There’s a glut on in the city of talks and exhibitions on the Parsis, one of the most fascinating slices of India’s multi-ingredient cultural cake. At the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), is a dual exhibition: On the top level is the modern and contemporary ‘No Parsi is an Island’ curated by cultural theorists Nancy Adajania and Ranjit Hoskote; the majority of the space, however, is taken up by an exhibition which is more historical and ethnographical, which makes some viewers wonder about its positionality in a modern and contemporary art museum. Further down Colaba Causeway, in an extremely modest space far removed from the NGMA’s open galleries, is the Mumbai Art Room. Kikrulhounyu Pappino, Art Curator for the State Museum, Kohima, runs an enquiry into this very question: the ways of displaying, documenting and presenting a “minority” culture and its peoples within museum spaces.
"Nagas", an overarching term that groups together several tribes who inhabit the Himalayan ranges in the north-east regions of India, spread over Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and along the Indo Burmese border, each tribe having a rich cultural identity of their own. Pappino starts off the inquiry using this very broad term as the title: the easy grouping of several tribes, used by anthropologists in the past, and the ensuing questions the displays throw up in dioramas of the ‘Nagas’ in the Kohima museum and museums elsewhere. Pappino draws attention to the collections these displays originate from: Lord Curzon, J. H. Hutton and Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, colonial rulers and Western anthropologists, whose perspective came to hold within the museum.
Photograph of a diorama showing a Naga Kitchen; Photographed by Kuku Christina, courtesy State Museum / State Museum, Kohima, Nagaland; Displayed since museum's inception in the 1970s; Image taken in November 2013.
As Zasha Colah takes over as director of the Mumbai Art Room from Susan Hapgood, she hopes the Mumbai Art Room can be “a space for theoretical philosophic ponderings in the format of exhibitions.” In Colah’s words: “[The Mumbai Art Room is a space for] institutional critiques and musings, 'a room of one's own' for curators, in which they may take risks. The exhibition is funded by the Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation, for a curator who may not otherwise have opportunities to curate independently; for an 'emerging' curator of great insight. I thought Pappino was this … I was most interested in his sharp criticality.”
Using the glass fronted doors as a "vitrine", Pappino, working “with the architecture of the space rather than against it”, covers the plane entirely with an enlarged-to-fit photograph of a diorama showing an Angami couple displayed with a painted backdrop. On entering the room, there is a sparse display visual. On the walls are small works on glass commissioned for the show, and photographs of dioramas of Naga displays from museums around the world. One has to go up close to examine the exhibits.
The glass mini dioramas consist of several plates stacked – each plate has a drawing that adds to the next, building up a scene and adding perspective. The people depicted may be from different tribes, a dwelling from a third; a landscape binds them all. The scale may be small but the point gets across – the questionable authenticity of the final pictures depicted by repeating the constructs of previous dioramas which were based on colonial expedition findings or manufactured in Calcutta and shipped out to museums once made. The combinations in the display of various elements from different tribes under the group head "Nagas", either due to a lack of understanding by a West-centric inquiry or production in an urban, removed-from-site environment, are ironic when they are displayed in the home states that the Nagas hail from – this clubbing of identity and inaccuracy of the subsequent scene as a whole.
Dioramas have been the mode of choice for ethnographic displays, providing an intimacy that even photographs couldn’t match. It was perhaps a 3D “photoshop” way of creating constructs in the days prior to the digital onslaught. And the very reasons that Photoshopped photographs are a point of debate make the dioramas, in retrospect, raise questions too: what are we being made to see? The Troppenmuseum in Amsterdam uses the method to display its collections of artefacts from its former colonies. The city museum in Mumbai, the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad at Byculla, has a collection consisting primarily of dioramas, but these are of a prior vintage; though artists like Jitish Kallat have insidiously inserted their take successfully in recent times.
There seems to be a continuing interest in this form of display. A conference titled “The Future of Ethnographic Museums”, which was held in Oxford in 2013, seemed to define a need for discussion – in post colonial times, how does one present ethnic and minority groups within a museum context in the future? The question of identity construct is the ambivalent agency here – who constructs or defines the identity? History, the state, the colonizer, the subaltern or the curator? Pappino asserts that in the case of the Nagas, “the collaboration with the colony has resulted in construction of the identity. In current times the diorama still holds as an apologetic display method, but the consumption of the old diorama in a new location can not be denied by the museum, which is its current currency.”
Chakhesang Tribe, a craftsman busy making bamboo basket; while at work, he occasionally sips rice-beer from the bamboo mug. The ornaments and ivory armlets speaks of the man's wealth. c State Museum, Kohima, photo: imeru.
Here, as the exhibition text states, "the exhibition attempts to show how the museum-concretized term – through its artifacts labeled by the dominant collectors and the representational ethnographic museums, in text, catalogues, notes, dioramas, and manners of display – became an animated idea and relevant term for classifying and identifying Nagas." Pappino has displayed photographs of dioramas and displays from museums in Kohima, Kolkata, New Delhi and Cambridge, U.K. that, through the mixing of tribes in the created mises-en-scene and the accompanying contentious wording of museum text, brings to the fore all the issues of identity making as truth within a centre of knowledge.
Interestingly, there is more Naga art to be seen in the city. Not in a museum but at Mumbai’s new airport terminal, where, amidst a mammoth art project, curator Rajeev Sethi has assembled Naga wooden sculptures – warriors, totems – against a backdrop of a commissioned artwork that references Naga textiles. Diorama making continues. And brings to the fore that this "vintage" form of display is more telling than it seems – it reveals not just what it displays, but in its assemblage, the contemporary ideology of its time.
(Image at top: Photograph of a portrait bust of Doketsa of Khonoma displayed with Naga headdress. Headdress of John Henry Hutton Collection, bust by Marguerite Milward; Photograph courtesy Mark Elliott, Bevan Hall, Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Cambridge. Displayed in the 1970s.)
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