How I Rediscovered the Indian Body

A massive new show of little-known art works from across India explores the various tradition of depicting the human body. Many of the masterpieces have never been publicly exhibited before, and were collected from obscure and provincial collections based on the curator Naman Ahuja’s painstaking research and field trips. Here, he recounts the most remarkable trips he took for the exhibition and his sometimes funny, sometimes unfunny encounters with the Indian bureaucracy.

Wrestlers with bodybuilding instruments, gouache on paper, 1825. From the Bharat Kala Bhavan, Varanasi.
Photo by Naman P Ahuja / National Museum.
1 / 11
Grist Media | Photo by Naman P Ahuja / National Museum
Thu 3 Apr, 2014 2:30 PM IST

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.


  • Everyone has their Pashto cinema storyTue 12 May, 2015

    But only some of us have the deep reserves of courage to tell that story

  • Kushinagar: The place where Buddha diedTue 5 May, 2015

    The town in Uttar Pradesh where the Buddha died is of great significance, but remains relatively unknown. A new graphic book recounts a journey to the historical sites associated with the life of the Buddha, and how in the midst of India’s spiritual collisions the author came face to face with his mortality in Kushinagar.

  • Who decides how much my Crocin will cost?Mon 4 May, 2015

    A month ago, the government raised the price of 500-odd essential drugs by 3.84 percent. Is it a fair rise, and does it ultimately benefit the consumer? Is controlling the prices of all drugs sold in India – which the government is considering – a good plan? A manufacturer of low-cost drugs explains.

  • You’d probably make more money in a fixed deposit than a news channelWed 29 Apr, 2015

    Wait. No one watches the news? Then why are there so many news channels. The writer of a new book on the industry explains the real reason these channels are launched.

  • How Reliable is the World’s Most Influential Business Consultant?Mon 27 Apr, 2015

    Ram Charan has worked ascetically for almost half a century consulting with top CEOs and businesses across the world. He claims to live in planes and hotels and own a house only for tax reasons. But as a writer of case studies, Charan has left the historical record poorer without a sense of how businesses deal with corruption and politics. His public analyses are usually simplistic, reducing complex corporate stories to tales of thrilling heroes who succeeded because they did something.

  • The Extraordinary Network Across India That’s Helping Restore Our Film Heritage, One Trashed Reel At A TimeFri 24 Apr, 2015

    From Alam Ara to Black Friday, from Paanch to Thalapathi, the list of Indian films whose prints have been lost is long. Not only have we lost almost 80 percent of our films made before 1964, we continue to lose recent ones too. But there are some extraordinary efforts now underway to hunt and restore these films, some of which involve the very people who used to destroy these prints for profit.

  • How I Began to ReadWed 22 Apr, 2015

    My discovery of reading and the books that inspired me

  • Your Handy-Dandy Guide to the Bihar Assembly ElectionsMon 20 Apr, 2015

    Bihar will see Assembly elections before the end of November this year. But the games will begin long before that. Who are the key players? What are the cool moves? Our writer digs through perception and realpolitik to bring you this primer to the upcoming tournament.

  • Good People and Bad People Meet in ShimlaFri 17 Apr, 2015

    The UK television show ‘Indian Summers’, set in the 1930s Raj summer capital of Shimla, has been Channel 4's most expensive drama ever. As it concludes its finale this weekend and readies for a second season, will it go beyond an understanding of the British Empire as largely a case of bad manners and political incorrectness?

  • Are Farmers Going to Be Modi’s Biggest Blind Spot?Wed 15 Apr, 2015

    Narendra Modi declares his commitment to farmers all the time but his government has steadily acted against them. The political cost is going to be steep. From rail rokos and stone-pelting to urea trucks being looted, farmers across the country are increasingly ranged against the NDA government.

  • Three Supreme Court Orders Later, What's the Deal with Aadhaar?Mon 13 Apr, 2015

    By law, you should not be denied any government service in India if you don’t have an Aadhar card number. So why do various government programs continue to ignore three Supreme Court orders and insist on the dreaded number, and how are they getting away with it?

