Celebrating historic crossovers and cosmopolitanism at the National Museum

Over the last several years, working at the intersection of art history, history, museum studies, interpretation and education, I have become increasingly interested in the history that falls outside the main stream, ‘national’ narrative and especially outside any history curriculum in India. The stories, experiences and crossovers at the edge of established historical time periods, in regions long relegated to the shadow of the overarching powers of the day, and those simply ignored in early independent India as irrelevant for study and examination.

Luckily, exposure to growing academic, critical and curatorial focus on these histories has enabled me to develop this interest, my understanding and ways of seeing. The most recent example of this is an exhibition that I had the absolute pleasure to visit on a recent, rushed trip to New Delhi. Nauras – The Many Arts of the Deccan, currently on view at the National Museum.

The exhibition, drawn primarily from the National Museum’s reserve collections, celebrates the rich cosmopolitanism and cultural confluence of the medieval Deccan, through its great artistic achievements. The ‘Deccan’ here includes the sultanates of Berar, Bidar, Golconda, Ahmednagar and Bijapur in south-central India, from the 16th – 19th centuries. National Museum director-general Dr Venu Vasudevan has said that this is the first-ever showcase of Deccan’s art from a time when the region witnessed a lot of give-and-take in its culture.

As the exhibition’s introductory text states, the exquisite arts of the Deccan have been unjustly overshadowed by those of the contemporary Mughal Empire to the north. These neglected arts, and the wider material culture of the region, reflect the syncretism, tolerance and creativity that defined the character of the Deccan sultanates. Wealthy and refined, with a long, open coastline, the Deccan attracted artists, traders, soldiers, entrepreneurs and adventurers from everywhere, and nurtured the new art, language and spiritual forms that emerged from such cultural contact. That this exhibition celebrating the Deccan’s history and art is on view at the National Museum, which for so long and in no small way served to establish those restrictive ‘national’ boundaries for Indian art and history through its permanent displays, makes it even more significant!

I’ve selected, with some difficulty, a few of my personal highlights from the exhibition. (My photography does no justice to the pieces on display!)

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In this gorgeous, painted Kalamkari cover, a fanciful palace and gardens is peopled with Persians, Turks, Armenians, Chinese, men and women in varied dress and headgear. In the centre, a woman with a European hat offers the seated ruler a glass of wine. To the left, don’t miss the yogi inspecting a new ‘delectable’ introduced to the region by the Portuguese – a pineapple, seen and tasted for the very first time!

The Portuguese would also introduce tobacco to the Deccan, bringing the plant with them from the Americas. Tobacco became extremely popular in the sultanates and the Deccan would become a major tobacco producing region. Tobacco grown in the Deccan would find its way to parts of South East Asia and the Far East; it was also from the Deccan that the practice of smoking tobacco would be introduced to the Mughal court of Akbar and other regions of the sub-continent.

Naturally, then, the huqqa used to smoke tobacco would also come to be widely manufactured in the Deccan. Which brings us to the Bidri – a form of metalwork for which the Deccan was famous – on display. Huqqa bases are some of the most beautiful Bidri pieces of that time that survive in museum and private collections.

IMG_3925 (2)And this particular coconut shaped huqqa base just might be the most stunning  and unique huqqa base that you could see anywhere. Originally, hookah bases were globular in shape but unsteady as a result. The more common, bell-shaped hookah base was the solution to this very serious problem!

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In this painting of a huqqa stall, titled ‘Commotion in the Bazaar’ we get a sense both of the everyday diversity on the Deccan streets as well as the popularity of the huqqa! As the accompanying label notes, you are reminded of the crowds at any popular bar today!

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Paintings of noblemen smoking the huqqa were more common and would travel to influence the painting traditions of the courts to the north. In this painting, a formal garden setting demonstrates the wealth and refinement of the gentleman portrayed. The image crafted by the servant with a fly-whisk, richly detailed carpet, sword in the foreground and the hookah is, however, offset by the little child playing on the carpet! Note the globular base on the huqqa.

