When I had agreed to go to an exhibition ambiguously titled “Illuminating India” with friends, I had not expected it to be at the Science Museum.
When most of us think about what India is famous for, in a Western context at least, “curry,” “clothing” and “spirituality,” spring to mind, with the addition of perhaps “corruption” if you’re a white liberal trying to put the world to rights on your gap-yah.
Science and technology are not typically areas of expertise that you would associate with India; more often the birth of modern age technology has been attributed to China and Japan. The “Illuminating India” exhibition, running from the 4th October to the 31st March 2018, aims to distort that narrative by showcasing India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.
Alongside various film screenings, music, dances and panel discussions, “Illuminating India” boasts two free major exhibitions- 5000 Years of Science and Technology and Photography 1857-2017.
I have always been fascinated by Indian culture although I do not claim to be an expert on it. I fell in love with the literary work of Salman Rushdie and Anita Desai and was enlightened by Spivak’s essays during my university studies, but always felt I had to remain at a certain distance as to not disrupt a kaleidoscopic culture that I would never have the privilege of altogether understanding.
My friends, all of whom are Indian, summed up the exhibition rather well- “we did a lot of cool s**t.” And it’s true- they did, and as is true of many other marginalised cultures, they are rarely given credit for their achievements.
It is not even as if the country’s area of expertise was narrow. As you literally walk from pillar to post around the gallery, handy little headstones summarise yet another scientific or technological breakthrough. For example, over 2200 years ago, the Buddhist emperor Ashoka introduced one of the world’s first environmental policies, protecting certain species of plants and animals.
As you fast forward (almost too quickly for what it deserves) through India’s long industrial history, different artefacts of tools used to manufacture Indian cotton, silk, pottery and metal reveal a country that is now one of the world’s largest producers of steel and much of its cotton.
The exhibition also stretched over to languages and linguistics, explaining how the devanāgarī alphabet helped shape computer programming languages.
The photography exhibition focused its attention on two dates in India’s history: 1857, the year of Mutiny (First War of Independence and Uprising) and 1947, the year of Independence and Partition.
Visualising the works of both Indian photographers such as Ahmad Ali Khan- court photographer to the last king of Lucknow- and colonial photographers such as Maurice Vidal Portman, the exhibition reveals how photography served as a powerful tool to document and dominate the people, architecture and landscape of the subcontinent.
There was certainly an echo of this colonial power, disguised at the very least although not entirely faint, in every aspect of these exhibitions. As reviewer Ruchir Joshi for The Hindi notes, the message could be perceived as such: “India is Great! India was always Great! Britain is also Great! The India-Britain partnership is, well, Great! The Indian government is not only amazing, it’s amazing on science! So is the British Government!”
And yes, whilst Joshi’s comments are intentionally hyperbolic, there are subtle little hints that kind of imply “colonialism-was-bad-and-all-but-don’t-forget-all-Britain-did-for-India…”, examples of which include reminders that it was Britain who brought photography over to India in 1839 and the British that made a precise map of the Indian subcontinent.
This, unfortunately, is another example of how Western culture is willing to give minority cultures a platform on the condition that they are to almost entirely erase the brutality of colonialism by implying cooperation rather than domination, compromise rather than fault.
This is not to say that the exhibition wasn’t remarkable or “illuminating” as the title suggests. Intended to commemorate 70 years of Indian independence, what the exhibition was at its core was extremely necessary, a point which the marketing of this event seems to stress rather well.
Perhaps it was because we were the only brown faces in a trickle of curious white home-tourists posing as intellectuals, but I found it quite ironic that the enormity of India’s contribution to science and technology had been squeezed into two back rooms of a 4-storey museum, but I suppose you have to appreciate the inch before you can plead for a mile.
So yes, whilst “Illuminating India” proves Indian and other minority cultures alike still have a long way to go before our history is not confined to a chapter of a school textbook or a temporary back room exhibition, I can only hope that this will lead to more exhibitions popping up- until one day we get the place to ourselves.
“Illuminating India” is a free ticketed event running from the 4th Oct 2017-31st March 2018 at the Science Museum.