Dadu’s tree and the headless Kanishka

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Collections at Indian museums may not swell with the spoils of empire, but they help cross borders of time and remind us of the complexity of history. “Cosmopolis” column published in The Hindu Business Line (published 30 January, 2016)

When I visited Kolkata’s Indian Museum in the past, I went principally to admire a fossilised tree and gawp at a headless statue. Both had personal meaning. The first was the discovery of my maternal great-grandfather, a geologist. In 1924, he was summoned to examine the long trunk of a petrified tree that had been unearthed in rural Bengal. It was 250 million years old, a sufficiently venerable age to win its place in the Indian Museum’s motley collection. The object we know as ‘Dadu’s tree’ now wards the entrance of the geological wing. Visitors walk by it bemused, not entirely sure what to make of its grey, prehistoric bulk.

The second object was a statue of the king Kanishka. Its defining feature — apart from an elegant belted tunic and sword scabbard — was its lack of a head. With a child’s narcissism, I had always taken a particular interest in the signs and symbols of the historical figure that all modern-day Kanishks and Kanishkas are named after. I wasn’t troubled by the fact that the statue was decapitated, but instead projected my own head on top of the body of the warrior king. I didn’t know any other Kanishks at the time and I thought my name rather rare (Facebook has since cruelly disabused me of that idea). It allowed me a kind of intimacy, the sense that I had a special claim over the statue.

I had little interest in the rest of the museum. It seemed quaint and dusty, a muddle of uncaptioned sculptures and objects. Having grown up in New York City, I was accustomed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its well-organised halls. I couldn’t help but feel a little embarrassed for the Indian Museum. This was our closest equivalent to the famous museums of the West, and half the time it wasn’t even clear what you were looking at.

Though the Indian Museum is actually older than many of its illustrious western counterparts (it was founded in 1814), it has never had the same resources as institutions like the British Museum in London or Louvre in Paris, whose global collections are swollen with the spoils of empire. The Kolkata museum’s eclectic holdings reflect the spirit of an older age of gentlemen polymaths and curious collectors, melding human and natural history. Geology brushes up against palaeontology, which tumbles into archaeology and numismatics.

This month, I visited the museum for the first time since its 2014 renovation. Dadu’s tree was still where we remembered it to be, snaking along one side of the great courtyard in innumerable glass cases. Kanishka’s statue, however, was blocked from public view, supposedly hidden for maintenance. Sometimes a headless king needs a facelift, too.

Even if the museum cannot match the ‘encyclopaedic’ range of those in the West, it boasts some marvellous artefacts. I was stunned by a 1,000-year-old Durga from Odisha , a sword held aloft over her head, an implacable smile on her face, the moustachioed mahishasura crushed beneath. That strength and writhing movement provided an exquisite counterpoint to a series of 2,000-year-old statues from Gandhara (the region today in northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, where similar antiquities have been smashed by Islamist militants). These largely Buddhist artworks are remarkable for the fine pathos of the faces, their downturned gazes, delicate moustaches. Though shaped in stone, their robes and ornaments fall gently. There is a great lightness to these figures, and a sense of quiet, individual poise.

Elsewhere in the museum, you can troop through a superbly crafted (and very modern) display on the evolution of coinage in India from ancient times to the present. Only steps away is a cobwebbed room of wooden display cases full of the bones and fossils of ancient creatures, captioned with hand-painted signs. The room seems frozen in the 19th century. One of the charms of the Indian Museum is this dissonant museography; the museum’s chambers — and not simply their contents — belong to different times.

Museums in India will never have the advantages of those in the West that formed their collections over a century of free-wheeling imperialism. But I hope for a time when Indians will have more easily available to them the pleasures and civic virtues of museums like the Met and the Louvre. As we increasingly grapple over history and its meanings, museums play an essential role. They excite the imagination, help us cross borders of time and place, and remind us of the complexity of history. And they make us humble in the face of the immensity of both the past and present.

I was heartened to see that the Indian Museum was brimming with people. It was a holiday weekend and the Jadu Ghar — ‘magic house’ as the museum is delightfully called in Bengali — was full of visitors of all sorts of ages and backgrounds. Some plodded through the halls with a kind of dutiful misery, feeling obliged to look at this and look at that (we all have a habit of treating museums like sacred spaces, as if our pious visits were a kind of pilgrimage). Others thrilled to the range and splendour of artefacts on display. A mother led her daughter from statue to statue, reminding her of the importance of each. Teenagers posed for selfies in front of ancient Buddhas. A young boy pressed his nose to the glass between him and Dadu’s tree. He left a smudge, the trace of a child communing, however briefly, with something unfathomably old.

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