In this early experiment in Ragamala painting from the Deccan, Ragini Patahansika is seated blissfully playing the vina after making love, her hair and clothes undone. This particular ragini would lose its popularity and disappear in later years, making this painting all the more significant as one of very few known examples.

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IMG_3908 (2)Next, a painting of al-Buraq – in popular Islamic tradition, the mythical creature on which the Prophet Mohammed rode into the heavens. The composite creature reflects the visual traditions of Central Asia, Turkey and Iran with the Indian elephant squarely at its centre.

The exhibition gets its name from a collection of songs, the Kitab-i-Nauras, attributed to Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the gifted, ‘singing sultan’ of Bijapur (1556 – 1627). ‘Nauras’, from the 9 rasas of Sanskrit aesthetics or the new rasa of his time, became the symbol of Ibrahim Adil Shah’s rule, with the sultan building a new capital of Nauraspur, around a palace called the Nauras Mahal and instituting a new festival the Id-i-Nauras at which the songs from the book were sung. Nauras was a royal cult that deliberately melded Indic and Islamic forms to bring the sultan’s diverse people closer.

Ibrahim opens the book with praise for Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of wealth, the Prophet Mohammed and a local Sufi saint. The sultan refers to himself as a seeker of knowledge, who lived in vidyapur, and whose parents were Saraswati and Ganesh. I will end by quoting from the wall text taken from the book:

Our tongues differ but our feelings are the same Whether we are Turk or Brahmin The most fortunate person is the one On whom Saraswati smiles…

If you are anywhere near New Delhi, I would strongly recommend a visit to the National Museum before the exhibition closes on March 20. It’s been a while since an exhibition gave me goosebumps.

Nauras: The Many Arts of the Deccan is curated by Dr. Preeti Bahadur and Dr. Kavita Singh. The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Aesthetics Project and has objects on loan from the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.  

Exploring local culture on a Sunday morning

A little while ago, I was asked to conduct a heritage walk for Wilson College’s Local Culture class, to introduce them to the story of Mumbai’s origin and growth. Two months long, the course is a one of a kind programme, extra-curricular and open to students from different undergraduate programmes. Its conducted primarily on Sundays, outside regular class hours, and aims to introduce participants to their city’s culture and history through walks and site visits. With access to experts leading sessions on food, cinema, religious traditions, material culture and physical heritage, and to usually inaccessible spaces such as the Parsi Towers of Silence, crumbling stone forts, and parts of the CST World Heritage Site to name just a few, it made me want to go back to college and sign up! I managed to get only two pictures of my session with the lucky group.

Waiting to start at the steps of the old Town Hall, or Asiatic Society
Waiting to start at the steps of the old Town Hall, or Asiatic Society

The old Town Hall building is one of my favourite places to introduce first time explorers to the story of Mumbai. To stand at the top of its stairs is to stand at what is literally the city’s ‘zero point’, or point of origin. From here, the city would grow, initially outwards and then northward as it continues to do even today. With a little imagination and prompting, its possible to picture what Bombay looked, and sounded, like from that very vantage point, through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. How and why it emerged and grew, from a group of seven swampy islands to the mega-city and financial capital it is today, is the story this particular walk route highlights.

They made it though the 3 hours still smiling!
They made it though the 3 hours still smiling!

Three hours later, having wound our way through and along the path of the erstwhile walls of the Bombay Fort, we ended our walk at the Gateway of India. Marking the site of Britain’s final departure from India in 1948, and so much more, the plaza in front of the monument is a great spot to end a walk through’s Bombay’s early history. And have a photo session, of course:)

#ilovemuseums

But, admittedly, for most visitors to museums in India, especially parents with children to engage and inspire, they can be difficult and unsatisfying places.

Too many objects, too much factual, tangential, even irrelevant, information, too few stories!

The stories that everybody wants. The stories behind, about and around collections that bring them to life. That make you actually see, connect and go oh-kay that’s pretty cool. That make the switch go on. That make you smile, maybe shake your head in wonder. That make you go back to museums, again and again.

