Three key pieces, which are part of the highly-anticipated exhibition “India and the World: A History in Nine Stories”, will not be on display when the show opens at the National Museum in Delhi next month. Originally scheduled to open in Delhi in March, the exhibition was on view at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) from November 11 to February 18 .
The first-of-its-kind collaboration between the CSMVS, National Museum and the British Museum, the show tells the story of a shared human history. The exclusion of three crucial objects — The Townley Discobolus, a Roman copy of a Greek statue, Discobolus in Zhongshan Suit, a 2012 bronze sculpture by Chinese artist Jianguo Sui, and Unicode, a sculpture by Indian artist LN Tallur — will diminish the scale and relevance of this ambitious show.
When contacted, Dr BR Mani, Director General, National Museum, confirmed that “India and the World” will open in Delhi at the end of April and that the three works will not be on display. “The matter was discussed with the authorities of the British Museum and CSMVS. Since the three objects are very heavy, it may not be feasible to display them at the National Museum,” he wrote in response to an email sent by The Indian Express. The Townley Discobolus, a marble sculpture of a discus-thrower in classic Greek style, and Discobolus in Zhongshan Suit, a bronze discus-thrower clad in the Zhongshan suit associated with Communist leader Mao Zedong, are among the 124 objects loaned by the British Museum for this exhibition.
The third object, Unicode, is a bronze Nataraja sculpture in which the figure of Shiva is encased in a ball of concrete and coins, and is in the collection of the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in Delhi.
Expressing his disappointment that his 800 kg sculpture, Unicode, will not be part of the exhibition at the National Museum, Tallur said, “If you’re having an international exhibition at the country’s largest museum, then the weight (of the object) cannot be an excuse (for not displaying it).” Pointing out that the same sculpture has already been displayed in multiple locations, including the KNMA and Nature Morte gallery in Delhi, Tallur added, “If (National Museum) had wanted to display it, the whole thing could have been worked out by using a gantry crane, which is one of the most basic equipment used by museums and galleries around the world to move heavy objects inside their premises. All it needs is some planning.”
In 2014, under the previous Director General Venu Vasudevan, the National Museum had displayed a Mughal marble tombstone, weighing over a ton and a half, as part of the show “The Body in Indian Art”. Siddhartha Chatterjee, who designed the exhibition, described the process of installing the marble tomb as “relatively straightforward”. He said, “We constructed a layered 19 mm plyboard platform, nine inches high, and reinforced it every few inches to distribute the weight of the tombstone across the structure and the floor. The platform was built in position but was easy to move, and was a fraction as heavy as the artefact itself. The heavy-duty industrial elevator at the museum, a forklift, two-by-four sections of wood for leverage, and layers of industrial carpeting enabled a team of six or so to manoeuvre the object into place.”
The exclusion of the three pieces will hamper at least one of the intentions of the exhibition, which is to emphasise a shared human history. At the November opening, Dr Hartwig Fischer, Director of the British Museum, stated, “It (the exhibition) highlights what is at the heart of human development — exchange, exploring the world, meeting other people and being open to the idea of other faiths and ways of life and incorporating them into our lives.” Art writer and historian Naman Ahuja, who curated the exhibition at CSMVS along with JD Hill, curator at the British Museum, said that this was achieved through careful choice of objects.
For example, during the 18th and 19th centuries, while Britain was expanding across the globe, many statues like The Townley Discobolus were appropriated by the British Empire as a way of claiming classical roots. This story, which began in the welcome section, of how cultures have always borrowed from each other, was concluded in the ‘eighth section’ with the contemporary statue of a Chinese copy of the same Roman statue. “On closer inspection, you realise how each culture has been dependent on appropriating ideas from another. In turn, these appropriations have become an integral part of the borrowing culture’s identity,” Ahuja said in an email.
The exhibition is one of the most ambitious such projects in the country, with a total of 228 objects. Besides the three main collaborators, over 20 cultural institutes and collections from around India have loaned objects for it. At its Mumbai opening, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, Director General of CSMVS, had described it as a showcase of “India’s glorious past, in relation to a global context, through the use of iconic historical objects, put in conversation with each other”. On the same occasion, Dr Mani had announced that after the exhibition ended in Mumbai, it would open at the National Museum in March with “full pomp and show”.