The mouse and the alarm


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FOR the last two months of 2013, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts was host to a very special exhibition of Mughal works. Curated by J.P. Losty, the former head of the Visual Arts Department at the India Office Library in the British Library, London, and Malini Roy, the current curator of the same collection, The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture was an expansive display drawn from the manuscripts, paintings and sketches in the British Library’s Mughal collections. The show allowed viewers to see images of many of the well-known masterpieces of Mughal painting owned by the India Office Library. Unlike previous exhibitions of this material, however, this show did not privilege the ‘high’ arts of painting and calligraphy alone but showed maps, diagrams, unillustrated manuscripts, poems and legal contracts as well, with extensive captions that allowed viewers to understand the historical and cultural significance of the objects on display.

Some of the more fascinating exhibits were maps that delineated vast tracts of the Mughal empire, or the narrow lanes of Shahjahanabad; a nine metre long scroll that tracked the route from Delhi to Qandahar, listing every caravanserai along the way; and a charming set of drawings showed the wood and bamboo frameworks used to construct multi-storeyed royal tents that mimicked palaces in all their magnificence. Among the unillustrated texts that the exhibition brought to the viewers’ attention were an Aurangzeb period manual on the management of households; instructions for pigeon-fanciers from the reign of Shah Alam; mathematical treatises translated in the reigns of various Mughal monarchs from Sanskrit and Latin originals; and an assembly of more than one thousand dhrupads composed by a court musician in the time of Humayun.

This tremendous range of exhibits – from artistic masterpieces to workaday sketches, literary texts to recipe books – vividly brought alive the complex intellectual and cultural texture of the Mughal world in a way that no conventional, art-historically driven and masterpiece obsessed exhibition could have done. A more traditional museum-minded exhibition would have plucked just a small number of beautifully painted (and occasionally well calligraphed) objects and put them on show for purely aesthetic effect. And aesthetics, unfortunately, can produce the illusion of a direct communion with those who have gone before us. When we see beautiful things from the past and think we share the sense of beauty of those who have gone before us, and believe that we value the things that they valued, then we feel able to forge a relationship with the past that is transparent and immediate without need of translation. To see this Mughals exhibition was to understand that the past is a foreign place. It served the immensely important purpose of making the Mughal past stranger, richer, more complex and more curious than conventional art history would have us believe.

This exhibition was important for what it was. But it was important also for what it was not. For instance, it was not an exhibition shown in a museum, or a gesture of ‘official’ cultural diplomacy as such exhibitions in India usually are. It was not an exhibition of Mughal artefacts, but of high quality digital reproductions of them. And it was an exhibition that Delhi audiences were able to see over two months, but it was not intended to have Delhi as its destination.


In his foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Pramod Kapoor, proprietor of Roli Books and the chief sponsor of the exhibition, described the way the show came about. On a visit to the office of John Falconer at the India Office Library, he saw stacks of bubble-wrapped packages: material being dispatched for an exhibition in Kabul. ‘Why Kabul?’ he asked. ‘Why not India?’ Thus was the seed planted for this exhibition, with Roli Books taking the initiative to bring it to Delhi. This small anecdote is worth dwelling upon for with Kapoor, we too might ask, Why Kabul? Why not India?


The first question is not so difficult to answer. Since the establishment of the Hamid Karzai government, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been active in Afghanistan, initiating heritage conservation and community development projects. Having restored the Queen’s Palace in Kabul as an art gallery, the Aga Khan Trust has collaborated with the British Library to mount exhibitions there. The first exhibition brought photographs, paintings and prints of old Kabul to the Queen’s Palace. When the British Library mounted a large and ambitious exhibition on the Mughals in its own galleries in 2013, the Aga Khan Trust thought it appropriate to bring the show to Kabul as the Queen’s Palace overlooks the Bagh-i-Babur, the garden that houses the mausoleum of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty.