Even in the best cases, these stories are usually available only when trained, engaging guides walk you through museum spaces and collections. (Whilst they are getting better, it is no secret that museums in India are nowhere near as responsive to audience interpretation needs as they should be.) Having worked in a museum for the last few years and led innumerable museum tours and workshops, I am exceedingly conscious of how necessary this interpretive avenue continues to be in Indian museums. At the same time, I am also aware of how impossible it is to offer every visitor a guided and personalised museum experience.

So, parents, in an effort to spread my love of museums, I thought it might be useful to offer a few cues to help you explore museums with your children.

Museum Highlights

I’d almost always suggest a highlights tour where you and your family are able to spend time with a few objects, rather than no time with all. Don’t worry about knowing which particular objects are collection highlights – let your kids pick the objects they are drawn to and would like to see more closely. In any gallery, ask them to point out one object that strikes them at a time. Let them set the pace, move from one object or showcase to the next whenever they are ready. You could carry a notebook and together record your experience – new things you’ve seen, new ideas, stories you made, what you liked best etc.

At the museum I work at, it’s almost always a towering sculpture, a pot inspired by a bird or a gruesome weapon in the central gallery that first catches a young visitor’s eye.

When you’re standing in front of the highlight, really look at it, together.

What kind of object are we looking at? Painting / sculpture / art installation / craft / artefact / model / object of use.

If you’re standing in front of a painting, begin simply by describing it together. Is it colourful / dark / abstract / old / large / mini?

How does the painting make you feel? Confused / happy / uneasy / scared / sad.

What do you like / not like about it? What is happening in the painting? Are there people in it? What are they doing? Imagine if this were a movie you were watching or a video game you were playing – what would you hear? What would happen next? Jump in to the painting and become a participant in its plot!

Pick any one character from the frame that finds / strikes you and together imagine his or her story. Get as creative as you like!

Do you notice anything strange or special about the painting? Is there a signature / is it incomplete / does it have an unusual shape / is it displayed in a different way? What do you think it means?

Spend as much or as little time using these prompts and move on to the next highlight whenever you’re all ready to do so.

If it’s an object this time:

What attracted you to this object or showcase? What do you like about what you see? Is it old / beautiful / colourful / detailed / scary / strange / shiny / smooth / interesting / bright. No answer is wrong but encourage explanations – what is beautiful / interesting about this object?

What material is it made of? Imagine holding it in your hand – how would it feel?

Is it man-made or found in nature? Do you recognise what it is? Is it still in use today? If you can’t recognise it use your imagination! Take turns guessing.

What story could it tell? What could it have been used for and by whom? An adult? A child? Try and build that person’s life together – name, age, how they lived and what they did.

How has it been displayed in the museum? Are there similar objects next to it? Together what could they be telling you?

Why is it in the museum? Can you decide together?

Look at the object again – does it have any special or strange features? Is there an inscription? Does its label give you more information?

If you’ve picked a sculpture for your next highlight:

Do you recognise the sculpture? Describe what you see in turn. Is it old / broken / human / religious?

If the sculpture could talk, what could it tell you? Use your imagination again and strike up a conversation! Maybe you’d learn about its life before it came in to the museum? Where was it earlier and how did it get to the museum?

Is there anything special or strange that you notice? Are there similar sculptures nearby?

Why is it in the museum?

Clearly, I could go on like this! I’ll end here with a few lessons I’ve learned over the last years.

To make a museum visit engaging, stimulating and inspiring all it takes is encouraging critical and creative thinking. Therefore, there are actually no wrong answers and each thought can be used as a stepping stone to thinking more deeply, more imaginatively. The difference between a museum and anywhere else, at home with a book or the internet for instance, is the object in front of you. Spend time really looking at it. You’ll be amazed at what a few extra minutes in front of an object can help you see. Finally, make the leap from what your eyes see to what you can imagine – to stories you and your kids can create. Perhaps you’d like to record these and share them with family and friends?

If you do try these prompts, I’d appreciate any feedback. And  of course comments on this post are welcome as always.

Once upon a time there was a house on a hill…

Ruins of the 19th century home overlooking Land's End, Bandra
Ruins of the 19th century home overlooking Land’s End, Bandra

Land’s End or Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Point is a peninsula comprised of Bandra Fort and its adjoining area, including the hill that rises above it.

