SALEM — “What do you think of when you think of INDIA?” reads the text at the entrance of the Peabody Essex Museum’s newly-reinstalled South Asian galleries, and then, a step or two inside, it answers its own question. The first thing you see is a vitrine of 19th-century clay figures that bundles almost every imaginable Indian stereotype: Beggar and snake-charmer, swami and cotton-spinner. (As we toured the new space together late last week, Siddhartha Shah, PEM’s curator of South Asian art, mused that all that was missing was a yogi on a bed of nails.)
To make a point, one needs a counterpoint, and for Shah, this is it. Western museums for centuries made a spectacle of cultures outside of Europe (and the continent’s immediate spawn) in the worst of ways: fetishized as exotica, or superficial ethnographic cliché. PEM, the oldest continuously running museum on this continent, was founded in 1799, making it a historic trafficker of such notions. It also played an early and important part in South Asian representation to the west. The clay figures started making their way back to Salem in the early 18th century, packed in duffle bags by merchant seaman who bought them in Indian markets as tourist tchotchke. There’s a bigger issue here, too, around the western predilection to portray those outside its sphere less as people than archetypes, usually of an archaic, mystic, backward kind. And South Asia, adored by its British rulers in their smugly superior manner, has borne its brunt more than most.
Museums, initially, were built for this patronizing purpose. As colonialism gathered momentum in the early 19th century, various excursions returned home with an array of curios — art objects or ceremonial talismans, some bought, plenty stolen, most free from the burden of context — for the wealthy to show off to their friends. Museums, by and large, were about conquest; conquest was about reductive notions of us and them, a knot these institutions have been trying to unwind for a generation. PEM’s considerable holdings of 19th-century Indian objects, most of them donated by seafaring businessmen, are enduring symbols of that east-west divide.
In India, like almost any colonial country whose indigenous populations were subjugated to foreign rule, self-degradation became brisk business. Tourists and the ruling class alike bought up clichéd figurines and street paintings by the bushel as mementoes of the India they created, exported, bought, and sold. Tchotchke, however reductive, was a booming cottage industry, stereotype a commodity of its own. (Another vitrine is full of small-scale plaster busts, intended, apparently, as a visual taxonomy of Indian headdresses for the convenience of members of the British Raj. But some of the men’s faces have the flourish of smallpox scars — colonialism’s endemic imprint on its many victims across centuries and continents.)
Bookending the display in this, the introductory space, is a dark-skinned figure — a near life-size version of the miniatures clustered under glass — seated and in a white loincloth. Since the piece entered the collection in 1823, Shah told me, generations of conservators had slowly darkened its coffee-colored skin. They also repainted patches of script on the figure’s arms, gradually losing legibility of the original Bengali text and reducing it to decorative swirls. If that doesn’t tell you something about the mind-set of museum practitioners from a few generations ago, I don’t know what will.
The low-slung space where you’ll find all these things is tomblike and oppressive, which I expect is part of the point. Passing through the squat archway into what feels like the main event is liberating, with even the architecture in on the effect. A double-height vault of ceiling soars overhead, breathing life where the first room felt airless and oppressive. Here, PEM redeems its past; owing largely to the gift of the collection of Chester and Davida Herwitz, the museum has the world’s richest and most extensive collection of Indian Modern and contemporary art outside of India.
In the redux, PEM puts the Herwitz collection to dazzling use. A pair of monumental paintings make a loose foyer for the new space, an entry point for competing visions: Maqbool Fida Husain’s Untitled 1986, of an everyday market scene, vibrant and orderly; Tyeb Meht’s flat, fractured plane from 1973 with monochrome figures riven by a white gash. It represents the defining schism of post-Colonial India: Partition, the division of what was known as British India in 1947 into India and Pakistan. Negotiated by the British as their parting gesture, it resulted in explosive violence and enmity that resonate to this day.
What follows are visions of India that are, I’m embarrassed to say, as rich as they are unfamiliar, at least to me. It’s a little hand-holdy, but since many westerners don’t know a thing about the Mahabharata — one of two ancient Sanskrit epics that became an allegory for partition — I say to the museum: lead on.
The Mahabharata is condensed here to a few minutes of animated film, a useful tool for all it informs throughout the galleries, in particular a series of paintings by Husain, one of India’s greatest contemporary painters. Modernism isn’t the perfect word to use here, given its straight-line connotation from European Impressionism in the late 19th century to American abstraction in the mid-20th. But Modernism, writ large, was about wiping clean and starting new, a convenient notion for nations that spent the better part of the previous two centuries on such things as oppression, genocide, slavery, and land grabs. For those countries, like India, left to live with the consequences, it could never be quite so cut and dried.
For a country struggling to reconcile its rich past against the turbulence of its post-colonial present, the Mahabharata serves as both symbol and provocation. In Husain’s five paintings here, the epic and its resonant meaning to a convulsive Indian nation intertwine. “Ganga Jamuna,” dense and painterly, with bold color and thick, gestural swipes, is split by a bolt of bristling yellow, light to dark. (It refers to two river goddesses, represented here by a single body riven in two.) “Duryodhana Arjuna Split (Mahabharata 9),” from 1971, is a bleak nightmarescape of shattered perspective and spectral violence. Shah suggested the work was inspired by one European Modernist who was not so quick to wipe clean and start fresh: Pablo Picasso and his “Guernica” masterpiece on the carnage of the Spanish Civil War.
PEM’s Indian galleries are an education that way: About a nation apart, but not totally apart; a culture of its own, still digging out from its colonial past. Among the nearly 100 objects are things that both dazzle and provoke. Especially revelatory was a suite of paintings depicting urbanization; Sudhir Patwardhan’s bulked-up pictures of the friction between traditional rural life and the chaos of the city depict a reality that would be familiar to anyone, anywhere. Also included is a selection of softly defiant pieces by women artists including Nalini Malani and Rekha Rodwittiya, which counter the rough machismo of Indian and European cultures at once. Another piece, of unemployed recent graduates clustered stone-faced in suits and ties, spoke to me of the unending echo of British rule. The 1956 painting, by Ram Kumar, captured the blunt reality of Britain’s departure, which left economic ruin in its wake and spurred a mass diaspora of educated Indians around the world.
A final word about the Mahabharata: The story is so intensely foundational to Indian identity that a 94-episode TV series of it, made in the 1980s, literally stopped the entire country in its tracks for one hour every week. For that hour, if only that hour, the country was one. In a country so wildly diverse and fractured, unity through division is the paradox that fits. Here in the United States, at least the first part should sound familiar.
SOUTH ASIA ART GALLERIES
Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, Salem, through October 1, 2022. 978-745-9500, www.pem.org