I first stepped onto the streets of London in the summer of 2015 as part of research work for my Masters thesis. An apt way to describe the city would be to call it a snippet of a dream carefully plucked out from a history book. For someone who was enthralled by the magnificence of British history, London was everything I had read and heard about all my life.
Like any other curious tourist, the Big Ben, the Buckingham palace and a number of other vestiges of the royal British past, were top on my list of stops to be made. But along with these, anyone who makes a first visit to Britain is most definitely advised to take a look at the ornate museums the country has to offer. The exquisite collections of the museums in Britain are deemed to be some of the finest and most reputed in the world.
The history buff in me could have never left the isles without paying a visit to its museums. But the problem with loving history is that one is acutely aware of the dark politics behind seemingly innocent displays.
We need to understand though, that museum politics is nothing exceptional in case of Britain. It is part of any country’s efforts to educate its citizens and tourists about what those in power consider as the best way to remember its past. But the case of Britain is unique in the sense that the museum visitor, particularly a visitor from a post-colonised country, is suddenly made aware of how his or her past has brutally been ripped away and appended to British history, now on display for tourists from around the world to gloat over.
The British museum
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the moment one steps into this splendid structure, dating back to the 18th century, that he or she realises it to be one grand display of colonial massacre. Be it the gallery on ancient Egypt or the collection of artwork from South Africa, you cannot help being aware of the manner in which it must have landed into the museum’s domain.
As a visitor from India, I was surprised to feel a strange sort of pride in having extraordinary artwork from my country being exhibited in the British museum with such relish. Not only does the museum have a gallery on exhibits from India, but there is a separate gallery showing off what was perhaps the largest Buddhist shrine in India.
The Amravati stupa dating back to 3rd century BC was originally established in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh and was an important place of worship there till the 14th century AD. The next time that the stupa came to public view was in the late 18th century when British army officer Colin Mackenzie excavated and recorded it. By 1845, Sir Walter Elliot had removed parts of the sculpture and kept them in the Madras museum from where they were transferred to London in 1859 under the pretext that the artifacts would get spoiled in India.
The story of Amravati is just one among the many such art objects that have been transplanted to British museums from India by British colonial officers. These objects were hardly ever carried out in an institutionalised fashion. “It was loot.The pretext was to ‘save objects’,” says Dr. Anisha Saxena, historian of ancient and medieval Indian art..
The India Office Records in the British Library
The loot from India that adorns museums in Britain was not really carried out in the manner that can be called a greed for wealth. Rather, since the late 18th century, there was an obsession that East India Company officials had with old Indian paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. It had more to do with a preoccupation with the discovery than exotic Indian history and culture. This is particularly evident from the way the India Office Records in the British Library came into existence.
“By late 18th and 19th centuries, Indian art and architectural remains received some attention as part of the regional surveys undertaken to understand the geography, history, customs, languages, literature, and folklore of a people. The visual became an important tool for projecting the image of India,” says Dr. Parul Pandya Dhar, Professor of Art history at University of Delhi.
By the end of the century most of these officials had returned to England and were actively trying to maintain a collection of the exotic knowledge base they had established in India. A result of this was the India Office Records in the British library.
Originally, when the India Office Records was established, the motive was to maintain a collection of Indian manuscripts. In 1801, it purchased its first huge collection of miniature paintings from retired company servants Richard Johnson.
An examination of Johnson’s collections revealed that he was hardly interested in the aesthetic or historical aspects of art. Rather what interested him, it seems would be the exotic elements. Hindu deities and religious ceremonies had a special significance for him because of the connection he made between them and Sanskrit literature. Persian literature, depicted as in paintings of Laila and Majnun and depiction of Indian music in paintings, was also of special liking to him.
Similar collections were also donated or sold by other British officials like Dr. John Flaming and Dr. Francis Buchanan Hamilton. The collections of Flaming and Hamilton contained a large number of paintings of Hindu deities and other religious relics.
The Victoria and Albert museum
Previously called the South Kensington museum is another repository of Indian art. The history of the collection is yet another example of British allure for Indian art. Between May and October 1851, the Grand exhibition was hosted at Hyde Park in London under the orders of Prince Albert and Henry Cole. The exhibition was an attempt by Great Britain to impose its superiority. Laid out in the museum were a number of relics carried away from various corners of India including the reputed ‘Kohinoor’ and the ‘Darya-i-noor’.
Once the exhibition was over, the collection of Indian art and historical objects put on display were meticulously distributed out to the different museums in Britain. The Victoria and Albert museum was established soon following the success of the Grand exhibition and majority of their Indian collections are remnants of the event.
A celebrated relic kept in the Victoria and Albert is “Tipu’s tiger”, a mechanical toy created for Tipu Sultan and acquired by East India Company officials after the siege of Seringapatam in 1799 wherein the company won over the kingdom of Mysore.
Governments around the globe have hardly remained complacent about the display of their national treasures in British museums. In recent decades there has been much discussion about repatriation of colonial possessions from British authorities, the result of which has been a remarkable change in the tone of museum politics.
Speaking about the way the politics of museum language has changed over the years, Dr Dhar says: “In the British museum, you will notice that the collection is most representative of colonial grandeur. There is the whole thing of the colony and imperial conquest. However, at present as we hear more and more about repatriation, the whole tone is changing. The idea of a universalised museum is gaining currency. The language is not so much about imperial glory as about the representation of the culture of the world.”