This December, the rotunda of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) greets you with the lotus medallion — a majestic 2nd century CE limestone sculpture from Amaravati. Part of a railing, this lotus from the ruins of the Great Stupa in the Andhra Pradesh capital has three concentric rows of petals separated by saw-tooth motifs and roundels. The centre has the seed pot from where the flower blossoms. Long before it acquired political flavour, the lotus has been a symbol of purity across cultures and regions.
Step across to the right, ahead of the lotus, and there’s a resplendent white marble full-figured Dionysos (Greek) or Bacchus (Rome) from 100-199 CE, on loan from the British Museum. One also encounters busts of various shapes and sizes, of gods such as Zeus, Apollo and Triton, and stone panels from Assyria with winged figures. At its new exhibition, Ancient Sculptures: India, Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome, CSMVS’s own collection of ancient sculptures and pieces from other leading Indian museums take centerstage and illuminate — through their juxtapositions with sculptures from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Assyria — the stunning interconnectedness of the ancient world.
For art education and for reinterpreting ancient art history through an Indian lens, this is one of the most important shows ever to have been mounted in an Indian museum. Under the leadership of CSMVS director general Sabyasachi Mukherjee and his team of curators, this exhibition takes the collaborative and global credo of the museum forward from its first big-scale show, India and the World: A History in Nine Stories (2017-18).
Art education and outreach
Besides being a pioneering achievement in global co-curation, the show furthers CSMVS’ mandate for art education — it spends more than 60% of its annual budget on art education and outreach. The international partners for this show are Getty, The British Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and other Indian museums. The works, which have been shipped from their original sites to be showcased at CSMVS’ imposing rotunda, will be on display till October 2024. Art enthusiasts will have the opportunity to look at familiar forms of ancient sculptures — the white marble Greek god, for instance, has a ubiquitousness around the world — in relation to Indian artistic traditions. You will come away with questions and possibly answers to questions such as these: why do most sculptural figures from ancient India look at the viewer, but most Roman or Greek ones look away?
The torso of Apollo, shaped and honed by exercise in the gymnasium, is the Greek ideal — thought to be supremely beautiful, and essential to succeed in battle. The naked Greek figures, with similarly shaped bodies, have many similarities with, say, Apollo.? At the entrance is Dvarapala Yaksha, a 2nd century BCE work from Aurangabad, Maharashtra, representation of a Jain teacher’s austere, serene body. The three sculptures are of the highest aesthetic quality, but they show the different approaches sculptors took in ancient India and Europe.
Efforts to mount this show with more than a hundred objects began almost four years ago, right after the exquisitely curated India and the World show. The idea emerged from Mukherjee’s conversations with James Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust; Neil MacGregor, former director of The British Museum; and Mahrukh Tarapor, former assistant director of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The core idea behind this project was to understand India’s position in the ancient world. The exhibition aims to explore three themes that were crucial in shaping ancient cultures and are still perceptible in society today: the role of nature in our lives, the divine form, and ideas and paradigms of beauty,” says Mukherjee. In 2025, the ambitious collaboration will culminate in the opening of an ancient world gallery at CSMVS, where the partners will, once again, share their collections, lending over a hundred objects.??
The role of water
It’s obvious as you walk through the show that water played a crucial role in all ancient cultures. The Egyptian sculpture of Hapy from The British Museum — Hapy being the god of the inundation of the Nile — is seen alongside a digital image of the Ganga. While in Egypt the flooding of the Nile resulted in enhancing the fertility of the land, in India, the annual monsoon is essential for crops and the survival of people. The works interact with each other with these similarities and differences.
Mukherjee believes the show will be a new way for a vast number of young Indians who might not have the opportunity to experience art by travelling to look at their own artistic traditions and recognise their place as global citizens. “One of the objectives of this project is also to re-energise curiosity for the study of the ancient world, prompting young India to avail museums as fertile resources for this inquiry,” he says. Art historian MacGregor, a former director of the National Gallery, London, and an advisor to CSMVS, says, “What is new here is that the choice of objects was made by the curators in the CSMVS, specifically for an Indian audience, so that the visitors could look at Egypt, Greece and Rome from India, and with an Indian perspective. That has never been done before.”?
The pandemic introduced the world to virtual tours of all the leading museums around the world. It was enthralling, no doubt. But a visit to CSMVS and walking through his show, in particular, shows us what’s better. You feel the full power of a great work of art only when you are in direct contact with it — in dialogue with it. To experience their scale, to realise how they change as we move has a charge and intensity that no technology or AI experience can match. Besides, there’s a greater motivation, one that’s eternally in vogue now. In MacGregor words, “Young Indian visitors will, I hope, feel they are taking their place in history.”
The author is a Mumbai-based writer and critic.?