As the southern-most tip of Bandra, Land’s End played a critical role in the history of the suburb in the 17th and 18th centuries. Capitalising on its strategic location overlooking Mahim Bay, the entrance to Mahim creek and the erstwhile islands of Bombay to the south, the Portuguese built a fort and military outpost at Land’s End in 1640. The Castella de Aguada or ‘Fort of the Waterpoint’ was named after the area’s fresh water springs and housed a garrison of soldiers. In fact, the popular Mount Mary Church was built for use by the soldiers who were stationed at the Castella de Aguada, today known as Bandra Fort. From 1661, with the British in control of the islands of Bombay, the Fort assumed great strategic value, situated as it was between two foreign powers – the British and the Portuguese.

View across the Mahim Bay today
View across the Mahim Bay today

The early 18th century witnessed a decline in Portuguese power and their defeat by the Marathas in 1739. At this time, the Castella de Aguada was destroyed by the British in an effort to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Marathas. Bandra would eventually come under British control in 1775, after a short period in the possession of the Marathas.

Whilst the Fort is relatively well known and very frequented, fewer visitors make the climb up the hill above it. Here lie the ruins of the 19th century home of Parsi businessman and philanthropist, Byramjee Jeejeebhoy. Little remains of the house today, but clearly visible are the remains of the structure’s plinth and windows that once framed a spectacular view of the Arabian Sea. A little further away are the ruins of what is likely to have been a guest house, or servant’s quarters. You can’t miss the stone steps at the entrance to the out-house that are amongst its only surviving remnants.

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So much history

 

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Carved stone steps to the out-house

Byramjee Jeejeebhoy acquired this land from the British East India Company in 1850. In addition to building his residence on the hill, Jeejeebhoy spent much of his personal wealth to develop its surroundings. In 1878, Jeejeebhoy funded the construction of the sea road connecting the Land’s End to St. Andrews Church and the rest of Bandra. Popularly known as Bandstand, the road is officially named after Byramjee Jeejeebhoy even today. 

 

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Hidden ruins

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The area has had a tumultuous recent history, but that’s the subject of another post. For now, the gorgeous green garden was grown and continues to be maintained by the Bandra Bandstand Resident’s Association. Go visit.

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Of Museums and Malls…

A lot has been written on what museums can – and should – learn from shopping malls. When you think about it, this makes complete sense. Malls have perfected the art of inviting visitors in, and getting them to stay for prolonged periods of time. A typical mall is a safe public space that offers its users a variety of engaging activities, food and drink choices, places to simply hang out, opportunities to browse easily and for free, and finally, a range of products that compete to connect with the lifestyles, needs and desires of buyers. Each visitor is able to create, and has ownership over, his/her own mall ‘experience’. An experience that is likely to be enthusiastically repeated on a regular basis. Malls also successfully attract visitors of every age group – including teenagers, a group that is especially difficult for public institutions like museums to engage!

Since museums aspire to all this and more, there are clearly lessons in popular appeal to be learned from malls, and museums across the world are learning them. And contextualising them. Really well.

Fascinatingly, a new mall that I stumbled into last week in Bangkok’s busy city centre appears in turn to have taken a few lessons back from museums . . . and the result was – is – amazing!

The Mall’s design denotes an airport terminal; its main information board is suggestive of an arrivals and departure board, and its escalators lead you to different world destinations – specifically, the Caribbean, Rome, Paris, Istanbul, London, Tokyo, San Francisco and Hollywood! This is where the ‘museum’ influence comes in. The brilliant design of each floor creates an immersive experience (extended even to the restrooms) and together with the merchandise on display, provides insight into the material and visual culture of the place it represents. The mall’s floor plan is a ‘passport’ and its tag line, The Whole World is Here.

Mine wasn’t a planned visit, nor one with many expectations – we are talking about a mall – but one that was surprisingly stimulating and really fun. Perhaps I’ve even learned a few things about the places I have yet to see. Definitely not your regular shopping experience, with an innovative approach that left me well impressed!

A story to share over coffee!

