I declare my love for museums!
My glorious visit to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai early this year was not planned.
It was my boyfriend’s birthday and we just wanted to get out of our rest-bins. We made our way to Kala Ghoda, to check out the annual art festival in southern Mumbai. We arrived mid-day with the heat above our heads and our membranes cooking. Despite our discomfort, I was excited. I graduated from art school about three years ago and it had been a while since I saw humans expressing complex ideas in childish, idealistic ways, in a way one can attempt in academic utopias alone. Here was a chance to see exactly that, but in the milieu of a cosmopolitan city.
As usual, the place was buzzing with people and selfies. There were amateur photographers, families of three or four, women, old and young, in summer dresses and the occasional artist. There were a lot of sculptural installations using various media like wood, wires, plastic, craft etc. There were interactive spaces and artist performances. However, after a saunter about the area, I figured that while the installations tickled the mind, they didn’t quite arouse. There was a dated feeling to it all as much of the works bemoaned the loss of nature to either technology or industry — a notion that is too simplistic and naive. To top it off, the expressions of this notion lacked nuance and impact. I am not sure if the festival was curated well, if at all, with some of the concept notes requiring strict editing, perhaps with a chainsaw. The good part was that we found a ‘Marg’ stall, selling some of the issues of the magazine among other published books on art and design. They had a wonderful collection and we were effortlessly seduced into a yearly subscription. It felt like a right decision for us like we were buying the perfect sized trash can or boldly refusing that printed ATM receipt.
At the stall, an exhibit brochure caught my eye. ‘India and the World: A History in Nine Stories’ — an on-going exhibit at the CSMVS. I remember being dazzled by the earthy brown adverts on bus stands about two months before I saw them at the stall. Simple and impactful, the words ‘India’ and ‘World’ stood next to each other, while an ampersand hung auspiciously between them. So while buying our magazines from Marg, we figured our proximity to the museum and took a chance at it.
A short summary to what the exhibit was about:
“India and the World: A History in Nine Stories is a landmark exhibition presented as a collaboration between Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) the British Museum in London and the National Museum, New Delhi, with the support of the Ministry of Culture. Supported by the Tata Trusts and the Getty Foundation, this project is planned to coincide with the celebrations of 70 years of Indian Independence.
The exhibition will showcase some of the most important objects and works of art from the Indian subcontinent, in dialogue with iconic pieces from the British Museum collection. It highlights the strong connections India has shared historically with the rest of the world, promoting an exchange of ideas and influences that have helped create a global culture.”
(Quoted from India & the World official website https://www.indiaandtheworld.org/)
I don’t know if I am a history buff or not, but my brain likes to tinker with the possibilities of the past. The past allows me not just to reconstruct it, filling the gaps with my knowledge of the present, it lets me imagine a story with those who lived before me. Our past, retold as history, is our bedtime story. We are far away and safe, yet long to be a part of it. Perhaps for this reason, when I saw the hand-axe, the first object that you encounter as you enter the exhibit, I felt a sense of fanatic relief. This was an axe fashioned and used by humans who lived 1.7 million years ago. In the billions of years that have led to the formation of the universe, it doesn’t seem much to see a sharpened rock crop up as a record invention — however, what I would like to stress upon was that it was ‘fashioned’. Behavior always has an intent, but to catch a glimpse of intentional behavior from a million years ago is just bloody brilliant!
Now, I don’t care much for humans or the human part of history. Humans are not that remarkable. As a human, I haven’t accomplished much. But the story of humanity is pertinent to me. I look at it as a fantastical, granular weave that contains confluences of patterns and cuts, that have unknowingly stitched into one another. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the curation of the show so much. There were nine stories leading one through a myriad of artifacts that gleam as buttons embroidered on the cloth of history. These stories naturally progressed from early humans to early cities and civilization, trade, princely courts and onto modern freedom struggles. It may be a reductionist strategy to organize complex artifacts under simplistic umbrellas, but to fathom the rich and varied history of such artifacts, we must narrow our view and look at a few to help us imagine the rest.
The overlaying thematic was enriched with many minor curations. One example: There was a display of earthen pots belonging to Egypt, Sumer, China, Harappa about the same time as each other — a hundred thousand years ago. While each was a marvel in itself and possessed a laborious beauty, the intermingling of all the pieces brought forth an insight into the essential need in all, if not most, civilizations for hollow vessels. Growing up, I didn’t quite figure the importance assigned to pottery in Indian households. However, as hollow vessels, their purposes are manifold. They hold, carry, hide, keep and protect. The absence of matter is what that makes them so variably useful. Pots and pans can be seen as three-dimensional frames that create boundaries around our food, clothes, spice, food, family, hopes and traditions. Through this lens, I found that the more I looked at ancient pottery from different places of origin, I knew that I was glimpsing the earthen crack of someone’s dream or the clay rim of someone’s aspirations.
This was a beautiful beginning to a complex and interesting bind of narratives. I can go on and on about all that I saw and experienced at this exhibition. But the truth of the matter is that this exhibit has marked a turning point in my life, so much so that I am considering a shift in my career towards experiential design in museums and galleries. I wish to bring to people the experience I felt when I walked into this exhibit, at this museum. The exhilaration, the joy, the sledge-hammer of awareness and the eagerness to keep coming back. If this is not love, I don’t know what is.
There it is; I declare my love for museums!