India records its past differently: Museum expert


London based museum curator and art consultant Deepika Ahlawat says that there are different ways of approaching history, and ‘any society in the past should be looked at from discursive frameworks internal to its functional logic’. 

“The source material for all my pursuits is the past and its study, so all this comes together rather seamlessly,” says Deepika who in 2009 helped curate an exhibition in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum titled Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts.

In its website, the Victoria and Albert Museum describes the Maharaja exhibition as having spanned the period from the beginning of the 18th century to the mid-20th century, bringing together over 250 magnificent objects, many being lent from India’s royal collections for the first time.

“The exhibition examined the changing role of the maharajas within a social and historical context and revealed how their patronage of the arts, both in India and Europe, resulted in splendid and beautiful objects symbolic of royal status, power and identity,” says the website.


Various civilisations in India recorded the past for different reasons in different ways. Looking for simplistic linear chronologies for certain events and people is a peculiar obsession of the western canon. In India, the recording of the past was more in the form of ideal forms, with no such fetish to establish events within matrices of chronic causality. So, it’s not as if there isn’t a history, but that what we consider history differs

Deepika Ahlawat

Paintings depict the secular and sacred power of an Indian king most spectacularly in the grand public processions that celebrated royal events and religious festivities. “Riding a richly caparisoned elephant or horse, the ruler was lavishly dressed and jewelled and surrounded by attendants bearing symbolic attributes of kingship: a royal parasol, chauri, fans and staffs of authority. The vision of a king in all his splendour was believed to be auspicious. It was central to the concept of darshan, the propitious act of seeing and being seen by a superior being, whether a god or a king. Although originally a Hindu notion, the idea of darshan became an integral aspect of kingship throughout the subcontinent,” says the V&A.

Deepika describes the experience of putting together the Maharaja exhibition as an interesting and complicated experience. “The challenges were both intellectual and logistical. One challenge was to ensure that the exhibition narrative did not devolve into a 3D version of a glossy magazines fetishisation of the Maharaja figure, reducing this entire history to a caricature. Logistical challenges included transporting fragile art works from various palace collections in India to London within extant Indian regulations on the matter, which often differed substantially from global museum practice.”

Her favourite piece in the exhibition was a “tiny miniature borrowed from the Royal Asiatic Society, a 19th c copy of a 17th c original, showing Maharaja Raj Singh of Mewar celebrating the completion of Rajsamand, the largest man-made lake of the age. He had it built to relieve drought in Mewar. It comes from the James Tod bequest to the RAS.” Rajsamand was constructed an artificial lake Rajsamand in 1622 A.D, and is magnificent illustration of the then architecture and public works.

For those who say that Indians do not chronicle their past because of the largely oral tradition of transmission of knowledge, Deepika says “this conclusion often stems from alien frameworks of understanding the past. Various civilisations in India recorded the past for different reasons in different ways. Looking for simplistic linear chronologies for certain events and people is a peculiar obsession of the western canon. In India, the recording of the past was more in the form of ideal forms, with no such fetish to establish events within matrices of chronic causality. So, it’s not as if there isn’t a history, but that what we consider history differs.”

Interpretations often pass off as history. The truth often lies somewhere in between all the versions that are available to people. For Deepika, “There are few facts in history. The past is unassailably inaccessible. What we have at a given moment are informed and critically argued opinions, backed with certain evidence we consider bolsters our preferred narrative, while, (if the historian is any good) , also engaging with material that disproves this chosen narrative, and proving why this negative evidence is unsatisfactory. Anyone who insists they have pure ‘facts’ is probably a poor historian within any framework.”

Deepika has spoken about history being hijacked by people to “tell particular bits of a story”. She quotes the example of “the incredible hit job upon the idea of Indian kingship by creating the caricature of the Maharaja figure as an effete, spendthrift, womaniser. This was first done by the British and then even more forcefully by the Nehruvian Republic.  This directly impacts upon the period of history I study, so I consider it an egregious intellectual assault. Others who specialise in other subjects would have their own distorted narratives to bear with and, hopefully, correct in due course.”

For the narrative to be fair to the culture it portrays, Deepika as a museum professional says, “Logistically, it would be nice to have a better, more robust and more independent museum network which allowed regional histories to be told in fuller, less caricatured ways.  To me, the cultivation of better critical thinking skills from early childhood would be a great beginning to a better society. This would also allow for better, more subtle, more nuanced engagements with history.”

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