On a trip to Coorg in Karnataka some months ago, I took a guided tour of one of the region’s many famed coffee plantations, and, in doing so, combined two of my favourite things – walking tours and coffee! For 2 hours on a chilly winter evening, as day passed into dusk and we were interrupted only by mosquitoes, our local Coorgi guide shared with us his stories about Coorg and, by extension, about coffee.

Coffee, a drink – even a word – familiar to cultures and countries across the world, was first discovered in modern day Ethiopia. According to the legend, a goatherd named Kaldi grew curious when his goats wouldn’t sleep one night after eating the berries of an unfamiliar plant earlier that day. What, he wondered, could have caused such a “kick”? Intrigued, Kaldi returned to the site the next day, collected more berries, and deposited them at the local monastery. When the berries succeeded in keeping the monks alert – even during evening prays – news of this amazing discovery spread quickly!

By the 16th century, the coffee drink had been embraced across the dry Arab world; an acceptable substitute for banned alcoholic drinks, it was commonly called the ‘wine of Araby’. It was drunk in the privacy of homes and served in public coffee houses that were popular meeting places and hubs of social and political activity. This dark drink also seduced thousands who travelled to Haj on pilgrimage every year. However, coffee production remained a closely guarded secret; whilst the finished product could be exported, no berries or cuttings were allowed to leave the Arab peninsula. In this way a monopoly over the coffee trade was attempted, successfully for a time.

Then, in the 17th century, a Sufi named Baba Budan, whilst on pilgrimage to Mecca, secreted just seven coffee beans through the Mocha port in Yemen, and into India. Of course! He planted them on hills known today as the Bababudan Hills in the Chikkamagaluru District of Karnataka, – and so began the story of South Indian coffee. The Bababudan hill region remains the largest producer of coffee in India, with Coorg a close second.

Inherited Memory

A version of this text was first published at http://thecityslacker.com/2011/08/08/my-grandfathers-new-car/

My Grandfather’s New Car – By Sheena Khalid

Growing up my grandfather told me the best stories ever; stories about this huge family, their massive house in Gujarat and the crazy tales of growing up so many decades ago. One day, when my Dada (paternal grandfather) was seventeen or so, there was a massive storm that caused many trees in their compound to come crashing down. One particularly massive Banyan tree managed to fall right where the cars were parked and turned automative engineering into steel pancakes. It took days to clean up the mess. All the leaves from the fallen trees were gathered in a pile where all the sheep owners brought their flock to graze. The branches were chopped and given to the various houses in the vicinity for fire wood. Finally, some men came and salvaged what they could of the once grand cars to use as scrap material. A few days later my great grandfather (the then Dewan of Junagadh) decided to purchase a new car. He went into the city and returned a week later with a brand new Rolls Royce.  My grandfather would describe in exquisite detail how he was standing on the verandah when the car glided through the front gates and stood magnificently in front of their house. A few hours later all eight children piled into the car like loose change and went for a ride around town. My great grandfather was a very serious man and my grandfather would say “I can count on one hand the amount of times I saw him smile”. Dada would then chuckle and with a faraway expression in his eyes he would say “But he was always smiling when he drove that car of his”.

Many years later, my grandfather moved to Bombay. Life had dealt him a cruel hand and he landed up in this city with nothing but a few clothes in a bag. He met my grandmother and they lived a modest life in a small one room apartment in Worli. Even though he went from living in the lap of luxury to making do with the basic necessities, he was never bitter. Whatever he had, he was always willing to give. Their front door was always open and there was a constant stream of visitors.

There is a philosophy that believes in identity and memory being one and the same. You are a sum total of your lived experiences. Not that I do not agree with this. Of course I am the person that I am today because of the many things that I have witnessed and events that have occurred in my life. However, I strongly believe in memory that one can inherit. So, yes, I am all that I can remember, but I am also so much more. I am my mother and father’s life, I am the stories of my grandparents, the fears and hopes of their parents and the happiness and sadness of those before them.

I have never sat in a Rolls Royce and I doubt I ever will, but, thanks to my Dada, I can recall the scent of the leather seats. I can be blinded by the shine of the bonnet and I can smile and press my nose up against the glass window of their new Rolls Royce.