Valuable as the Aga Khan Trust’s initiatives to restore monuments, revive artistic traditions and encourage cultural exchange would have been anywhere, and at any time, they carry a particular significance in current-day Afghanistan, where a focus upon ‘culture’ in the public sphere betokens a post-crisis return to normalcy, and the nurturing of old monuments affirms a different Afghan past than the one favoured by the Taliban. This is a cultural diplomacy manoeuvre that follows a path that has become familiar to us, as we see art and culture being offered as a balm to post-crisis societies everywhere.

So the ‘Why Kabul?’ question has a simple answer that is easy to understand. More muddy, more complex and more depressing would be the answer to the second question: ‘Why not India?’ Why were there no potential borrowers among the 600-odd government supported museums in India? Why was it that the British Library could mount a large-scale exhibition of its Mughal material and not even think of sending it to India? Why are exhibitions about the history of Indian art routinely mounted in museums abroad, often shedding new light on Indian thematics and sometimes borrowing objects from Indian collections, without the exhibition ever reaching Indian shores?

Indeed India’s irrelevance to the discourses and activities around the history of Indian art extends beyond the absence of exhibitions that might disturb the deep slumber of our museums. Academic research, conferences and symposia, publishing and even the online presence of Indian art in internet databases are all dominated by actors and locations outside India. Quite simply, India is almost entirely irrelevant to the discussion on Indian art.

What is true of Indian art history is doubly true of the sub-field of Indian painting which, for certain special reasons, has been even more neglected within India than the rest of Indian art history.


It was not always so. When the field of Indian art history was nurtured by the nationalist enthusiasm of India based scholars and intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century, several of them turned their attention towards Indian painting. As principal of the College of Art in Calcutta, E.B. Havell urged students to embrace an Indian aesthetic by emulating the exquisite paintings made for Indian royal courts. He assembled an impressive collection which is now housed in the Indian Museum, and persuaded members of the Bengal intelligentsia to collect, appreciate and copy Indian miniatures. Soon after, Coomaraswamy began his epic journey of discovery as he travelled across North India, studying and acquiring the paintings that would form the core of his landmark two-volume Rajput Painting, published in 1926. Like Havell, Coomaraswamy was searching for an authentically ‘Indian’ spirit in Indian art and he believed he had discovered it in the paintings made for Rajput courts: unlike the sophisticated and naturalistic paintings made for the Mughals (which he dismissed as worldly and materialistic), these paintings seemed to him to be spiritual and other-worldly both in their form (that was abstract and stylized) and in their subject matter (which dwelt on the myths and legends of Hindu gods).


Coomaraswamy’s polemics established the framework and stoked the enthusiasm that inspired generations of scholars, connoisseurs and collectors that followed, who pursued Rajput painting in a flush of nationalist feeling. However, it is not as though Coomaraswamy’s urgings caused collectors to spurn Mughal paintings in favour of Rajput ones. The best quality Mughal paintings had long been acquired through purchase, gift or loot, and taken to Iran, England or France. Coomaraswamy’s work created a market for what was still possible to acquire. From the 1930s on, everywhere in India, Indian miniatures began to be collected – as instructional materials for a revamped nationalist art pedagogy; as precious historical evidence of an emic perspective on the Indian past; as aesthetic objects at the centre of developing circles of connoisseurship. As institutions and individuals became interested in collecting paintings, their demand prompted the formation of a supply chain that stretched from the itinerant ‘runners’ – one step up from the kabariwalas – to the suavely cosmopolitan dealers who were comfortable in elite drawing rooms.

Many of the paintings that flowed into the market were issuing from (one might say leaking out of) the collections of the ‘native princes’ and their retainers, and when not collected by institutions, they were most often bought by an emergent class of Indian capitalists, many of whom were Marwari and closely linked to nationalist circles. Thus the notable collections built by the Birlas, the Goenkas and the Poddars. Their collections can and should be seen as part of a conscious project to reclaim and consolidate an Indian cultural tradition for an emergent nation. This is all the more pointed because at the time the major Marwari collectors were acquiring paintings from Bundi or Kota while the maharajas were purchasing baubles from Cartier and van Cleef.


