It has been an interesting summer for Anant Jani and Mariyah Mansuri, students of our Philosophy, History, and Languages major at the School of Arts and Sciences. Anant and Mariyah had the opportunity to closely explore the domains of art history, mythology, and theology at the Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum (LD Museum) in Ahmedabad. For the students, it was not just an exploration of work in the real world but also an opportunity to take over projects with a sense of ownership. "It was a novel experience to research and produce activities for a range of exhibits, from scrutinising Pahari paintings of the 17th century to writing on the intertextuality of ancient Indian coins from the 6th century BCE. Especially so because our study lies at the crossroads of philosophy, history, and languages," says Anant Jani.
Understanding of art history and object-based learning were the biggest takeaways for the students who were mentored by the Curators and the Museum Keepers at LD Museum. The Museum Keepers spent long hours interacting with both the interns on a daily basis, sharing their time and knowledge and guiding the interns on their work. Under their mentorship, Anant and Mariyah were assigned research tasks on specific exhibits on display. The purpose of these tasks was two-fold: to allow them to explore and familiarise themselves with research techniques, and assist the museum in gathering data about lesser-known artefacts and suggest innovative display techniques.
For the students, it was a perfect learning avenue. The courses at Ahmedabad University, including various courses it runs in collaboration with Princeton University’s Global History Lab, shaped much of how they connect and view any event or artefact from history in relation to its surrounding artefacts. Their training in thinking philosophically, as well as their sensitivity to global history ensured that they were always asking 'how' alongside 'why'. Anant says, "We think of museums as naturally interconnected, hypertextual places – a physical manifestation of encyclopaedic knowledge. It was this spirit that guided us in our research and curation. At the very least, it has opened avenues for us for similar work, where we feel confident in bringing intertextual understanding to our research and outcome."
Their engagement with ancient and mediaeval art gave us the freedom to explore interpretations of the artworks beyond their historical context. Mariyah says, “We realised how the evolution of philosophy can be traced through an iconography of sculptures and paintings, printing manuscripts, and casting bronzes." The students employed their digital expertise in creating interactive exhibits to present their research to the museum audience. "With this, we combined our research, narrative-mapping skills, and communication skills to produce a virtual space for the museum exhibits. This was an incredible experience that was immediately relevant not only for our current majors but also our future studies," adds Anant.
The Coin Exhibit
Anant and Mariyah's primary focus was to redesign the curation of the coins in the gallery in a way that could make research on the lesser-known coins more accessible. "We realised the physical display did not allow closer examination of both sides of the coins. The curators also apprised us of the limitations of a single, long piece of wall text,” says Anant. With these limitations in mind, they decided to make an interactive text that could be scaled to the desired level of detail for the visitor. The rationale is to elucidate the confusing geographical and political history of several seemingly disparate factions whose coins are on display – a record the students found especially convoluted until the Sultanate period.
Anant continues, "There was a need for such histories to be told in a more accessible way. To prevent such histories from being reductionist, we strove to design what we saw as an interactive research paper." The students spent several weeks researching the coins, using numismatic journals, reference books, and auction magazines at the LD Institute of Indology, and LD Museum's library, along with numismatic archives of museums across the globe and archives within Ahmedabad itself. In the course of their research, they discovered interesting bilingual coins of the Indo-Greeks, Parthians, and the Kushans. These bore a mark of Greek legends with Greek gods on one side and the bust of a ruler with a Kharosthi legend on the other, sparking interesting discourses on identity and nationality.
Lastly, with interactive storytelling and presentation softwares, the students made an interactive display which displayed both sides of the coins, as well as progressively informative layers of text about each. Depending on the reader's interest, one might choose to read either a brief introduction to a coin of interest or a detailed account of its crafting, its legends, its political history, and possible connections with coins of another era.
Encouraged by the museum to initiate research on artefacts that were least researched on, Anant and Mariyah chose Buddhist artefacts due to their familiarity and a keen interest in the topic from their course on Indian Philosophy. They worked on a large bronze mandala and some block-printed Tibetan scrolls from the 19th century, a Tibetan Thangka from the 17th century. "The thangka – of a protector deity named Panjara Mahakala – proved to be most fascinating, and we spent intense weeks uncovering the ritualistic practice of Tibetan Buddhism, familiarising ourselves with the hierarchies of Tantras and associated deities, and related Tantric practices. Our research material itself spawned smaller histories, with our sources ranging from an orientalist German scholar writing vicariously but in great detail about Tibetan Buddhism to the teachings of venerated Sakya school Lamas," says Anant.
The mutual interest of the students in the history of ideas and their movement was born from their initiation into Intellectual History, a field introduced to Philosophy, History, and Languages majors in their first year at Ahmedabad University. "We spent time navigating the history of Buddhism into Tibet and the simultaneous creation of Tibetan language and art style – borrowed heavily in both cases from India and China. In a detailed research paper about the Thangka on display, we sought to chart this movement of art, consciously-constructed language, and schools of Buddhist philosophy. In this sense, our work encompassed philosophy, history, and languages,” he adds.
The Calendar allowed students to curate a series of artwork into a limited, small-scale exhibition. Using arbitrary constraints, it enabled them to make a meaningful curation of details from artworks, and in the process, learnt much about how sound is used in painting. "We chose musical instruments found in Indian miniature paintings and selected those most appropriate for their months. It gave us an ideal opportunity to extract details from a ragamala series that depicted visually what would otherwise have been heard. It also gave us an appreciation for reading paintings differently while learning to make thematic and aesthetic choices in the curation of artwork," says Anant.
Museum professional and art historian-turned-educator Sujata Parsai, Director of Lalbhai Dalpatbhai Museum, says, "This was the first time we invited students to intern at the museum, and it has been a rewarding experience. We wanted to work with students with multiple skill sets, and that's what Anant and Mariyah brought to us. They were very invested in their projects. Their deep involvement in the LD Museum Calendar that we publish annually built the foundation for the calendar work this year. Their interactive exhibit on coins that's designed for exploring and further engaging with coins is a highly engaging resource. In fact, they were enthusiastic about the museum outreach and events, helping to engage children and school groups with the museum collections. For young students, this gives great insights into how to make the museum space an alternative classroom."