How much of our history do we know?

The National Museum stands tall in Delhi holding vital information about our history, our heritage and cultural lineage. “As we turn to the post-colonial era, we find that each nation wants to shape its own distinctive entity. It forms a ‘national’ culture for itself in which it chooses from all the strands of the available past, to fashion the kind of garment that fits it best,” says Kavita Singh, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University(JNU) and one of the very few who has researched on the National Museum, as a structure and repository of history, art and architecture of the country.

“Museums change relatively slowly. However, in the past year the National
Museum has possibly had its best year in many decades,” she says.

Taking Metrolife through an art journey of National Museums of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, Singh explains how changes in history shape the National Museums
of countries.

The best example is of Bangladesh National Museum today. It showcases arms and ammunition the martyrs used for their freedom struggle, skulls with bullet holes and photographs of armed officials.

Singh says out of the three, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the one that had to most radically revise and then re-revise its cultural identity was East Bengal-East Pakistan-Bangladesh.

Since the Bhasha Andolan and issues of specifically Bengali identity that had sparked off the tensions between East and West Pakistan, it seems natural that the specifically regional and Bengali culture would become the centrepiece of Bangladeshi cultural identity. In this case, the stress fell on what we would consider the ‘folk’ rather than the ‘high’ or ‘elite’ culture; it was the culture developed by the people who lived close to the soil that was celebrated and given centre stage in the Bangladesh National Museum.

Sohail Hashmi, a geographer by profession and a history buff, hosts walks in the city, as a guide under the banner ‘Youth Heritage Walks’,

which take people for ‘history walks’ around the city. Under this, Hashmi talks of conservation and preservation of heritage.

A regular at National Museum, he tells Metrolife, “In India and Pakistan, the museum artefacts are decided by bureaucrats and accordingly a chronological history is shaped. I have been to Lahore Museum as well, and I can say they underplay Mohenjo-daro and have larger galleries devoted to ‘formation of Pakistan’. Though most South Asian histories are intertwined as the current national boundaries were hardly there, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh’s National Museums will clash with each others’ perspective of history of a subcontinent, which was common to them.”

Singh too elaborates on how the National Museums of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh are presently shaped and how many discrepancies regarding history exist not by accident but by design.

“When the Delhi National Museum displays an object produced for the Sultanates or the Mughal court, it is absorbed into a display not of a particular cultural or historical period, but of a particular material: say, textiles or metalwork. Thus the sword of a Mughal prince becomes an example of damascening and a sash worn by a Nawab becomes an ‘illustration’ of a brocading technique. The result was, and is, that one can walk right through the National Museum and be only dimly aware of the fact that the Mughals had been in India.”

Citing example of the Karachi National Museum, in the Islamic galleries, objects excavated at 8th century sites in Sindh are associated with Arab trading settlements. Objects like pots and pans are not necessarily related to religion, as much as to a way of life. But they are placed within the frame of “Islamic” settlements. “So, just as the National Museum in Delhi goes out of its way to underplay the Islamic antecedents of objects in its collection, the Karachi Museum seems to go out of its way to emphasise them,” says Singh.

Vijay Mathur, curator (education) at National Museum tells Metrolife, “We have around 14, 000 artefacts, including manuscripts in our reserve, and we have displayed 352 of them. This is mainly due to lack of space as we show items which are the best of the lot.”

Preeti Bahadur, an art curator, who co-curated the Naurus exhibition at National Museum says, “Knowledge increases with each product that is there in the reserve. It is like not ‘circulating a certain narrative of history.’”

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