‘India: A History in Objects’ – a review

By John Reeve

India: A History in Objects, T. Richard Blurton. Thames and Hudson/ British Museum 2022

This is the latest in a series that has included China and the Islamic World. All three titles accompany new galleries. The format is largely chronological with up to 5 images per spread taken from the BM collections. The scope is enormous- pre-Independence India from prehistory to now. Not surprisingly there is a great deal about religions here:

South Asia has been a land of great religious variety. Four of the world’s major religions have originated here – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. Other religions from outside the subcontinent, such as Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity, have also been prominent … Imagining deities in human form has been a feature of Indian culture and is very evident in Buddhism and Hinduism …. South Asian culture is one where the human form is frequently used also to present ideas: speech is venerated as the goddess Vach, physical features such as the Himalayas or rivers like the Ganges are known as male or female, and philosophical concepts enshrined in texts are anthropomorphized [p10-11]

Richard Blurton, from years of working in many parts of India and with Indian collections, is alert to the nuances of art and faith beyond the essentialising labels of the main -isms. He is sceptical for example of the easy assumption that clay and terracotta female figurines from early India  are automatically religious, though they may be [p39] and animal figures found at forest shrines in Gujarat probably are [p25] Of the elusive Indus valley civilization ’there is almost no evidence of religion’ [p27] Buddhism and Jainism, their art and temples [Sanchi, Amaravati, Gandhara, Mathura], are clearly presented through key objects in the BM, with one of the earliest depictions of the Buddha on the Bimaran reliquary from Afghanistan, as shown here:

Then we are introduced to the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the depictions of Hindu gods, goddesses and narratives. As in the re-installed Hotung gallery at the BM, religious art in many different media is presented side by side.

Links between religions are brought out, as with bhakti for example:

A feature of South Asian religious activity over the last thousand years- especially present in Hinduism, but also noticeable in Sikhism, Islam and Christianity- is the notion of bhakti, a Sanskrit word suggesting absolute love for, and total devotion to, the deity’ [p163]

Buddhism and Jainism lost out as a result.

There were mosques in India from the 8th C [p176] and the earliest surviving mosque is from 1160, long before the Mughals. Later sections deal with Sikhism, and  aspects of practice in many faiths- processions, storytelling scrolls, masks and music, popular art and textiles.

This book makes an ideal companion to a museum visit, and its helpful bibliography provides ideas for follow up.

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