Remembrance of Things Past

Three London exhibitions grapple with ways to confront the legacy of the British Empire

A closeup of Folio 16v from the Bakshali manuscript, 224-383 CE. COPYRIGHT BODLEIAN LIBRARIES, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
01 March, 2018

One of the most arresting objects on display at the 5000 Years of Science and Innovation exhibition, on until the end of March at the Science Museum in London as part of its “Illuminating India” programme, is the index to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, published in 1860. “No map in the world at that time,” an accompanying signboard reads, “could rival it for scale, detail and accuracy.” Hundreds of criss-crossing red and blue lines form a tight network of triangles within the index—each, the signboard says, “the sum of hundreds of distance and angle measurements.”

Another signboard nearby displays a small lithograph of men, all Indian, lugging around surveying equipment. The caption reads, “Thousands of British soldiers and Indian men lost their lives in completing the 70-year project.” Who were these men? Why did they die? We are not told. Nor are we told how the map fits into the history of cartography in India before and during British imperialism. Perhaps this is too much to ask of a single show that aspires to capture 5,000 years of Indian history. But it is not too much to ask of an exhibition pointedly dedicated to Indian scientific achievement that, while touting the trigonometrical survey, the exhibition credits such figures as Radhanath Sikdar, a Bengali mathematician whose immense contributions to the project included first calculating that what was later christened Mount Everest was the highest point on earth. Yet neither Sikdar nor the many other Indian surveyors and “calculators” who were part of the endeavour get any mention here at all.

One of imperialism’s legacies was to write the “native” out of her own history. This was an act of wilful forgetting, and, from the imperial standpoint, a crucial one—usurping all agency prepared the ground for telling the natives that they could not govern their land as well as the imperialists could. Now, decades after the fall of the British Empire, this position is unsustainable. “Illuminating India,” the Science Museum’s website says, “commemorates 70 years of Independence and is part of the British Council’s UK/India Year of Culture.” The science exhibition is billed as part of a season of “exhibitions and events that celebrates India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.” But how, today, do you celebrate history from the imperial period without celebrating imperialism itself? How do you remember what you had chosen to emphatically forget? How do you give agency back to those who were comprehensively stripped of it? This is a fundamental tension in many British museums (and increasingly, it appears, in British society: How can we be great again, without doing what we did the last time?). There is no set way to deal with the problem—but there are better approaches, and worse ones.

The writer Ruchir Joshi, in a review for The Hindu, called the science exhibition “strangely bloodless.” The project—curated by Matt Kimberley of the Science Museum—reeks of a general lack of effort, or ambition, or both. Consider the first three individuals one runs into on entering: the Buddha, Gandhi and Nehru. Why this triumvirate has been put here is left entirely to viewers’ imaginations. And then one turns a corner and notices how small the exhibition is. Surely there is more to five millennia of Indian science than three badminton courts’ worth of objects, with plenty of walking space in between, especially when an autorickshaw—neither a uniquely Indian object, nor an Indian invention—takes up a lot of the space.

A model of the polar satellite launch vehicle. COPYRIGHT ISRO/ COURTESY OF SCIENCE MUSEUM GROUP

The problem is not that the items on display are uninteresting. There are various compelling objects here—including a piece of the famous Bakhshali Manuscript—a mathematical text dating back more than a millennium—and a series of Mughal coins with zodiac images on the reverse. But the exhibition fails to see, or knows but fails to show, that science and technology are not products but processes. This is a problem with most museums—culture is process but it is shown as statuary, art is process but it is shown as painting—and overcoming it in this environment is challenging. Throw imperialism into the mix, and it becomes doubly so. The British Empire’s inherent tendency to deny the native agency has often made it impossible to trace the processes the native was part of. Several of the objects on display at the science exhibition were collected in the imperial era and memorialised as spoils of domination, not as evidence of Indian ability and intellect. But this is no excuse for overlooking process altogether, since many of the histories of the people and methods that imperialism unfairly sidelined have now been recovered and publicised—Radhanath Sikdar’s story is a case in point.

