How old is a tool as simple as an axe? The oldest known hand axe in India was discovered in a settlement occupied between 1.7 million and 1.07 million years ago in Attirampakkam, northwest of present-day Chennai. It is only a few 100 million years younger than the oldest hand axes found in the world – 1.76 million years old, uncovered from the banks of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 2011.

The hand axe’s teardrop design persisted with few variations in India and other parts of the world for more than a million years, connecting modern humans with individuals who could be our distant ancestors.

At a new exhibition , titled India and the World: A History in Nine Stories, in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, there are six such hand axes, including the one from Tamil Nadu, another from Rajasthan that was made around 50,000 BCE and four more from Africa, Europe and Asia. No lay person could tell at a glance where or when they were made.

The hand axes, displayed together in the first room of the show to remind us of our shared human beginnings, are a favourite combination of JD Hill, research manager at the British Museum and one of two curators of the Mumbai exhibition. Hill used it first at a show in Australia and, delighted at the audience’s initial surprise and then curiosity, has used it again in India and the World.

The exhibition riffs on similar pairings and combinations that surprise and delight in its nine rooms, one for each of the stories mentioned in the title. The nine stories are not stories as much as themes set in progressing time periods, from early documentation of urban settlements in Asia to India’s shared experiences of colonialism and freedom from it to modern art.

The Townley Discobolus, 100 to 200 CE. Roman copy after Greek statue. Photo: The British Museum
The Townley Discobolus, 100 to 200 CE. Roman copy after Greek statue. Photo: The British Museum

Lending meaning

The show’s 230 objects speak to India’s shared history with the rest of the world. Around half the objects are from the British Museum, while the rest are from Delhi, Mumbai and around 20 smaller museums and private collections in India.

Take an exquisite wooden box from Ur in Iraq, painted with lapis lazuli – that elusive and distinctive ultramarine blue pigment found in Afghanistan – and a shell found in the Persian Gulf. The box shows on two sides the nature of war and peace, and has one of the world’s earliest documented depictions of a wheeled chariot.

Just before that is the famous dancing girl statue found in Mohenjo-Daro that is now with the National Museum in Delhi. Ahead of it are artefacts taken from Egyptian tombs by British explorers. Together, they give an idea of the diversity and richness of life in those first cities.

A later room shows another unusual pairing of paintings of the Mughal emperor Jehangir. In one, a classic Mughal miniature from the National Museum, Jehangir is depicted holding a portrait of the Virgin Mary. The other is a line drawing that would have been made just a few decades after the emperor died – by European artist Rembrandt van Rijn.

Other objects depict more directly not just parallel histories between India and other countries, but India’s direct interactions with them. For instance, in the room that shows maritime trade in the Indian Ocean, there is a 17th century kalamkari cotton piece from Golconda in the Deccan plateau that shows a Persian prince handing a flower to a woman wearing a European hat. Another Persian talks to a Chinese man, while on the left, an Indian ascetic on a deerskin examines a pineapple that would have only recently been brought to India from South America.

All the foreign objects are from the British Museum, a reminder that so many countries have been plundered by collectors from the western world over the centuries, and also that their histories have been preserved there.

Throne of weapons made from melted down weapons used in Mozambique's civil war, by Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester), 2001 CE. Photo: The British Museum
Throne of weapons made from melted down weapons used in Mozambique's civil war, by Cristóvão Canhavato (Kester), 2001 CE. Photo: The British Museum

Major collaboration

The ambitious show is a collaboration between three museums – the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, the National Museum in Delhi and the British Museum in London. It is the largest such collaboration for even the British Museum, which has never before lent so many objects for a single show.

It was conceived by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’s director Sabyasachi Mukherjee, who proposed the idea to Neil MacGregor, who was at the time director of the British Museum. The two museums have collaborated before, but never on this scale.

This show is meant to commemorate 70 years of India’s independence from British rule, and will travel from Mumbai to the National Museum in Delhi in February.

Among the several objects from the British Museum is one of its most iconic statues, the Discobulus, a Roman copy of a Greek statue of an athlete frozen in marble just as he is about to hurl a disc. The Discobulus is a well-travelled statue and is frequently loaned to other museums. In Mumbai, it forms the centrepiece of the exhibition, placed in prime position at the entrance.

JD Hill. Photo: Ramakrishnan M
JD Hill. Photo: Ramakrishnan M

This exhibition is complicated even for the British Museum, Hill said, which rarely selects more than around 200 objects for any curated show. What made this even more difficult was the fact that Indian museums simply do not have access to the resources or even the objects that the British Museum does, an advantage Hill admits to.

“This is an exhibition made by Indian museums to tell stories those museums would want to tell an Indian audience,” Hill said. “But if they can’t necessarily tell those stories because of the historical circumstances of their collections, how can other museums in other parts of the world, which have wider ranging collections, help them to do that?”

The most striking element of the show, Hill said, is not that it has brought together collections from established museums in London, Mumbai and Delhi. The curators also scoured smaller museums in India for objects that had not been seen outside of state archaeology departments. These have rarely, if ever, been displayed near to each other.

Kū-Ka-Ili-Moku, God of War, Hawaii, 1750-1800 CE. Photo: The British Museum
Kū-Ka-Ili-Moku, God of War, Hawaii, 1750-1800 CE. Photo: The British Museum

These objects include a small statue of Poseidon excavated in a hoard at an old trading settlement near Kolhapur in Maharashtra and an intricately carved frieze depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life of giving up his turban, all contained within a larger turban.

The concept for the show, Hill said, was inspired by A History of the World in 100 Objects, a popular radio series he worked on with the British Museum and the British Broadcasting Company in 2010. This series was later also published as a book and the objects were then brought together and toured the world in 2016.

Unlike that show, which took objects available in the British Museum as a starting point to speak of events happening at the same time in other parts of the world, this show focuses on connections and collaborations.

“The big difference between A History of the World and India and the World was that it was never meant to be an exhibition,” Hill said. “It began as a radio show. It’s not a slavish copy. We wanted to push that concept in new directions and start from a different perspective.”

Shield (Dhal) of Maharana Sangram Singh II, made of rhino hide, Mewar, about 1730 CE. Photo: National Museum
Shield (Dhal) of Maharana Sangram Singh II, made of rhino hide, Mewar, about 1730 CE. Photo: National Museum