The story of India’s freedom struggle that lasted for almost a century continues to be demonstrated and reimagined across varied art and cultural platforms. Also ‘reinterpreting’ this historical saga is an ongoing exhibition by DAG titled ‘March to Freedom’ — on display till September 18 at The Indian Museum, Kolkata – as part of Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav to present the “hidden” and “less familiar” aspects of the freedom movement, in addition to the well-documented events.
Although the exhibition is conceived to showcase the well-known anti-colonial movement, viewers are in for much more. “Even as we remember the struggles, the sacrifices, and the stories, such anniversaries are also occasions for reflection. There are lots of questions to think about, and visitors are free to come up with their own answers,” said curator Mrinalini Venkateswaran.
Calling it “ground-breaking”, Ashish Anand, CEO and MD, DAG told that the exhibition is not intended to be a lesson in history as much as a discovery of the different ways different artists conceived the country. “The curator helps us focus on select themes that allow us to understand an India at a critical time as it moved from a colony to an independent country,” he said.
Featuring 160 artworks and historical artefacts from DAG’s expansive collection, ‘March to Freedom’ includes eighteenth and nineteenth-century European paintings and prints, unknown works by Indian artists, works by celebrated modern artists, never-seen-before photographs, historical maps, travel and cinema posters, and collectible figures. These diverse materials “break the typical art gallery mode of ‘schools’, ‘style’ and ‘masterpieces’ to present an eclectic and varied exhibition experience,” Venkateswaran said.
By including materials of pop culture, the curator elucidated that, the exhibition intends to reflect some of the ways in which we make sense of the past to ourselves, or can also be ways of registering protest. “They provide a different vantage point, other than politics, through which one can approach the study or interpretation of the freedom movement,” she said.
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For many, history is a timeline of events marked by several crucial milestones. However, this method of looking back usually leads to politics, politicians, and battles overpowering other crucial aspects. The exhibition breaks this chronological path to allow the story of India’s freedom struggle to unfold across eight themes – Battles for Freedom, The Traffic for Trade, See India, Reclaiming the Past, Exhibit India, From Colonial to National, Shaping the National, and Independence.
“Each [theme] represents one arena, or stage, on which the anti-colonial struggle took place, to expand the story beyond politics, politicians, and battles (which also feature),” Venkateswaran told
Elucidating the themes, she said: “‘Battles for Freedom’ investigates the significance of a range of conflicts-established, recently recovered, and previously unconsidered-scattered throughout India’s past. ‘The Traffic of Trade’ situates India and South Asia’s colonial histories within a global history of trade, and refocuses attention on the individuals within the broad-brush narratives we construct. ‘See India’ considers the role of travel and seeing India, both literally and through circulating images, in conceiving of a nation.”
“‘Reclaiming the Past’ is about the power endowed in the simple act of being able to tell one’s own story, and ‘Exhibit India’ is about being able to showcase one’s culture. ‘From Colonial to National’ focuses on the different places and spaces in which the anti-colonial struggle took place, and ‘Shaping the Nation’ highlights some of the many individuals who led those efforts over decades. ‘Independence’ explores the moment and its aftermath: the joys, sorrows, and multitude of experiences of freedom,” she added.
With this mode of presenting India’s history, the exhibition intends “to make the scholarship that has developed on this subject accessible to a broad non-specialist audience, and to reach audiences who may be put off by both history and art history.”
According to Anand, history has varied interpretations and art is one of the ways to unravel its various layers. “And within that scope of art, once again, there are so many ways to read it,” he said, adding that he hopes the exhibition generates “curiosity and a sense of wonderment as well as the discovery of some of these strands”.
“We hope exhibitions such as these are the start of many conversations,” he added.
The DAG’s head, who has earlier collaborated with museums and cultural institutions such as the Archaeological Survey of India and the National Gallery of Modern Art among others, added that he hopes that the exhibition triggers the kind of enthusiasm for art as part of national heritage as exists in more developed societies.
“Art is our common inheritance and we are naturally drawn to it. Unfortunately, we snapped a link between art and viewership as a natural or organic process under colonial rule by institutionalising processes. After all, we come from a country where Ajanta and Ellora, or medieval temple sculptures, were part of public spaces. We need to evoke the same desire among our people and welcome them to newer spaces where art may be displayed and understood,” he said, on the need to connect more people with art.
The exhibition also has an accompanying catalogue which, according to Venkateswaran, is a companion volume to the exhibition, rather than a memorial to it alone. “While it reproduces the text and images generated for the display, it also contains one essay accompanying each of the eight themes of the exhibition, that reflects on, and responds to the points it raises or addresses gaps that the exhibition cannot. It also brings in diverse voices and makes some of the rich scholarships on the subject accessible to a wider audience. The essays are written by academics from South Asia based in India and abroad,” said the historian and exhibition curator, who also contributed to the catalogue.
She added that the academics were given the freedom to respond to the theme they chose in addition to highlighting aspects that the selection could not address. Maroona Murmu and Sumathi Ramaswamy underscore the exclusions and silences in popular and official narratives about India’s freedom movement. “Their histories are not mere afterthoughts to ‘mainstream’ versions; rather the legacies of their resistance continue to inform and are intrinsic to, India’s realities today,” Venkateswaran said.
They also highlight the absence of women in ‘his’tory despite the key role played by them. This, as per the historian, stands in “strong contrast to the hyper-visibility of the female form as an embodiment of the nation, as Bharat Mata“.
In the following essays, while Sujit Sivasundaram and Aashique Ahmed Iqbal connect India to the globe in a bid to locate our history in the larger narrative, Lakshmi Subramanian and Pushkar Sohoni delve deeper into the “compromise, negotiation, and selective appropriation of India’s musical and architectural legacies” during the freedom movement.
Lastly, the catalogue has essays by Aparna Vaidik and curator Venkateswaran who look at two underrated aspects of India’s history — famine and the legacy of the Indian princely states.
“Today, the academic knowledge of our history is vast, and it continues to grow. The contributors represent a diversity of voices and approaches to the subject, even as their essays offer a mere slice of the wider scholarship on offer,” she noted.
Speaking of the title of the exhibition, she concluded by saying, “If you have not already guessed, there is a deliberate ambiguity in the meaning of the title. Is it a statement of fact, an exhortation towards a goal within sight, or an idealistic aspiration?”
The curator has left this for viewers to decide!
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