What is most irksome is the pervading need, all over the exhibition, to connect India’s scientific and technological heritage to a handful of contemporary achievements, such as the country’s space programme and information-technology industry. The acknowledgement of postcolonial achievements helps restore a sense of agency to Indians, but here it is lazy and simplistic, as if not having a space programme or not being a force in the global IT industry would have undermined India’s complex, chequered history in science and innovation. It gives a half-told story a tacked-on happy ending, and once again fundamentally relegates process to product. It puts on display not five millennia of science, but five millennia of scientific objects.

Right next door to 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, on Level 2 of the Science Museum, is Photography 1857–2017, an exhibition that is also part of “Illuminating India.” When I visited in January, the throngs that followed the shows’ openings in October last year had thinned out and only a handful of visitors were about. Almost all of them were concentrated in the photography exhibition, and with good reason. It is by far the better show.

Mitch Epstein, Shravanabelagala, Karnataka, India COURTESY OF GALERIE THOMAS ZANDER, KOLN

Here the story is far more complete, and it is told with much greater confidence. The show is framed around two pivots, the revolt of 1857 and the establishment of Indian independence in 1947. It is split into roughly three phases: one spanning the dawn of Indian photography and Independence, another displaying in the photography of the early post-independence years, and the last covering contemporary Indian photography. As a whole, the show tells a story of Indians finding a voice in the photographic form and then speaking loudly in it—even if this is not a reading that the curators explicitly propose.

The cataclysmic events of 1857 serve as crucial markers in the first of the three phases. Prominent here are Indian photographers, such as Ahmad Ali Khan, and foreign practitioners, such as the Italian-British Felice Beato. A looped video displays a collection of Khan’s portraits from Lucknow shortly before the rebellion broke out. This “ghost album,” as the exhibition calls it, no doubt features people who perished in the violence that followed. Where Khan recorded a certain calm before the storm, Beato captured its aftermath. A famous shot of his, taken shortly after the rebellion was quelled, shows the Sikandar Bagh palace in Lucknow, the foreground strewn with remains of the bodies of “rebels.” (Scholarship on the politics of Beato’s photography suggests that the photo could well have been staged—skeletons of corpses may have been exhumed to emphasise the extent of the defeat.)

Khan’s portraits, many of them of Indian royalty, are presented on either side of the photography of the 1857 rebellion. The juxtaposition of “native” and imperialist photography is instructive in highlighting the ways that both were exercises in myth-making. The imperialists sought to mythologise rebel brutality and British valour. Postcards featuring famous sites of the rebellion did roaring business in Britain, a form of disaster tourism by proxy. Early Indian photographers, meanwhile, very often showed elite Indians in their domestic surroundings, dressed in their ceremonial livery. Their works are not representative of the reality of the country at the time, but they are the first steps in the process of Indians as photographic artists and subjects claiming agency.

The second phase—of photography approximately between Independence and economic liberalisation—is given less space than the first. We begin to see Indian photographers capturing more of themselves and their countrymen—for instance, Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s pictures of himself and his family, most notably of his daughter, the painter Amrita Sher-Gil—which are intimate portraits of their inner lives. But this is still elite photography, as many of the well-known art photographers still hailed from a narrow, privileged class. Foreigners worked in India in this phase too, such as the American Mitch Epstein. There are striking photos by both Raghubir Singh and Mitch Epstein in this exhibition, some of them quite well-known, such as Epstein’s Shravanabelagola, Karnataka, India 1981, which features a car parked in front of a wall, containing a man smoking a cigarette as four children watch. It is an arresting image, with harsh contrasts and sharp edges. Though compositionally sound, these images are distant from the subject, which are often static moments lacking the effect of a dramatic event. This section of the exhibition suggests that there is much to be recorded beyond the glitz of nobility and tragedy of war.

The exhibition, curated by Kate Bush with Shasti Lowton as assistant curator and Rahaab Allana as consultant curator, presents a possible reading that photography of Indians is very different from photography by Indians, and that both of these types of photography have changed over time, especially in terms of the dynamic between elites and non-elites. Initially, the elites photographed each other. Then the elites—including photographers such as Singh and Epstein—photographed the non-elite. And past that, the camera’s gaze grew more democratic as the act and subject of photography became accessible to a wider number of people on their own terms.

