from the bitter experiences of others and conceptualized a theme that would be flexible enough to accommodate the objects. For every object I wanted, I had a replacement in mind, sometimes two. I knew that for either reasons of conservation or bad administration I probably wouldn’t get half the objects I asked for, and that’s exactly what happened. But even a show with 300 objects is something that remains inconceivable – my colleagues in India and across the world have said this is an astonishing exhibition because of the number of high-quality Indian pieces.

Not every object that was on display in Brussels is part of the exhibition in Delhi. Some of the Indian artefacts borrowed from museums in Zurich, Paris, Oxford and Holland, and from three major private collectors in Belgium, didn’t travel to Delhi. But we didn’t lose out entirely – I had also identified about 70 national treasures that had turned out to be too delicate to be sent to Brussels, but I could show them in Delhi, where they’re now on display.

There are several other objects in my mind that I know are better and more beautiful and more important than what is on display today. Nagarjunakonda and Phanigiri had astounding objects, and certain Chola bronzes lying in Chennai and Thanjavur are unsurpassed in their quality, but they’re not even on public display – they’re lying in the reserve collections of museums and are not borrowable.

The show could not have been done without the help of far-sighted individuals who have been able to maintain their own private collections. To be able to borrow from them, you have to be able to win their trust by showing you understand the worth of the object you’re looking at. Many of them understood what I was trying to do and were extremely supportive. With a virtual moratorium on Indian museums on buying artefacts, it is these extraordinary citizens who have been finding and collecting great work who have made a huge difference.

I think this exhibition really is a testimony to what can happen in India and how things have changed, and how they will get better. Besides, there have been endless small discoveries deepening my knowledge and challenging the way I think about Indian history, such as the mysterious copper boar-headed anthropomorph from the 2nd to 1st millennium BC, which has the oldest surviving Brahmi inscription on it. That was one of the most remarkable discoveries of the exhibition. In the ‘Creation’ section, there are extraordinary abstract paintings from Mehrangarh, from the Nath Charita and Shiv Purana manuscripts in the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s personal collection. They are extraordinary and radical paintings that show that even the great gods of India were actually born out of a goddess. In the beginning there was a goddess, not a god. It was a radical idea to be able to show in the exhibition.

I want people to come away not awestruck, but saying, “That was interesting.” Reigniting people’s curiosity and interest is the most satisfying thing for me. We have a misplaced idea of what a museum is supposed to achieve – I don’t think it is only about a sense of satisfaction with beauty or objects. An exhibition is supposed to be, above all, something that can capture your mind and make you want to learn more, make you want to come back.

My personal agenda in the creation of this exhibition was to make it as inclusive as possible. And not to have a linear telling of history. Playing with themes allows people to think about them – they come in and see they’re not the first person to have thought about a subject, and how other people have tried to think through it in the past. I think when you see different opinions presented, it allows you to be able to accommodate varied opinions. You become aware of difference, and I hope being able to put these varied opinions in a single gallery will allow a certain kind of tempered viewing. We live in an age when culture can be very narrowly defined or appropriated by certain right-wing agendas or puritanical ways of thinking. Culture can be defined on the basis of religion, and even within religions, it is dominant groups that seem to be calling the shots.

I think it is contingent upon us to present our plurality of voices, and I really hope the exhibition communicates this rather than any single agenda. Curating a show that presents India on an international stage is one thing, having it be equally successful and able to communicate to an Indian audience is the real acid test. For me, the most wonderful thing about bringing the exhibition back to India is having everyone here, from the guards and carpenters, the army jawans who I see on Sundays, and the many involved visitors who are not just from upper- or middle-class India, walking into the show, getting it and enjoying it.

(As told to Deepika Sarma.)

Naman P Ahuja teaches art history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, where he is Associate Professor of the art and architecture of ancient India.