Sharing heritage

It can rightfully be termed an assembly of Gods and Goddesses, a parliament of divinity. Under the picturesque rotunda of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai, sculptures of ancient gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome, Egypt and Assyria have come together, along with a spectrum of Indian gods and deities in a unique global exhibition.

Sharing heritage


It can rightfully be termed an assembly of Gods and Goddesses, a parliament of divinity. Under the picturesque rotunda of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) in Mumbai, sculptures of ancient gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome, Egypt and Assyria have come together, along with a spectrum of Indian gods and deities in a unique global exhibition. Zeus, the patriarch of Greek Gods, has made his sombre presence felt with Apollo and Dionysos, his equally powerful children.

From the divine heights of Mount Olympus in Greece, Zeus enforces order and stability, in many ways, becoming the most powerful GraecoRoman God. At the centre of the rotunda is Yajna Varaha, a monumental terracotta sculpture, depicting the boar incarnation of Lord Vishnu saving Earth in the form of Bhudevi, while paying homage to Goddess Saraswati. It was sculpted around a thousand years ago in Vidisha, an area now an indistinguishable dot in the vastness of Madhya Bharat. Aphrodite, stunning in marble, is the scene-stealer with demure looks and a sublime striking pose that has besotted billions of hearts. “Ancient Sculptures: India Egypt Assyria Greece Rome is not merely an exhibition,” said Dr Sabyasachi Mukherjee, director general of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), “it is a unique international and educational initiative by CSMVS with the aim to bring great works of art from other cultures to Mumbai.”

On World Heritage Day, we laud the sharing of human heritage history designed to deepen, enrich the study of world history in Indian schools and universities. Endorsed by the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, the omnibus Ancient World Project is organised to coincide with commemoration of 75 years of Indian Independence. In our globalised, increasingly digitalized world, these historic objects of art provide deeper understanding of our shared ancient past, going back at least three thousand long eventful years. The exhibition titled, ‘Ancient Sculptures: India Egypt Assyria Greece Rome’, carries names of countries without punctuation, as if it were one stream, an axis of historical time spanning geographies, joining continents, oceans, and seas together.


“We see ‘Ancient Sculptures’ as a unique and important educational endeavour providing our Indian audiences and children ~ in particular the high percentage of young who may never have the opportunity to travel and experience the art and culture of other parts of the world ~ with new ways of viewing their own culture as a result of seeing it in relation to other societies and geographies,” said Dr Mukherjee, adding, “Local, national and international outreach has been intended and that it might introduce new ways of approaching information and learning that have the potential of being introduced into our own school and university curriculum.”

It is a historical fact that India was in contact with West Asia three thousand years ago, and later with cultures of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Trade developed, people engaged with each other, exchanging commodities, knowledge, skills and most importantly ideas. The core idea, as Dr Mukherjee explained, is to understand and present India’s position in the ancient world. To make ‘Ancient Sculptures’, the first presentation of Ancient World Project a reality, it required transcontinental endeavours bringing together longstanding partners ~ CSMVS, The J. Paul Getty Museum, and British Museum, and for the first time, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, along with museums from India ~ National Museum, New Delhi; Bihar Museum, Patna; and Directorate of Archaeology, Archives and Museums, Government of Madhya Pradesh, to showcase magnificent works of art from the ancient world.

The project is part of Getty’s Sharing Collections effort, which aims to promote a truly global understanding of the ancient world. Neil MacGregor, advisor to the Getty on the Sharing Collections project, and celebrated scholar-head of British Museum and National Gallery in London, said, “These are new partnerships for the ancient world.” In the exquisitely-produced exhibition catalogue, he wrote, “Sculptures gathered in the rotunda of CSMVS Museum come from many different cultures and tell many different stories. But they come together for one common purpose: they aim to allow visitors, especially students, not just to admire and enjoy great works of art but to think afresh about the complex links between India and the rest of the world over more than three thousand years ago.”

What resonates are key ideas of emerging global understanding of “antiquity as a common inheritance, to be preserved, researched, shared and enjoyed as widely as possible across the world.” Scholars, researchers, teachers across the world are looking anew at the ancient world and finding inter-connectedness between civilizations and cultures. Call it ‘connected histories’ or ‘shared histories’, new narratives are being developed, with new perspectives on history, culture, and its impact on modern lives.

“Students at school and university undergraduates study the narrative of Indian civilization; in every part of their country they are surrounded by monuments and works of art which exemplify great achievements of their culture, but they have no opportunity to see in the original any of the artefacts which might demonstrate how those other cultures thought about the world, and how they gave their ideas physical form and aesthetic expression,” said MacGregor, adding, “India’s museums are rich treasure houses but they have few objects from the ancient world which come from outside the sub-continent.

Travel is possible only for a small segment; they lack the opportunity to see how great civilizations of India take their place in the wider narrative of humanity; and it is almost impossible for them to understand how much India has given to the world. That is what this partnership of museums seeks to change.” Curators across the four museums, revealed MacGregor, found themselves posing questions: Did the waters of the Nile, for example, like those of the Ganges, provide spiritual renewal for ancient Egyptians as well as food? How would anybody know that the statue of a naked man or woman, with no obvious defining attributes, must represent a God? Why do Greek gods need to wear sandals? Why do they so often not look at their devotees?

That is the power of ‘global co-curation’, the understanding that objects in different places take on new meanings and provoke unexpected conversations. Wrote the CSMVS curatorial team, “These outstanding sculptures are presented with the aim to explore three themes that are crucial to shaping ancient cultures and are still perceptible in society today: role of nature in our lives; the divine form; and ideas and paradigms of beauty.”

For the curators it’s a great learning experience as ‘Ancient Sculptures’ unfolds stories of deities from ancient Egypt that were venerated and kept appeased, lest their wrath be incurred; there are divine sculptures from Greek and Roman temples and public squares that were an important part of daily life; there are semi-divine beings from the walls of Assyrian palaces seen alongside manifestations of the sacred from the Indian sculptural tradition. Questions the curators are posing are equally fascinating: Why are most of the Greek sculptures depicted in the nude? Why did the Greeks and Romans give so much importance to a trained and perfect body? Was Egyptian philosophy only about death and afterlife? Why did ancient cultures often give animal forms to their sacred sculptures? What were the different ideals of beauty in different ancient cultures?

What was the Indian philosophy behind sculpting the divine? How did geography impact the early cultures and shape their beliefs and art? Echoing MacGregor and Mukherjee, the curators’ concern is that in an increasingly interconnected digital world, where geographic and political boundaries are seemingly blurring, the Indian public, a majority of who are under the age of 30, are consuming ideas and histories from the far corners of the world, often forming impressions through popular media, digital images, video content and text.

“Through this presentation we want publics to see and engage with historic objects of art to gain a deeper understanding of our shared ancient past,” they said. Dr Mukherjee shared a comment from an earlier visitors’ book which spurred the ‘Ancient Sculptures’ project. It said, “Exquisite curation, equally impressive research process, the efforts to state this timely message about not simply understanding the past in order to reconsider our present and future, but acknowledging how chronology, time and space are wonderfully complicated. The more we see and look and give into our curiosities, that is unknown, what is uncomfortable ~ this is the idea.”

This beautifully crafted thought-provoking reaction helped to imagine the current international project which was envisaged during the pandemic. “The pandemic did not stop us in our creative thinking process and the strong desire to do something together,” he said. World Heritage Day is an appropriate moment in time to acknowledge that ‘Ancient Sculptures’ is as much about our ancient past as it is about our present and the future.

(The writer is an authorresearcher on history and heritage issues and a former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya)