3. Displaying People

February 04, 2022 Ashmolean Museum Season 1 Episode 3
3. Displaying People
Show Notes Transcript

Fingerprints Episode 3

Mallica Kumbera Landrus, the Ashmolean’s Keeper of Eastern Art, takes us on a journey with 200 clay figures from India, displayed alongside a human zoo at the Colonial and India Exhibition of 1886, and later used to teach young British colonial officers at Oxford’s Indian Institute. Find a transcript of this episode here

Read more

  • View images of some of the sculptures mentioned in the episode here
  • Find out more about Ali Kazim’s exhibition at the Ashmolean here

Speakers in this episode:

  • Series host: Lucie Dawkins, Director & Producer, Ashmolean Museum
  • Professor Mallica Kumbera Landrus, Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean
  • Ali Kazim, one of Pakistan’s leading contemporary artists whose work will be on show in the Ashmolean from 7 February 2022
  • Dr Nayanika Mathur, Associate Professor in the Anthropology of South Asia, University of Oxford

About the Fingerprints podcast

Every object in the Ashmolean has passed from hand to hand to reach the Museum. In a new podcast, we uncover the invisible fingerprints left behind by makers, looters, archaeologists, soldiers, rulers, curators, and many more. These stories of touch reveal the ways in which the forces of conflict and colonialism have shaped Britain’s oldest Museum. Join the Ashmolean’s curators alongside artists, experts, and community members, for our new podcast: Fingerprints.

Fingerprints will be released on the Ashmolean’s website, on Spotify, Apple, and wherever you get your podcasts, weekly from  21 January 2022 until 25 February 2022.

Fingerprints is produced and hosted by Lucie Dawkins. Guests include Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the Report on African Cultural Heritage, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron; Professor Dan Hicks, of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and Simukai Chigudu, one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

Mallica  00:00

I joined the museum in 2012, and a few months later visited one of our off site stores. There I found several large unopened crates. When I opened one of them I found these really delicately modelled clay figures, each one carefully wrapped individually. As I opened the lids of the other crates, I found more and more and more men, women, children, all sorts of trades, religious groups and ages from across the Indian subcontinent. By the end of that afternoon in the stores, I had counted nearly 200 figures. It was just astounding. Later, I found out that they had never been put on display as a group in the museum.


Lucie  00:57

This is Fingerprints, a podcast from the Ashmolean Museum. Invisible fingerprints cover every object in the Ashmolean, belonging to of artists, looters, rulers, archaeologists, soldiers, curators, and collectors and many more. These fingerprints reveal the complex, and often uneasy history behind the making of a museum. I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and today, I've joined Mallica Kumbera Landrus, the Ashmolean's keeper of Eastern Art. We're looking at not just one object today, but a whole room full of little people, the largest of which is no more than about 25 centimetres high. Mallica, can you describe what we're looking at?


Mallica  01:42

Lucie, they look like they're about to spring to life. Each is mounted on a small flat base, no more than a few inches tall. These are very light in weight and made of unfired clay. For example, here is the figure of a cobbler, his upper arms flexed, his skin painted a very dark tan. The cobbler concentrates on the job at hand while his stools surround him. There is also a vegetable vendor, out perhaps in the early morning, as a shawl covers his head and upper body to keep him warm. He carries a basket of some very realistic items such as carrots on his left shoulder, selling his vegetables as he goes down the street, door to door. Another figure here is that a potter with real hair, a wonderful moustache, with defined muscles as he shapes a clay pot, his hands stained by the same clay he gently shapes. And there are more - an old woman spinning yarn, a young mother with her baby, a Hindu man reading a manuscript, a farmer with a real bundle of hay on his head, a businessman, a shopkeeper, a holy man, and many, many others.


Lucie  03:14

And Mallica, can you tell me more about the importance of this material, of clay, in the history of Indian art?


Mallica  03:20

So there's always been a tradition on the subcontinent. You know, you can go as far back as 3000 BC, and look at objects that come out of the Indus Valley Civilisation and you'll certainly see clay figures and clay objects there as well. So right from 3000 BC, you will find clay figures represented in the art of the subcontinent.


Ali  03:45

Clay is such an ancient medium, it has really become part of our collective memory.


Lucie  03:51

This is the voice of Pakistani Artist Ali Kazim, who is resident at the Ashmolean.


Ali  03:56

I remember holding a terracotta piece at one of the Harappan sites I visited. The shard has very clear thumb impressions of the maker. It was magical to touch the impressions of someone's hand who may have made this piece thousands of years ago. I'm seduced by its quality to hold on to the memory, how a lump of clay has been formed in hands by pulling, pinching, burnishing the surface, or finally putting it through the fire. There is an unpredictability about what will happen to it and its surface when it comes out of the fire. This sense of unpredictability and holding on to the memory is fascinating.


Lucie  04:46

So Mallica, in this millennia-long history of artists on the Indian subcontinent sculpting clay, how typical are naturalistic human human figures like these ones here?


Mallica  04:56

Well, Lucie, realistic looking figures are objects that we start to see during the colonial period, even though there is a tradition that precedes the British in India of clay figures that are associated with certain festivals related to the Goddess Durga in Bengal or Ganesh worship across India, but specifically we think of Maharashtra - but not as naturalistic as these particular figures. With the change in rulers, you have a change in patronage. And so artists who had previously focused on religious icons started to create very realistic models produced specifically for Western collectors. Markets emerged across India, and especially in places like Krishnanagar, Pune, and Lucknow, where these figures were highly desirable as souvenirs. So the existence of our clay figures and similar works were due to the demand in the European market and collections.


Lucie  06:08

So let's think more about the first set of fingerprints on these sculptures. How did these artists, catering for colonial souvenir hunters in Lucknow and Krishnanagar and Pune, actually go about shaping these in their hands?


Mallica  06:21

Coils of clay mixed with cotton wool are wrapped around wooden or metal armatures. The clay figures were sculpted and tooled to the finest details and features and then dried in the sun. Later, paint was applied to the body of the figure. In Krishnanagar and in Pune, the figures were dressed in fabric designed to fit, while in Lucknow, the clothes were painted on the figure. 


Lucie  06:49

So one of the things that striking about what is in front of us is the sheer number of them. It's not just one or two sculptures brought back by a British officer from their time in India, we're looking at nearly 200 of them. Why did so many get assembled into one collection and brought to Britain?


Mallica  07:05

Well, the clay figures in the Ashmolean were brought together for the purpose of a display in the Colonial and Indian exhibition of 1886, in London. These international and colonial exhibitions were grand spectacles and blockbusters of the cultural scene in the 19th and early 20th century to demonstrate the technical, artistic and scientific creativity of countries. The clay figures from India were included in most such exhibitions, where Imperial wealth, which included colonised people and products were on display. These created a stereotyped demonstration of Indian society for public entertainment and Imperial pride in Europe. So in 1886, the clay figures were put on show in South Kensington, in a temporary set of buildings designed in an orientalised Indian style. Depicting the many professions, everyday customs and peoples of India, these figures proved highly popular as did living exhibits. In other words, along with objects, one of the main attractions at the exhibition in London in 1886, was the live display of 34 human beings who were transported from India. They animated and performed some of the same roles as the inanimate clay figures. So when you Lucie, were to visit the exhibition, you would see living breathing exhibits, making pottery weaving cloth, and one even creating clay figures. As part of the colonial history of human zoos, which literally reduced people to objects for display and consumption, these humans were staged as living displays, to demonstrate their skills or traits and to display their bodies and gestures, their different and and singular condition to the audience at the exhibition in London. Several of the 34 Indians were actually prisoners from Agra, and certainly some members of the group were forced to pretend these identities and jobs. So a supposedly ultra-realistic display of Indian people in itself was in some ways, a colonial fiction.


Lucie  09:53

Now this is where we get our next set of invisible fingerprints, because we're lucky enough to know exactly who it was who assembled these objects together for the exhibition,and most likely packed them and unpacked them on their journey. And am I right in saying that it was an Indian man? And we even know his name?


Mallica  10:11

Yes, absolutely, Lucie, we do have his name. He was T.N. Mukharji, a colonial government official and civil servant from Bengal. He helped organise and gather objects for the colonial exhibitions that were held between 1883 and 1888, which include the ones held in London, Amsterdam, and Glasgow. In fact, in a travelogue, he recounts his experience as a colonial subject from a privileged background, educated and fluent in English. He is committed to the Imperial project and indeed is an enthusiastic supporter of the Empire. However, it is very interesting to note that during his trip to Europe, we see a complex and conflicted viewpoint in his writings, the trip starts to make him feel uneasy, especially after he is refused full entry into the exhibition by his British counterparts. His visit awakens concerns about race and class. Saloni Mathur puts it very well when she says that Mukharji's accounts reflects the class anxieties of an elite colonial in London who felt uncomfortable sharing the category 'native' or sharing that space with the indigenous lower classes who were on display. His travelogue gives us the rare opportunity to have an Indian perspective of the colonial exhibitions.


Lucie  12:00

Remarkably, we can still hear Mukharji in his own words. Here's an abridged extract from his travelogue, in which he describes what it felt like to attend that exhibition.


T.N. Mukharji  12:15

A dense crowd always stood there, looking at our men as they wove have the gold brocade, sang the patterns of the carpet and printed the calico with the hand. They were as much astonished to see the Indians produce works of art with the aid of rude apparatus they themselves had discarded long ago, as a Hindu would be to see a chimpanzee officiating as a priest in a funeral ceremony and reading out Sanskrit texts from a palm leaf book spread before him. We were pierced through and through by stares from eyes of all colours, green, grey, blue and black, and every movement and act of ours, walking, sitting, eating, reading, received its full share of 'oh, I never!' The number of wives we left behind at home was also a constant theme of speculation among them and shrewd guesses were sometimes made on this point, 250 being a favourite number. The English people came to see the natives at the exhibition, and often asked me where the natives were working. And the English papers wrote about natives. In England, a French, German or Italian is a foreigner and Indian or an African is a native. Colour has much to do with the making of a native.


Lucie  13:51

So Mallica, can you tell us a little more about how these sculptures were received at the exhibition?


Mallica  13:57

Yes, the figures received great recognition at these exhibitions, and even won medals and certificates. However, the prizes were awarded to commissioners for entering clay figures. The Indian artists were not named, demonstrating that the clay figures, despite their popularity, were not seen as fine art and thus the erasure of the names of their makers. Thanks to Mukharji, however, we have the names of some of the artists, including Jadunath Pal, whose work was sought after by various collectors.


Lucie  14:37

It strikes me that there's a kind of silent violence in the erasure of these artists names by the British. It sounds like without Mukharji's accounts, their names would have been entirely lost to history.


Mallica  14:48

Yes, absolutely true. Until very recently, in our own database. We did not have the name of the artists. We still don't know which particular figure was definitely sculpted by Jadunath Pal, or one of his associates, but we now have a list of names all because of Mukharji.


Lucie  15:07

So what happened next, Mallica? We followed the sculptures as far as Kensington, where they arrived with Mukharji and the human zoo. But who brought them from there to Oxford?


Mallica  15:17

Lucie, it was Mukharji again. Mukharji visited Oxford in 1886, bringing various objects including the clay figures directly to the university's newly founded Indian Institute.


Lucie  15:31

And can you tell us more about the Oxford Indian Institute and what its purpose was? It's a pretty imposing presence in the centre of the city even today.


Mallica  15:40

Absolutely. The building of Oxford's former Indian Institute with walls decorated with lions, elephants and turbaned figures, is a building which still stands on Broad Street, right at the heart of the city. In the words of its founder, Monier Monier Williams, the Indian Institute's museum presented ethnology. archaeology, religion and the social life of the people. He goes on to say that the collections would represent facts and illustrate examples of the country, its material products, the people and their moral conditions. It was a teaching museum filled with objects from across the subcontinent, used to showcase the Empire. The Indian Institute was partly established to train young British men for India's colonial administration, and show these British officials in the making, what to expect when they went to India. Monier Monier Williams may have commissioned Mukharji specifically to put the selection together for him and bring them to Oxford, after or during the 1886 exhibition.


Nayanika  17:07

All these officers were young British men, who probably knew very little, if anything about India.


Lucie  17:13

This is Professor Nayanika Mathur of Oxford University. She told me more about the role these sculptures played in training British officers for the Indian Civil Service.


Nayanika  17:24

the whole idea was that at the Oxford India Institute, they would be given a sense of familiarity with a place. And so you know, they expected to extract revenue, the expected to act as agents of the Queen or the King at the time. You know, there's of course, a whole narrative of civilisational superiority which they had, as well as racial superiority that they carried with them. But perhaps what they didn't have was an understanding of the diversity they would encounter, the very different kind of people they would be expected to rule over. There was also the sense that there were savage people over there, there was a sense that they're wild, that they're just from the jungle - there this Hindi word 'jungli', which means wild, and the English word 'jungle' comes from the Hindi word 'jungle'. And it really is used to describe the sense of, you know, otherness and wildness. So, my belief is that these objects were a way to sort of introduce them to the people of India. So in a way, this was, I think, a way to break that sense of just how alien this place is going to be or how different and, you know, if you look at the objects they are dressed in particular garbs, they're doing particular kinds of actions, a lot of them seem to be employed in some sort of trades. Someone has a spinning  wheels, someone else is standing there selling something, etc. So there was also a way to just make them understand that look, these are the very, very different kinds of people you're going to encounter. And you do have to rule over them, but let's train you a bit to think about who these people are. It's important to remember that in that project of rule, which was the British empire in India. There was the sense of a particular moral purpose as well, a misguided moral purpose some of us would say, but that was something that was also dinned into the heads. And in that there was a sense of having to manage Indians, learn how to manage the colony, you know, find a way to impose (and there again, this is all sort of the way in which they would have been trained at the time) ideas of law and order, over a very diverse population, etc. And I think these objects were meant to sort of break that sense of unknowingness, that sense of forbiddingness, to just give them a sense of familiarity with what they would encounter.


Lucie  19:46

So it sounds like that in the name of education, these sculptures were put to sinister use. And there's also an absurdity here about using these to teach British officers about the social realities of India. Because, as we've already discovered, these are colonial fantasies of different kinds of Indian people made as souvenirs to meet the taste of European collectors. 


Nayanika  20:06

You're absolutely right. This was also deeply misleading at many levels. I think the first level it's misleading, is that of course, this is not a comprehensive account of the diversity of India. But more importantly, you know, these are deeply orientalising depictions. The desire to understand India, in order to be able to govern India, led to a massive simplification and essentialisation of very, very complex realities. Very, very complicated and diverse social relations were sort of simplified into things like a tribe, or a caste or a particular word was given to them. You know, and then these were then translated into these objects, which were then taught to these ICS officers. I'm absolutely sure it coloured their understanding of who they're dealing with, you know, it allowed them to simplify very complex social forms and complex communities down into these orientalising essentialist identities. And so they're deeply problematic in that way, but also now, looking back at the role they probably play it an empire, it's fascinating in a slightly horrifying way to think about the ways in which actually Empire worked to make the unfamiliar familiar, or to train these young men to go out and take on this project of rule, which is what sustained empire. If you think of say some of the more, you know, horrific impacts of empire, whether we're talking about things like the Bengal famine, or we're talking about the ways in which certain industries were killed, or the ways in which land was remade, or resources were were appropriated, or we think about the final act of Partition, all of these actually hinge upon rather simplistic understandings of a very complex reality. They all hinge upon an essentialist orientalist understanding of who these people are. But they're also unfortunately hinged upon a sense of superiority or civilisational superiority, that allows for particular kinds of interventions to be made by a handful of men who was sitting in Delhi or Calcutta. And it allows for that, because somewhere there is this belief that, you know, we can understand this very complex world through these very simple and essentialist and problematic categories. There's a whole history to be written here about this direct line between this very problematic simplification and some of the more egregious acts of, of the British Raj.


Lucie  22:57

I went back to Mallica to find out more about the ways that Oxford talked about these sculptures to its students in the past. When you look back at their records and the university collections, you'll find that they're still not categorised as art. Instead, some curator in the past decided to describe them as dolls. It seems an odd way of categorising them, and I asked Mallica where it came from.


Mallica  23:20

Lucie, that is not a good name for them, as these are not dolls really, and were never meant to be toys. As these are made from unfired clay the figures are very fragile to handle. These were called dolls because of their size and because some Europeans felt that although the figures accurately represented different types of people, the use of real hair and fabric for miniature clothes reduced them to crafted dolls and toys, rather than art objects. And thus, I think the identification of these objects with dolls. There are at least two 19th century Oxford dons that had very particular views on Indian artefacts. John Ruskin was convinced that sculpture and painting as fine rts did not exist in India, and that Indian figures according to him, were only 'eight armed monsters'. Meanwhile, Sire Monier Monier Williams, the Boden professor of Sanskrit and founder of the Indian Institute wrote that quote, 'not a single fine large painting nor beautiful statue is to be seen throughout India. Even the images of gods are only remarkable for their utter hideousness'. Unquote. Both Ruskin and Monier Williams gave some conventional praise to decorative arts as handicrafts from India, but these were of course not considered fine art by them or other Europeans in the 19th century. And thus, our key figures were identified as craft, as dolls as toys, and not as fine art.


Lucie  25:12

This delicate, vulnerable quality of the unfired clay, which Mallica is talking about, is still an inspiration to artist Ali Kazim in his work today. Here he is, again to tell us more about how he uses this material in his art.


Ali  25:28

Earlier I made about seven by 18 feet large black and white watercolour drawing on paper. It was in response to the Conference of the Birds, a 12th century literary masterpiece by the great Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar. In the poem, a world of birds took a flight in search of their true leader, the Simorgh. It was a long and tough quest. Of many who set out, no trace was found. Some deep within the oceans depth were drowned. Some died on mountaintops, some flew to near to the sun, their hearts on fire with love, their wings and feathers burn to ash. Some died of thirst, but only 30 reached their destination. I wanted to acknowledge the ones who became part of the soil during the search. So I made about 3000 birds with clay. The sun dried clay birds for installed on the piles of the broken breaks which are left on an abandoned brick factory in the outskirts of Lahore. I installed this piece just before the pandemic struck. It was beautiful and very poetic to see the clay brids turning to dust after a few rains.


Lucie  26:56

So Mallica, we've got as far as Oxford, where these sculptures passed out of Mukharji's hands and into those of the Indian Institute. What's the final step in their journey from there to less than a mile down the road at the Ashmolean?


Mallica  27:09

After the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, the Indian Institute fell into disuse. After the closure of the Indian Institute, the clay figures as ethnographic objects could have been sent to possible museums. The Pitt Rivers, Oxford's ethnographic and anthropology museum, where other ethnographic material from the Indian Institute were sent in the early 1960s, or the Ashmolean, the University of Oxford's Museum of Art and Archaeology.


Lucie  27:47

OK, so before we go any further, let's talk a little bit more about the difference between these two Oxford University museums. Can you explain a little more about how Oxford's collections were historically split between art and archaeology at the Ashmolean, and ethnography and anthropology at the Pitt Rivers Museum?