Some two and a half decades after independence, the Indian government chose to abolish the privy purses, the handsome pensions that had been promised to the rulers who had merged their states with India. The former royal families found themselves in financial difficulties. If paintings had earlier flowed into the market, the flow now turned into a flood as the rajas and maharajas sought to liquidate their assets. While many of the paintings on offer were sold abroad, others remained in India where they were acquired by museums.

As art treasures flowed out of the country, another law was enacted: The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, which expressly prohibited the export of artefacts and antiquities (defined as artefacts that were more than 100 years old). Through this law the state asserted a super-ownership that arched over the rights of individual owners of all kinds of artefacts. To exert even greater control over these objects, the act made it mandatory that they be officially registered with the government, so that any sale or change of hands within the country could be tracked.


These laws were weapons with specific targets. While Indira Gandhi justified the abolition of the privy purses through the financial stress placed on India by the Bangladesh war, this measure served to check the rising popularity of maharajas who had joined politics and formed the Swatantra Party that was becoming a credible rival to the Congress. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act is said to have been devised to prevent the Nizam of Hyderabad from selling his fabled jewellery collection to a foreign buyer. Once they came into existence, however, these laws had widespread and damaging consequences.

Since the legal market for Indian antiquities was now limited to India, the range of potential buyers was severely constrained. Sellers preferred to try their luck in smuggling objects abroad. If, as the law required, owners of antiquities registered their objects with the government, they would forego the possibility of selling them abroad in the future. To keep open the option of foreign sale, many collections avoided registering their antiquities and went ‘underground’. So too did the entire market for pre-modern Indian art.

Since the market for Indian art was now clandestine, it was far easier to smuggle paintings than sculptures out of the country, and Indian paintings became the prime category of Indian objects to circulate in the international art market from the 1970s on. Even a cursory look at sale catalogues of auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s in the 1970s and ’80s shows the numbers of miniature paintings that were auctioned far exceeded the numbers of other kinds of Indian artefacts.

Since these objects had to leave India clandestinely, individual manuscripts were cut up and series of paintings dismembered without documentation. These often changed hands a few times before surfacing in the market with an invented provenance. This has left later scholars the difficult (and wholly avoidable) task of trying to reassemble the disrupted series. Much information in this area remains private, restricted to a circle of initiates including collectors and dealers; scholars and curators who may serve as advisors to collectors often bifurcate their knowledge, with some information available for public consumption, and a larger body of private data that is shared only with a chosen few.

It is clear that the laws that were intended to safeguard national heritage destroyed the market for Indian art, put a stop to the growing circle of Indian collectors, and denied India the corollary benefits of a vigorous market for pre-modern Indian art. For wherever there is a healthy market for art, it encourages the circle of collectors who might found private museums, or gift their collections to public ones. But the market also needs information about the things that it trades, for which it supports academic and popular art history. Small wonder that as the market evaporated the field of art history has stagnated in India over the last several decades.


This was not always the case. Through the 1960s and ’70s several museums in India were dynamic and energetic in shaping their collections; individuals like Moti Chandra, M.S. Randhawa and Karl Khandalawala were active as museum directors or as museum trustees, and they helped build significant painting collections and produced a stream of articles and books about the objects that they had discovered. Their work was in steady conversation with the work of colleagues overseas; Indians working in the area of Indian painting were as prominent as western scholars in the same field.

It should be noted, however, that of this august group, M.S. Randhawa was a powerful civil servant, and Karl Khandalawala was a prominent lawyer; both amassed personal collections while also advising museums across the nation. Only Moti Chandra was a professional museum employee. Apart from a few exceptional individuals such as Chandra or V.S. Agrawal (who specialized in ancient Indian art) and later Laxmi Sihare (who ran the NGMA and later, the National Museum, with great flair), museum jobs do not seem to have been prestigious enough to attract high-calibre individuals with career ambitions, for these jobs were poorly paid, had little autonomy and did not reward individuals for productivity or creativity.