  • Five problems ailing veterinary medicine in India that you should know aboutFri 10 Apr, 2015

    Besides our attachment to pet animals,India’s livestock industry alone contributes almost four percent of the GDP. So why does veterinary medicine in India languish with perennial problems?

  • The Slave Ship that Ran from Kerala to New OrleansWed 8 Apr, 2015

    Post Hurricane Katrina, a whole new American dream was designed for some Indians — how to get trapped in a guarded labor camp by an American company. Five of these Indians just won $14 million in damages in their fight for justice and dignity, in one of the largest labor trafficking cases in US history. There are more than 200 other plaintiffs awaiting justice in this explosive, racist example of how America's broken visa program continues to exploit international migrants.

  • Why Spanish Is On Its Way to Becoming One of India’s Favoured Foreign LanguagesMon 6 Apr, 2015

    The New Delhi branch of the Instituto Cervantes had the highest number of enrollments in the world in 2014. In Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, young people are betting on Spanish for their big city dreams. What’s going on with desi learners of Espanol?

  • Hello? Anyone seen my swine flu mutation?Thu 2 Apr, 2015

    An MIT study says the swine flu sweeping India might be a deadly new mutation. The National Institute of Virology in Pune firmly disputes this. How can there be such a vast difference of opinion? Could both be right or both be wrong? Is there a scientific conspiracy, a cover up, a screw up or something else entirely? We sought an independent scientific analysis and, as the Internet phrase goes, our conclusions may surprise you.

  • Does Kerala need a share of the Rs 200 crore Naxal pie?Mon 30 Mar, 2015

    This month the Kerala Home Minister approached the Union government to declare three districts from the state as Naxal-affected. But does the state have a Naxal problem and who would it benefit to have it declared so?

  • That Thing About Creating NalandasFri 27 Mar, 2015

    If India were to have one library for every 3,000 people it would need around 4,23,333 libraries. It is estimated that India has 54,856 libraries. A recent national conference talked of ways to fix this, but are numbers all that we are falling short on?

  • How to Go From Boyish to ByomkeshWed 25 Mar, 2015

    Sushant Singh Rajput and the man behind the star. And how Dibakar Banerjee moulded him into the beloved everyman detective, Byomkesh Bakshy.

  • What is terrorizing Marathwada’s farmers?Mon 23 Mar, 2015

    The hailstorm and unseasonal rains in 2014 that destroyed the rabi crop were thought to be freak events until they happened again this year, spurring fears of a sharp rise in the number of farmer suicides, bidding to outrun Vidarbha in its tragic scale. Is the weather the sole cause of Marathwada’s agrarian crisis, and how can this crisis be tackled?

  • Can a Counterculture Become an Ethical Industry?Fri 20 Mar, 2015

    These days several Indian cities are enlivened by splashes of color: an imaginative mural, a stylish tag, a critical stencil. Street art and graffiti seem to be sprouting everywhere, but there is growing skepticism in the community on what it means when our consumer culture starts patronizing this usually unsanctioned art form.

  • Is the AAP Crumbling? Again?Wed 18 Mar, 2015

    Despite its incredible win in the Delhi polls, the party’s implosion started a while ago. A look at how all the infighting and backbiting has been steadily coming to a boil.

  • When I Die, I Want A PartyMon 16 Mar, 2015

    In June 2013, the writer met Suzette Jordan a week after she’d decided she would no longer be stifled by the name, ‘The Park Street Rape Victim’ and all that it implied. And there began a quiet friendship. This week, shaken by the news of Jordan’s sudden death, the writer attends the funeral and joins the family in remembering this extraordinary woman.

  • Things I learned at the Asian Women’s FestivalFri 13 Mar, 2015

    The International Association of Women in Radio and Television held its Asian Women’s Film Festival again this year, showcasing the work of women, but not necessarily about women. Here’s what our writer found.

  • Everything you need to know at the legal end of the Masarat Alam controversyTue 10 Mar, 2015

    And what's with Jammu & Kashmir’s Public Safety Act?