Objects and the(ir) Objective: The Story of India

[A Review article on India:  A Story Through 100 Objects, by Vidya Dehejia.  Delhi:  Lustre Press/Roli Books, 2021.  ISBN:  978-81-94969174.  279 pp.]

Some years ago Sunil Khilnani, author of the elegantly written The Idea of India, a long discursive essay on post-independent India very much shaped by a Nehruvian sensibility, embarked on a rather different enterprise as he attempted to grapple with a country characterized by a long past.  How might we imagine the history of India if we were to view it through the lives of some of its most arresting men and women—and equally some who won little recognition beyond their own community, fell into obscurity, or were architects of policies that have long since been disowned?  The outcome was a book that Khilnani called Incarnations:  India in 50 Lives (2016).  It is understandable that his narrative should be peopled by the likes of the Buddha, Ashoka, Shankara, Kabir, Nanak, Mirabai, and Gandhi, but the choice of Charan Singh, a wily politician who served as the country’s caretaker Prime Minister for six months at the head of a wobbly coalition, will seem odd to many except perhaps to those who remember his reputation as an unstinting champion of the rural peasantry.  The choice of Satyajit Ray may seem inspired to film afficionados who recognize him as one of world cinema’s supreme auteurs, and whose Apu Trilogy is a landmark of humanism, but I suspect that the hundreds of millions who follow Salman Khan or Shahrukh Khan have barely heard of a director who crafted his films in the image of Mozart’s operas where, as Ray once explained, ‘groups of characters maintain their individuality through elaborate ensembles’.

Khilnani did not claim to be writing about the 50 most influential Indians, or the ‘greatest’ Indians, but it is in the nature of things that his 50 lives should have been construed as in some ways the lives of the most eminent Indians.  Any enterprise such as Khilnani’s must be marked by eccentricity.  It is a similar eccentricity, if that is the word to designate choices that sometimes appear unstable, quirky, and occasionally outlandish, that characterizes Vidya Dehejia’s audacious and intellectually provocative attempt to narrate the story of India through 100 objects.  Dehejia is principally an art historian and would doubtless have been inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), an attempt by Neil MacGregor to write a ‘world history’ through 100 objects in the gargantuan collection of the British Museum of which he was then the Director.  MacGregor was constrained only by the parameters set for him:  ‘The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally’, and address the totality of human experience, not only the lives of the rich and the powerful; consequently, the objects chosen could not merely be great works of art but had to speak to everyday life.  Dehejia in principle sets for herself a somewhat similar task with regards to the objects that she chooses, stating that she has tried not to privilege any political standpoint and that she has sought to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ in the story that she tells.  The desire to be ‘even-handed and fair-minded’ may evoke some cynicism from the reader with a knowledge of the British attempt in India to represent themselves as neutral gatekeepers, but others might say only that Dehejia is being true to the calling of her profession.

It is, however, in the structure of her book, lavishly illustrated and meticulously produced by New Delhi-based Roli Books, that she most closely emulates MacGregor with one significant difference.  Both books are divided into twenty chapters and generally four to five objects illustrate the thematic argument of each chapter; however, where MacGregor proceeds strictly chronologically, moving from one phase of history to another, Dehejia’s fidelity to chronology extends only within each chapter. Thus, for example, in discussing ideals of womanhood in India, Dehejia moves from a bronze statue of Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, c. 900 CE, to a watercolour on paper from 1615 of Nur Jahan, whom some readers may perhaps be surprised to discover was an expert markswoman; and from there to a recent statue of Ahilyabai Holkar, who was an astute ruler as much as she was a pious Hindu in the mid-18th century, to two early nineteenth century representations of Saraswati and Bharat Mata.

To understand the circumstances that have conspired to make possible a work such as Dehejia’s, it is necessary to recapitulate a few recent developments in historical scholarship.  There is, after some decades where cultural studies predominated and the gaze was riveted on the politics of representations, once again the turn to material history. It is immaterial that the Chola Temple Walls which Dehejia adroitly describes as a ‘Public Record Office’ (pp. 68-69), covered as they are with inscriptions, cannot quite be held in one’s hands as is generally true of many objects. Her objects are artefacts that inscribe a past, speak to the present, and occasionally portend the future. Secondly, Dehejia is still beholden to one of subaltern history and postcolonial theory’s most potent insights, namely the place of the ‘fragment’ in the imaginary of the nation.  Taken together, her objects—and other like objects—are more than the sum of the parts; but each is a fragment, sometimes calling forth other associations, occasionally a whole unto itself, and sometimes orphaned.  Thirdly, and relatedly, since national histories have become suspect to enlightened liberals, more particularly as they generally degenerate into becoming nationalist histories, scholars have had to search for new ways to write national histories without succumbing to the nationalist malady. Dehejia’s history of India through 100 objects can certainly be read in this vein.