Nor did the country develop training programmes that could produce future generations of scholars and curators who would deal with Indian painting. Museum staff was generally recruited from the departments of museology that provided ‘how to’ training with just a smattering of art history. The other degree programme that was the catchment area for museum employees was called ‘Ancient Indian History, Art and Culture’ that focused on ancient India, seen as the font and source of an authentic Indian tradition in the spirit of nationalistic primordialism. There was a similar emphasis on ancient traditions in the art history departments in Baroda, Shantiniketan and Banaras. Opportunities to study Indian painting were few. Both within and outside India, the understanding of the history of Indian painting was best developed not inside the academy but in the circles of collector-connoisseurs: museum curators and directors, dealers and private collectors, and erstwhile royalty. To move in these circles required social capital of a kind that few museum employees would have had.


Section 18 of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act allows that none of the provisions of that law need apply to objects held in museums, archives, educational institutions or offices run by the government. Thus, these institutions need not register the objects in their care. Perhaps this exemption was granted on the assumption that museums could be trusted to care for and fully catalogue their collections. But few museums in India fulfilled even this most basic of obligations. Museums as eminent as the National Museum in Delhi or the Indian Museum in Kolkata do not have proper accession records or photographs of their holdings; and whatever records exist are not made available to the public to consult. As a result, these museums are able to act as though they are not answerable for the objects that they hold in trust. Stories abound about artworks in museum collections that have deteriorated or been destroyed because they were poorly stored or handled or displayed.

For many years the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad kept its finest paintings on display in a gallery facing a nullah filled with noxious waste; today these paintings are blackened and abraded by the bad air and have been tucked away in the store. The Chandigarh Museum lost a number of paintings to poor storage followed by clumsy restoration. All of these crises are dealt with secretively, and sympathetic committees exonerate the institutions and employees through enquiries held behind closed doors. One also hears about museum objects being stolen, sometimes with the collusion of museum employees. Since museums do not make either objects or cataloguing information available to the public, it is impossible for scholars to study them or for the interested public to monitor them.

If there is no ‘stick’ for museum employees who are hardly ever held responsible for failing in their duties, there is no ‘carrot’ either. With no funds, no support for programmes for the exchange of objects or temporary exhibitions, no rewards for achievement, with tremendous bureaucracy at every step, museum jobs that were unappealing in the past, remain unlikely to attract the best talent in the future as well.


In the 1980s, the National Museum prepared new security and climate control systems in advance of a loan exhibition from the Hermitage Museum. ‘Our systems are now so good,’ a museum curator said, ‘that even if a mouse runs across the gallery our cameras will pick it up.’ Why there should be mice in the gallery in the first place, begs the question. But given the standards of control and care in our museums, it is not surprising that Indian museums seldom attract loan exhibitions of any quality. Even the Mughals, we should recall, was an exhibition of high quality digital prints, and not of the Mughal objects themselves. The British Library is unlikely to allow its objects to travel to museums in India. Added to environmental concerns, there may be anxieties about repatriation: whether the arrival of Indian objects from British collections would spark off demands to hold these things back on Indian soil.

Working with facsimile reproductions is one way to operate in our current circumstances of institutional poverty. The prints in the Mughals show were of such high quality that one felt one was in the presence of the original objects themselves. To see diminutive miniatures, elaborate maps and large volumes in display cases was a good reminder of the thingness of things that we think of just as images; that we see in books or on computer screens as flattened and uniformly glossy, their sizes equalized. At least in the exhibition we had a sense of being immersed in a faraway time. The crowds that thronged the gallery are indicative of a public hungry for intelligent art historical exhibitions and waiting for more such initiatives.


And while Mughal paintings in the British Library may never travel to India, my own classroom lectures are illustrated with paintings from that collection, which I freely download from their online archive. Digital reproduction has opened one set of possibilities to include India within the international conversations on Indian art. I can now browse images from many collections across the world and even read new scholarship in the area as it is produced by universities, museums or auction houses abroad.

Yet, in another way the digital commons reinforces the exclusion of India from the activity around Indian art. As more and more museums abroad upload their collections to the web, and less and less museums within India offer any kind of access and cooperation to scholars and publics, the history of Indian art becomes filled with the things that are available to study and download, and picks its way around the things that remain unavailable. Soon, objects within India will be irrelevant to the history of Indian art that will be populated with only those things that left India, and that we can see from afar.