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How international museums are taking India's art, fashion legacy to the world

Museums are now going beyond colonial collections to showcase the wider world of South Asia

An exhibit at the Manchester Museum's South Asia Gallery.

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On 18 February, the Manchester Museum, a British institution that first opened to the public in the late 1800s, will reopen, following a £15 million (around 151 crore) refurbishment and expansion. One of the reasons for the great excitement in the British press is the fact that it will be the first museum in the UK to have a permanent South Asia gallery dedicated to the lived experiences of the region’s communities.

Curated by Nusrat Ahmed, the collection focuses on British Asian culture and artefacts that connect to the daily lives of the multicultural local communities, such as the hakgediya, a musical conch shell from Sri Lanka, a rickshaw from Bangladesh decorated by local communities, and objects that tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Darwen in Lancashire in 1931, when he met mill workers.

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Mughal emperor Jahangir’s wine cup from the Al Thani Collection.
Mughal emperor Jahangir’s wine cup from the Al Thani Collection.

Over the past few years, museums have been making the effort to move beyond showing the jewellery or art of former royals, towards curating exhibitions that reflect the wider world of South Asia. Behind such exhibitions and galleries are museum curators, largely those with roots in the region, who can turn a non-Eurocentric lens on South Asia.

“South Asia has had a prominent place in museums in the West because they have inherited vast colonial collections,” says Priya Khanchandani, head of curatorial at the Design Museum in London. Khanchandani, who grew up in London, began her career as a lawyer before switching to the arts and has worked in the past as the British Council’s head of arts programmes for India. “I would like to see South Asia represented beyond the jade cups of Shah Jahan, royal robes and Mughal miniatures, however beautiful they are, as these aren’t the only stories and South Asia deserves a place in the contemporary canon.”

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In May, the museum will host The Offbeat Sari, an exhibition of over 90 contemporary saris from designers and studios across India, using the sari as a metaphor for the complexity of economics, politics, fashion, society and consumption in the country today. Her curation includes the first sari worn to the Met Gala in New York in 2022, made by Sabyasachi Mukherjee, and other pieces by brands such as Abraham & Thakore, Raw Mango, AKAARO and NorBlack NorWhite.

A Raw Mango sari that’s going to be part of the London Design Museum’s ‘The Offbeat Sari’ show
A Raw Mango sari that’s going to be part of the London Design Museum’s ‘The Offbeat Sari’ show

“In recent years, the sari has been reinvented. Designers are experimenting with hybrid forms such as sari gowns and dresses, pre-draped saris and innovative materials such as steel. Young people in cities who used to associate the sari with dressing up can now be found wearing saris and sneakers on their commutes to work. Individuals are wearing the sari as an expression of resistance to social norms and activists are embodying it as an object of protest,” the exhibition note states.

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South Asia has always been well represented in Western museums, especially in the UK, from the V&A to the British Museum, simply because so much art from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan was looted during the colonial period and placed there. “However, there is a rebalancing taking place of what has until recently been a Euro-centric cultural canon, through a shifting of the narrative beyond colonial collections,” explains Khanchandani. “That shift has been brewing for some time but the Black Lives Matters movement created more urgency. Rather than an exhibition about Mughal art or 19th century Indian textiles, I was encouraged to see an exhibition about post-colonial South Asian architecture at MoMA (in New York) in 2022, but there are so many more stories that haven’t been told yet.”

Shanay Jhaveri, head of visual arts at the Barbican in London, agrees that there has definitely been a reckoning in these past few years. “It is a restive moment and institutions are having to take notice of what have been persistent blind spots. They have to rethink their approach, while acknowledging what has been lacking in their programmes and collection galleries,” says Jhaveri, who grew up in Mumbai and studied art at the Royal College of Art in London.

Jhaveri, who was the associate curator of international art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York till 2022, explains that in the past there were “moments largely connected to a patron, donor or curator” that led to work from the region gaining visibility in museums in the West. “These efforts need to become more systemic and dedicated to ensure the continuous presence of work from the region and its diaspora in museums,” he says.

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Amin Jaffer, the Rwandan-born British Indian curator who has worked at the V&A Museum and Christie’s in London and is now with a private museum for the Al Thani Collection in Paris, says: “Works of art from South Asia have held an illustrious position in public exhibitions in Britain since the 1850s. It is the interpretation of these objects that has so substantially changed over time.”

For long, curatorial practice has viewed South Asia and its people as one region, without taking into consideration the complexities within and differences between the various countries, regions, societies and people. Apart from the diversities that have existed through history, the forming and re-forming of nations and states in the post-colonial period has led to the emergence of a range of visual and other vocabularies which are often neglected. “There is a pressing need to rethink curatorial agendas, and to focus on creative approaches designed to illuminate neglected, suppressed and emerging relations,” observes Iftikhar Dadi, who teaches and researches contemporary art at Cornell University, US, in an article for the Guggenheim Museum’s blog in 2012.

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In addition to the cultural diversity of the region, the width of the domain and breadth of the definition of art itself is mind-boggling here, ranging from craft to traditional to modern practice. “(Art in South Asia) constitutes a number of overlapping fields existing in productive tension and collaboration with each other. It encompasses tribal, folk, and artisanal practices, incorporates diverse media and methods, and embraces ‘bazaar arts,’ including religious and secular posters and other street-based forms. It also gestures toward widespread and continuous grass-roots social and political mobilization,” Dadi writes in the same piece.

This is why, as Jhaveri says, museums need a multiplicity of voices. “It would be wonderful to see more curators of South Asian origin working in museums, and their areas of focus or expertise could be well beyond or outside of South Asia,” he says. “Curators, wherever they might be located, have to position and orient themselves in relation to the cultural arenas in which they practise, and the historical conditions which have defined them.”

Ahmed of the Manchester Museum’s South Asian Gallery says diversity shouldn’t be limited to curators alone, it must extend necessarily to the entire museum workforce to recognise the power of lived experiences. She is a first-generation British Asian; her parents migrated to the UK from Pakistan in 1962. “If museums do not change, they would become extinct. By drawing upon collections and diverse cultural perspectives, museums can become more relevant to the communities they serve…. I don’t think there are enough South Asian curators, and we still have a long way to go.”

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While Khanchandani agrees that heritage helps create a cultural connection to the material objects and positionality is central to critiquing structures of colonialism, she believes that doesn’t mean a curator of South Asia cannot be from another culture, as other perspectives can shed new light on the material. “But the legacy of white colonialists collecting South Asian objects for museums really needs to be rebalanced first,” she says.

Khanchandani, who recently curated Amy: Beyond The Stage, on the life of the late singer Amy Winehouse, at the Design Museum, says South Asians tended to curate material relating only to the region when she started her career in 2011. “I was aware that my ethnicity might restrict my career options but over time the tide has started to shift. Museums have started to become more inclusive. People like me and of my views, perspectives and life experiences, are still a minority but there is more scope to push the boundaries now.”

Sujata Assomull is a journalist, an author and a mindful fashion advocate.

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