It is as an art historian that Dehejia comes to her task and this shows equally in her choice of themes and the objects to illustrate the themes. Though four to five principal objects are apportioned for each part, the section on the ‘Art of the Illustrated Book’ is an exception with seven objects—and all these are examples of what may be called ‘high art’, folios from rare manuscripts and miniature paintings. At least half of the objects chosen by her are sculptural works or miniature paintings and the overwhelming and some will surely say misleading impression left upon the reader is of a civilization that was shaped predominantly by the artistic sensibility of Indian people.  One hundred objects are numbered but the ‘100’ is not to be taken literally, nor are the objects always drawn from India, even if they are clearly ‘Indic’ in origin or produced in some fashion under the sign of the Sanskrit cosmopolis:  thus, for example, a 9th-century Sri Lankan statue of the Buddhist goddess Prajnaparamita is offered as an illustration of the ‘yogic body’, but the argument is supplemented both with seals from the Indus Valley (ca. 2000 BCE) to suggest the antiquity of yoga in India’s imagination and the famous 7th century CE open-air ‘Great Penance’ relief carved on two boulders at Mamallapuram where yogic postures are depicted (pp. 34-37). The commentary that ensues is what one might expect from an art historian, though here Dehejia’s declared intent to eschew a political position here perhaps does short shrift to the subject.  There has been a lively debate in recent years, particularly in the United States, on whether yoga is intrinsically related to Hinduism: both the Christian right and Hindu nationalists have affirmed (though for different reasons) such a relationship, while many especially liberal practitioners of yoga claim that it is a wholly secular practice shorn of any religious underpinnings.  There is some controversy over whether the main motif of this magnificent sculptural relief is Arjuna’s penance or the descent of the Ganga, but in either case yoga’s associations with Hinduism seem unimpeachable. 

-Great Penance Relief at Mamallapuram (formerly Mahabalipuram), Tamil Nadu, 7th century CE. The figure of the ascetic in a yogic pose can be seen at the center, about a third of the way down from the top.

Dehejia is less reticent, however, on how what objects tell us about Hindu-Muslim relations and the contemporary project to read Hindu aspirations into the past.  She does not state her position bluntly but her repudiation of the communalist standpoint is clear enough.  It is a measure of the restraint with which she writes that the discerning reader will at once understand her position while the reader who is disposed towards Hindu nationalism is perhaps likely to think anew his or her own position.  Consider her treatment of this subject through two objects. A Chalukyan period (ca. 1000 CE) granite sculpture of a dvarapala (door guardian) interests her since it frequently changed hands, moving one from Hindu king to another in a tale of vanquishers and the defeated (pp. 62-63). Sometimes objects, and sacred centres—most famously Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, otherwise known as Sancta Sophia—fell to the conqueror of another faith, a phenomenon that she rightly points out can be seen ‘in most parts of the world’.  The communalist would like to read such phenomena exclusively through the lens of religious animosity, but it is the politics of conquest and the quest for power that characterize this history rather than the politics of religion. More arresting for many reasons, not the least being that even educated Indians know very little about the Deccan sultanates (1527-1686) and their extraordinary cosmopolitanism, is her choice of two miniatures from Bijapur (ca. 1604, pp. 106-7).  One features Ibrahim Adil Shah, Sultan of Bijapur, who wore the rudraksha beads associated with Shiva, playing the tambura; in the other miniature, produced at the Sultan’s behest, the goddess Saraswati, a veena resting on her left rap against her right shoulder, is rendered much like a Mughal princess.  This hybridized painting is emblematic of the syncretism of the Muslim courts.  Adil Shah had inscribed along the top the words, ‘Ibrahim, whose father is guru Ganapati and mother the pure Saraswati.’  Should we be surprised that in more recent times Ustad Bismillah Khan, the master of the shehnai (the double-reeded oboe common in north India) nonpareil, played at the Kashi Viswanath temple and that he regularly prayed to Saraswati?

Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah playing the tambura; ascribed to Farrukh Beg in an inscription written by Muhammad Hussain Zarin Qalam, c. 1610-11. From an album page. Collection: National Museum, Prague.