Mallica  28:04

Yes, the Ashmolean was founded in 1683, as a pre-enlightenment institution, and part of our collection was selected and obtained as a result of Britain's colonial past and power. During the 19th and early 20th century, new trends start to emerge that separate people into different races and placed them on a sliding scale of primitive to civilised, a system that was applied to contemporary as well as ancient societies. The societies of Europe, so the West, and the lands that are associated with the Bible, which includes Egypt and the pre-Islamic Middle East, were placed at the top of the scale and therefore, those objects came to form the core of the Ashmolean's collection. Therefore, in the 19th century, Asian and African art, did not have a place in the Ashmolean, which was and is a museum of art and archaeology. One of the legacies of these ways of thinking is the anthropological collection in the Pitt Rivers Museums, where collections were gathered from across the British Empire. The objects were then displayed and appropriated in order to represent cultural practices of the other and to speak about and for Asian and African people from a Eurocentric perspective.


Lucie  29:41

So according to the frankly racist logic of the past, these 200 figures should have ended up in the Pitt Rivers Museum, as indeed did many other objects from the Oxford Indian Institutes when it closed. So how come it came here to the Ashmolean instead?


Mallica  29:57

Perhaps there was no space for over 200 clay figures in the Pitt Rivers. Or, as I would like to think, one of my predecessors was really forward thinking and decided that the clay figures were a group of fine objects that should have a home in the Ashmolean. By the 1960s, Indian miniature painting and sculptures were firmly placed within the category of fine art. And thus, you know, we do have a stone and metal sculptures that come to the Ashmolean. And along with them, the clay figures arrived here at the museum.


Lucie  30:42

And now they are here Mallica, I suppose that the most recent set of fingerprints on them are yours as their curator. What do they mean to you personally?


Mallica  30:49

I think it depends on the day that you asked me that question. You know, it can change. If you ask me this yesterday, I might have had a different answer. And today, my answer might vary. What these mean to me as the Keeper of Eastern Art, the curator of the Indian collection in 2021 - and what these mean, to me as a woman who is from India, I think is a complex layer of professional and personal thoughts. I think the explicit stereotypes and categories represented by these figures, and the stereotypes that are today associated with people from the subcontinent in Britain, the implicit biases that lead to discrimination and marginalisation are things that I do think about when I look at these particular objects.


Lucie  31:47

Now, I know you've worked to address the erasure of these objects full history in the Ashmolean archives - they're no longer called dolls and you've used Mukharji's accounts to record all the information you can about the artists who made them. But we have to acknowledge the fact that the Ashmolean, like the Indian Institute, is a University Museum, and the collections are still used to teach students. Given the deeply problematic ways in which these sculptures were used for, quote, unquote, 'educational purposes’ in the past, what do you see as your responsibility in the way that you use them today as a professor at Oxford, teaching young people?


Mallica  32:22

Very, very good and important question. Lucie. We use them in classes, but we are clearly using them in a different way from how they were used in the 19th and early 20th century. We are now talking about the 19th and the early 20th century, right? Who is represented? Who made them? For whom? Where and how were they displayed? How were these used for instruction? These and I think many such questions, including all the questions that you asked me today, are especially relevant in the wake of the events in 2020. It is the history of Oxford, it is the Ashmolean, our collections, what and why we collected certain objects, our prejudices, then and now, our differences and perhaps our different truths as well, are all I think, very much intertwined. And that is the work of decolonising. And I think for me, decolonising is about context.


Lucie 33:31

Thank you for listening to this episode of Fingerprints. Thank you to all of our speakers today - to Mallica Kumbera Landrus, Nayanika Mathur and Ali Kazim, whose work will shortly be on display at the Ashmolean. Check out the podcast notes to find information about his exhibition there, as well as images of the sculptures in today’s episode. Thanks also to Sid Sagar, who voiced TN Mukharji’s writing. Join us next week, for a story about a king who emerged from the trenches of World War I.