India is less than half the size of the United States, but it holds over four times as many people. The world’s largest democracy contains a greater diversity of religions and language families than any comparable swath of land, anywhere else. It is not all one thing. Geographic barriers, linguistic barriers, migrations, invasions, syncretism, and mimesis have all combined to create several palimpsest cultures.

So this book—a one-volume overview of the British Museum’s India collection prepared by T. Richard Blurton, the former head of its South and Southeast Asia section—is a project bold in concept, even quixotic. Imagine if a book were entitled Everywhere: A History in Objects. Just because a book is a failure, though, doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting.

The book concerns only “material culture,” the physical remains of India’s history. Accordingly, vast lacunae exist in the survey. It shows us—can show us—nothing of the massively influential Vedic peoples (ca. 1500 B.C.). The creators of the world’s oldest living scripture left no stone or terra-cotta statues, and they did not create settlements that can be excavated. The same goes for the forest-dwelling philosophers of the Upanishads, whose ideas (rebirth, karma, and so on) the Buddha inherited.

So the foundational elements of India’s civilization are simply absent from this book.

So the foundational elements of India’s civilization are simply absent from this book. The reader has to leap, along with the museum, from Paleolithic bits of chert, pottery, and crude terra-cotta figurines . . . straight to advanced sculptural representations of the Buddha. The reader sees Indra and Brahma bathing the baby Buddha—but the book cannot give context for the Buddha’s already sophisticated religious milieu, simply because early Hindus favored poetry over sculpture. Imagine studying Jesus of Nazareth with only a passing mention of Judaism and the Old Testament. It’s possible, but it’s far from optimal.

The inclusion of selected, translated passages might have enriched the book—but India’s literary and philosophical traditions are too big to fit in one volume, or even three. This is a problem inherent in the project, not a criticism of the author’s work. Blurton did not set out to give us a literary anthology as well as a book of photographed objects. In any case, I doubt he would be equipped to do so. At one point, he claims that “urban settlements” are not “important in the Mahabharata or the Ramayana.” This is a howler akin to claiming the Iliad doesn’t feature an urban settlement. Both the earliest Greek epic and the earliest Indian one (the Ramayana) culminate in the siege of a city. Similarly, each of the rival factions in the Mahabharata has an elaborately described capital city. This is an unacceptable bit of ignorance, rare but not absent in the rest of the text. Again, the limitations of curation become the limitations of the book. The (urban) world of those epic poems, early forms of which circulated orally centuries before the Buddha, survives to this day: King Rama’s birth city, Ayodhya, remains inhabited. Ayodhya, too, is part of the “material record.” You can visit it, but you cannot fit it inside a museum case.

I note that Blurton elides the key role of British imperialism in the acquisition of this collection. “These collections,” he writes, “have been accumulated over 250 years.” That use of the passive voice is strategic. Self-reflection has not been the British Museum’s way. I suspect that what Blurton really believes is that many of these artifacts were excavated, salvaged, and treasured up by a specifically European approach to the past. By comparison, Europe’s imperial predecessors in India, various Turkic and Afghan Muslim warlords, destroyed India’s temples. (Or, as a euphemistic Blurton would have it, “dismantled” them—this in reference to the Prowess of Islam Mosque, built in 1190 out of the rubble of thirty demolished Hindu and Jain temples.) The iconoclastic Turks and Afghans did not spirit away Hindu and Buddhist sculptures to temperature-controlled environments; nor did these original jihadists meticulously dig up the ancient cities of the conquered infidels. Much of South Asia’s understanding about its own ancient history—the Indus Valley Civilization, for example—it owes to the same people who stocked the British Museum. The British are as unlikely to apologize for that as the South Asians are to give thanks.

About those sculptures: in chapter after chapter, this book bombards the reader with Buddhas. Standing Buddhas, seated Buddhas, Buddhas-to-be. The lay reader might wonder why South Asia, the birthplace of Buddhism, has so few Buddhists today. It turns out that its near-extinction has to do with its overrepresentation in the material record, though Blurton fails to articulate this clearly for his readers. Buddhism was the religion of urban elites and intellectuals; it flourished wherever royal, institutional patronage directed wealth to it. When Islamic invasions overthrew its kings and torched its monasteries, Buddhism was simply snuffed out—the literal meaning of nirvana. By contrast, the multicentric, polytheistic, village-based religion of peasants and balladeers sometimes enjoyed royal patronage, sometimes not. When catastrophe ululated through on horseback, this grounded religion, not yet called “Hinduism,” proved harder to kill. The destruction of holy places and intellectual centers did not destroy the religion.

A curator of the “material record” is at a disadvantage in this period.

With the coming of Islamic sultanates in India, the collection moves from Buddhist and Hindu sculptures to two-dimensional paintings and illustrations, derivative of Persian miniatures. Perhaps because of Islam’s stricter interpretation of the injunction against making images, India’s Persianate culture never matched the more highly developed work found contemporaneously in Christian Europe or fifteen centuries earlier in India’s own Ajanta caves. (Value judgments such as that are unfashionable, but it has to be said.) A curator of the “material record” is at a disadvantage in this period. Numinous, awe-inspiring artistic work was being done in India at the time, but there is no way to display South Indian temples or North Indian mosques and mausoleums. The book includes a photograph of the Taj Mahal; one glance is enough to see which artistic discipline benefited most from the Indo-Islamic cultural fusion. The jewel-studded jade bowls and calligraphy-crowded daggers of Mughal emperors are pretty, petty trinkets by comparison.

As the book progresses toward modern India, we get a fascinating sequence of works in more transient media. The oldest textiles featured here only survived because trade routes took them into the drier, cooler climate of Tibet. A painted wooden exorcism mask from Sri Lanka, tribal jewelry and rain-shields from eastern India’s (recently Christianized) hills, a full-length woman’s dress in multicolored cotton with bits of mirror sewn into it: little over a century old, such artifacts hint at the strange beauties that have not made it down to us from classical India.

Only the last ten or so pages offer a shift in emphasis to portentous, self-consciously produced Art, the sort of stuff that is sold in galleries. The survey disconnects abruptly from everything that has gone before as artists, Indian only in name, replicate the forms and styles of the West. Earlier in the book, Buddhas, sculpted in the Hellenistic style, meditated in the lotus asana; Krishnas, painted in the manner of Persian miniatures, were colored a telltale blue. Foreign styles were adapted to native themes. The Westernized artists of the last few pages seem indistinguishable from the Western artists they took as models. And no wonder: the “43 Group” were trained in modernism by expatriate Europeans; the “Progressive Artists Group” featured artists who spent most of their lives in Paris or the United States. They were creatures of a foreign “art scene,” and it is there, not in this book, that their abstract concentric circles belong. Even the easy irreverence toward tradition has been carried over. The concluding section, “Modernity in South Asia,” features Bharti Kher’s “The Intermediaries,” a set of traditional clay figurines broken and fused together. The outsized head of a holy man sits atop a rooster of some sort. A seated dog’s head is repainted Krishna-blue, with a crown atop it. You get the idea. Such artists are not part of modern India; they are emissaries of the modern and postmodern West, trying and failing to impose a Western (or rather, anti-Western) artistic paradigm onto a still-thriving tradition.

The British Museum owns a lot of Indian objects—but not the right ones, apparently, to constitute a history. Readers will find enough beauty to delight their eyes here, but they should be wary of the text’s biases and elisions. This volume is best used as a starting point for further study of the historical, artistic, and religious phases of this still mysterious country, this infinite India.

New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 68
Copyright © 2023 The New Criterion |

Popular Right Now