This comes through in the final part of the exhibition, which features contemporary works by three auteurs: the Indian Sohrab Hura, the Briton Olivia Arthur and the French-SriLankan Vasantha Yogananthan. Yogananthan’s images, part of a series titled A Myth of Two Souls, use contemporary photography to retell the Ramayana. The most striking of his images is of a young boy, dressed in white, leaning against the parapet of an ancient building, peering into a mirror as he combs his hair. The photo is titled “Rama combing his hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, 2015.” Hura’s series Sweet Life captures his responses to his mother’s descent into schizophrenia in the 1990s, with unsettling black-and-white photographs that depict his inner strife. Arthur’s photographs, of Mumbai’s gay and lesbian subculture, consist of portraits of men and women—alone and in pairs. They are harsh and tender at the same time, juxtaposing the public challenge of alternative sexuality in India with the self-legitimising humaneness of private love. In some sense, India seems incidental to Arthur’s photography; she does without the tropes—of exotic dress, of abjectness, of exaggerated action, colour, oriental irony and more—that earlier marked photography from India. The same can be said of Hura and, less so, of Yogananthan’s work. India and Indians metamorphosise from being symbols and caricatures of a foreign “other” to being individuals and communities with their own distinctive humanity.

Two short train rides from the Science Museum is the Wellcome Collection, a museum and library complex dedicated to the exploration of the interface between life, medicine, the human body, art and culture. Until early April 2018, it is hosting Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian medicine, which, in the words of the exhibition catalogue, “showcases Sanskrit, Persian and Tibetan manuscripts, vibrant gouache paintings, erotic manuals and animal-shaped surgical tools.”

Rama combing his hair, Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, India, 2015 from the series ''A Myth of Two Souls'' (2013). COPYRIGHT VASANTHA YOGANANTHAN

The “Ayurvedic Man” in the title refers to an eighteenth-century anatomical painting made in Nepal based on a seventeenth-century Ayurvedic text—the Bhavaprakasa, by Bhavamisra. The exact purpose of the painting, and its intended audience, is lost to time. But research by Dominik Wujastyk, a prolific scholar of South Asian history, suggests that it was used as a wall hanging or a teaching aid of some kind. Visitors are invited to view the painting up close while Sanskrit verses from the Bhavaprakasa are recited through a speaker. This is perhaps the most ambiguous of the range of objects and multimedia installations on display. and to choose it as the centrepiece of the exhibition is to immediately ground the work in the complexities of the history of medicine in the Indian subcontinent. Foregrounding this indigenous fulcrum is one of a handful of ways in which the curator, Bárbara Rodriguez Muñoz, has handled the problem of agency.

Besides this, there is a mural specially commissioned for the show, by the artist Ranjit Kandalgaonkar, to tell a visual history of the Bombay plague of 1896. This is displayed on three large touchscreens, on which viewers can zoom in on parts of the mural and summon archival material, historical information and period journalism. Taken together, the installation reveals how medicine and public health, like almost every aspect of colonial Indian life, were intensely political. But the broader purpose of the mural, placed right at the beginning of the show, is to make clear the problematic colonial context that many of the objects and people that populate the show were drawn from, forcing visitors to acknowledge that what they are about to see is contentious material. Time and again, the display literature in Ayurvedic Man reminds visitors that the documents, objects and images on display are colonial-era acquisitions—opening up a host of pertinent questions, not least that of who actually owns this heritage.

Wrenching visitors back to the present is Quiet Flows the Stream, a diptych of videos by the filmmaker Nilanjan Bhattacharya that profiles the life of two traditional healers: Kunjira Mulya from Karnataka and Thendup Lachungpa from Sikkim. If Ayurvedic Man grounds the exhibition in the theory of Indian medical heritage, Quiet Flows the Stream depicts the practicalities of this tradition, how it has been sidelined and how traditional medical practitioners cope with social and economic marginalisation. But the videos do something far more important too—they reveal that there is no single tradition of medicine in India. The healers forage in radically different environments, seeking out entirely different medicines and drugs. The contrast with the flat, uni-dimensional depiction of Indian science at the Science Museum could not be greater.


There can be no complete undoing of the British Empire’s denigration of Indians and their work, but it is clear that there are approaches to curation that confront it. Especially when displaying colonial-era collections and materials in the United Kingdom, (the country’s only museum of British rule in India, a tiny effort in the town of Nelson, Lancashire, has previously appeared on a notorious list of the least-visited British museums), it is vital that curators attempt to grapple with the legacy of imperialism.