British art historian Neil MacGregor’s iconic A History Of The World In 100 Objects set off a flurry of similarly inspired titles but not many have come close to the depth, erudition and amplitude of Vidya Dehejia’s attempt to tell the story of India in 100 objects. This is not to say that the book, gorgeously produced, ticks every box or is going to please everyone. To expect such a thing from a project like this is to belittle the sheer ambition that has gone into its making, to miss the forest for the trees.
Dehejia, currently Barbara Stoler Miller professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University in New York, describes the volume as “a people’s story”. As she states early on, “I trust that as readers thumb through the pages…each will find something totally unexpected that will grab their interest.” Indeed, there is never a dull moment in the 300-odd pages of this book. Starting with Dehejia’s bold decision to look at “India” as a vast landmass that far outstrips its post-independence boundaries, to her intriguing and unusual picks (like the unique hemp sculptures by Mrinalini Mukherjee), the book is truly a collectible— and not for its visual delights alone.
For contemporary Indians, India: A Story Through 100 Objects is a timely reminder of the interlocking and richly diverse legacies, irrespective of the difference in time and geographical distances, that we still carry with us. Our identity as modern Indians is impossibly syncretic—marked by ancient and relentless religious, social and trans-cultural intermingling—however much some of us like to uphold deluded notions of supremacy.
An early entry, for instance, focuses on a female figurine carved out of ivory in a style typical to Madhya Pradesh that was discovered among the ruins of Pompeii in 1938. It was carbon-dated to 100 BCE-70 CE, indicating that global mercantile networks were remarkably agile in those days, and not merely for the aromatics, muslin cloth and other consumables that were being traded. Another entry takes us to the 15th century, when marble gravestones, created in the port of Khambat in Gujarat, were being transported to distant Yemen via Aden.
Although running roughly over a page, each entry reads like a masterclass in potted history, with additional bibliographic resources at the end of the book. In Dehejia’s expert telling, a note on Kashmiri shawls or Zoroastrian motifs on bowls isn’t just a record of material repositories but a point of entry into hidden histories. Expectedly, she is stellar on the visual arts, of which there is a preponderance. Apart from familiar icons (the headless torso of Kanishka, Shiva-Parvati, the Buddha, and Mughal miniatures), there is the occasional appearance of deities worshipped by tribal communities.
If such entries (like the one on a female bhuta sculpture from Karnataka and another about the brass figure of the goddess Mitki from Chhattisgarh) expand our horizons, we may be struck by the relative scarcity of objects from the North-East (a beaded belt from Nagaland stands in for the entire region), as also material markers of caste histories in India. The absence of LGBTQ+ identities, the omission of any mention of the role played by television and radio in public life, and the cursory glance at India’s musical treasures (the tabla gets an entry) also stand out.
It’s a sign of success for a project like Dehejia’s to leave the reader slightly dissatisfied, with questions swirling in their minds, than to claim to tell the story of India. The beauty of this volume, too, is in its ability to make us feel deeply about our inheritances of the past and urge us to critically examine our present so that we become more informed stakeholders in our country’s future.