I would like to insist that one cannot begrudge Dehejia her choices.  Nevertheless, even as she candidly terms them ‘idiosyncratic’, the debate is not thereby closed.  Each object tells a story, and she is adept in narrating the story, but thousands of other objects, each illuminating in its own fashion, would have served her equally well. A number of arguments may be raised in this connection, again less so as criticism than as provocations. First, I wonder if it is not the case that Dehejia has been perhaps overly influenced by trends highlighting “diversity” and the occluded subjects of history.  A watercolour from 1615 of Empress Nur Jahan underscores her abilities as ruler and as an expert markswoman (pp. 236-37), and the aforementioned bronze statue of the 10th century Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi and the 2011 statue of the 18th century Ahilyabai of the House of Holkar are in the same vein (pp. 234-35, 238-39). In recent years there has been a spate of biographies of Mughal women of the royal household, some written, it seems, to counterbalance the lavish attention bestowed on the great Mughal rulers.  This is all fine and admirable, but still at the end a rather anodyne exercise, establishing only, as Dehejia argues more than once, that patriarchy in India (and elsewhere) has prevented women from attaining their full potential.  The more critical question is whether women in politics may furnish us a politics that will yield a more just and equal society. Secondly, and somewhat in this vein, India has historically provided richer possibilities of imagining a world that is not tethered to rigid conceptions of male and female, masculinity and femininity.  The stunning statue from a copper alloy of ca. 1000 of God as ardhnari (half-woman) points to a world where both masculinity and femininity were preceded by androgyny (pp. 84-85).  According to Dehejia, ‘the dominance of the male is clear in the fact that the composite image is called Shiva as Half-Woman’, but one must perforce ask:  ‘called’ by whom?  There is nothing intrinsic in the image which suggests the conception of God as predominantly female or male.  But supposing that Dehejia were right, one is then moved to inquire whether the art of the West, or of China, Japan, or Africa, also allowed for such imagery of the divine godhead?  Is the dualistic framework of thinking as much a problem in classical Indian thought as it is in the philosophical systems of the West?

Shiva as Ardhnari (Half-woman), c. 1000 CE, from Nepal. Copper alloy with gemstones. Approximately 83 cms. Collection: Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The colonial civil servant and ethnographer William Crooke wrote a delightful and now forgotten book called Things Indian (1906). There are some 175-200 odd essays on subjects such as amulets, bamboo, the bazaar, camels, carpets, curry, diamonds, elephants, embroidery, fairs, rice, salt, tea, and snakes.  I am tempted to ask, after reading about amulets in Crooke’s book, why ‘bangles’ are not one of the 100 objects that Dehejia writes about:  the bangle-seller has been a ubiquitous presence in our bazaars and fairs, and the scene of a woman breaking her bangles upon learning of her husband’s death is to be found in scores of Hindi movies. A similar thought might arise regarding the mango and the banyan tree, but here Dehejia anticipates the reader in capturing these two ‘objects’ alongside the tiger, the peacock, and the lotus flower in the definitive stamps released by the Indian government’s post and telegraphs department (pp. 260-61). But their reproduction in this doubly diminutive form nevertheless suggests once again that everyday objects are slighted in favour of works of arts.  Where, the reader may also ask, is the cricket bat? If cricket is, alongside popular cinema, the enduring passion of so many in the country, it would appear to be deserving of some attention.  I was thinking likewise of the matka (clay water pot), the belna (rolling pin), and the pots and pans of the Indian kitchen.  The pressure cooker—the traditional one, not the new incarnation known as ‘instant pot’—was invented in the US and became practically obsolete there, except as a retrofitted bomb, but in India it has found an enduring home and the Indian kitchen is unthinkable without it.  Yet it is a mark of the suppleness of Dehejia’s thinking that some of these pots and pans do make their appearance in her ‘objects’, having entered into the imaginary of the contemporary artist Subodh Gupta’s massive installations, ‘Spill’ and ‘Very Hungry God’ (pp. 268-69). Objects with which we have lived for a very long time may take on new forms.  We can read new meanings into them.  It is to Dehejia’s credit that her book allows for this fecund play of possibilities.

Subodh Gupta, “Spill”, 2007.

[First published in a slightly shorter version in Open magazine (26 July 2021) under the title “An Objective History” and also available online (16 July 2021) here.]

1 thought on “Objects and the(ir) Objective: The Story of India

  1. This sounds like a very interesting book and your suggestions of additional objects that could have been included are thought provoking. I think objects found in historical and contemporary garbage dumps and refuse heaps, middens as they are called in archeology, would also be an instructive addition, if they are not mentioned in the book. What a society disposes of, and how, is as important as what it cherishes, after all, and the story of waste disposal in today’s India is indeed a sordid one in many ways.

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