The British Empire Library

India: A History in Objects

by Richard Blurton

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Objects from the past give us a profound insight into the history of our ancestors - each object expresses a unique view of reality that even written texts can never convey. Richard Blurton's new book explores in depth the rich cultural heritage of the Indian subcontinent, encompassing Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, through a wide variety of objects from the earliest communities down to modem artefacts. The book is beautifully produced with excellent clear illustrations and impressive descriptions of each object. So often nowadays authors arrange such objects thematically, but the author here has arranged them chronologically making a more understandable narrative.

Among the earliest objects are ceramics from the borderlands of Iran and South Asia. The excavated sites of Mehrgarg and Nal dating back over 3000 years revealed some astonishingly modem looking vessels richly decorated with animal and geometric motifs. A few hundred years later highly sophisticated seals from the Indus civilization recall ancient Greece and remind us of the cross-cultural connections even in the distant past. The author carefully maps out the emergence of the great religions in the subcontinent - Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism and Sikhism followed by the arrival of Islam and Christianity each represented by superb objects.

The British Museum's outstanding collection of Gandhara sculpture takes anyone's breath away but lesser known Buddhist sculptures from Sarnath and Bihar followed by the delicate friezes from Amaravati each have an extraordinary power and sensitivity. I have always found much Jain art somewhat static but a few 3rd Century fragmentary figures from Mathura rival the very best Buddhist sculpture of the early period. Similarly, the elaborate Jain bronze of the thirtankara Parasvanatha from the Deccan (11th century) is outstanding. Buddhism of the Mahayana school flourished from the 1st century in Sri Lanka and solid cast and gilded bronzes from various sites on the Island were collected and donated by European amateur archaeologists like Hugh Nevill (1847-1897) and others.

The standing Buddha of Tara has a fluidity and grace that seems to transcend bronzes that were produced in China at the time. The lost wax process of bronze casting had been known in the subcontinent since ancient times, but it reached its zenith under the Cholas. The Museum's collection of Chola bronzes is one the finest in the world. It contains the incredibly early 9th century small Nataraja that, to me at least, is one of the finest devotional bronzes that exists anywhere. The slightly later and much larger bronzes like the Siva Nataraja from about 1100 that is on the front cover and the gorgeous saint Chandesha donated by Eton College are each testament to the extraordinary sophistication of this form of high Art that rivals sculpture produced anywhere in the world.

The British Museum contains superb art of the Islamic period produced in the subcontinent including paintings and richly decorated objects - carved and inlaid jades, armour, metal wares and textiles. Among the paintings is the rare early but fragmentary painting of the house of Timur done on cloth - the figures are arranged around a garden pavilion. It was worked on over a long period initially in Kabul in about 1550 and with additions at the Mughal court in 1605 and in 1628. I know of nothing comparable. The collection is no less rich in Mughal paintings of later periods. These include the world famous 'Weighing of Prince Khurram' showing the young Shah Jehan sitting on scales being balanced against bags of gold. It is fashionable nowadays to see the European period in India as one of decline in the artistic productions of the subcontinent. Long forgotten paintings of the Company period made for patrons as diverse as Antoine Polier and William and James Fraser disprove this myth entirely. Indeed, much of the British Museum's magnificent collection of objects owe their discovery to Europeans who had a genuine and profound interest in the cultures of the past and devoted their lives to the excavation and research of such.

The modem period is represented here by some magnificent paintings. Abanindranath Tagore's 'The Buddha to be bids farewell to his horse' taken from ancient Buddhist history, is imbued with such depth and emotion that is far removed from the European art that he reacted against. It almost moves one to tears. His successors of the progressive school are much better known today but the author doesn't neglect the art of Pakistan and particularly that produced in Lahore. Quddus Mirza's 'Portrait of my Village XIV' has real charm while the self portrait of Ali Kadim is just sublime.

For anyone interested in the art and objects of the area of this part of the world, I cannot recommend this excellent book more highly. It is sympathetically written, it covers a huge and diverse span of history, and it is a joy to look at.

British Empire Book
Mark Watson & Andrew Hall
Thames and Hudson Ltd
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2022 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe