Year in Review: The Top 5 Museum Exhibitions of 2016

2016 has been quite a year for our country and most people are only too glad that its coming to an end. While a new year brings with it, new hope and excitement, I think there is a certain romance about reflecting on the year gone by and catching the beauty of it! So here I am revisiting 5 amazing art-museum exhibitions that made 2016 totally worth it!

1. Tabiyat : Health & Human Body at CSMVS, Mumbai

exhibitions 2016
Surgical operations requiring detailed, practical knowledge of anatomy are described in ancient manuscripts, but without illustration. In later history, illustrators adopted styles of anatomical drawing based on the body as seen both by Indian and other civilisations.

This is one of my favourite ones from 2016, and especially so, from a marketing point of view. In an age where Museums in India host exhibitions which cannot boast of high footfalls, “Tabiyat” was a refreshing start to the year, and CSMVS, Mumbai was the perfect host.

Curated by Ratan Vaswani, the exhibit showcased rare pieces in the possession of the London-based Wellcome Trust. Tabiyat was a fascinating capsule of Indian medical history, a canon in which science and faith intermingled over four theatres of healing practices: ‘home’, ‘street’, ‘shrine’ and ‘clinic’. The first-ever pictorial representation of the Ayurvedic Man, documentation from the public sphere on diseases like leprosy or the plagues, was part of the exhibition and it connected the dots between unani, ayurveda and allopathy; linking health to temple, spirit, street, and clinic uniquely in the Indian ethos over centuries. They also held workshops in traditional kohl-making. To read more on the exhibition, do visit their website, Medicine Corner.

2. Anatomy Lessons : A Tribute by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi

exhibitions 2016
Anatomy Lesson : KG Subramanyan

I feel tributes are always the hardest thing ever – how can you create the sum of a legacy for a showcase and do justice to it? It’s the riskiest bet ever, and boy, am glad that it was KNMA taking up the mantle. The pioneer of modern Indian art, KG Subramanyan, passed away on 29 June 2016, leaving behind a body of work that would immortalise his spirit and creative genius. Curated by Roobina Karode, the exhibition showcases his work, mostly from the KNMA collection, but also uses some borrowed art work from the Alkazi Collection, Design Atelier, etc. The exhibition included some of his oldest works from the 1940s that were in digital archives created by the Asia Art Archive, including his first experiments in oil, his work on silk, and his “reverse paintings on glass and acrylic”—incidentally, a medium that he went on to master.

3 Olivia Fraser’s Secret Garden at the Govt Museum and Art Gallery, Chandigarh

exhibitions 2016
Right from deploying original handmade paper sourced from the Kagzis of Sanganer in Rajasthan to the organic/stone colours and squirrel brushes, Olivia Fraser’s work is all nature-based! ‘Darshan’ series focuses on the light entering through the pupil of the eye and its reaction thereby, whilst ‘You are the Sun’ very clearly depicts the various stages of a lunar eclipse.

You can call this a personal bias, but the truth is, that Olivia Fraser’s Sacred Garden is special for too many reasons, one being that it comes from an artist who has spent years training under India’s talented Nathdwara artisans. Her work borrows style from the Indian miniatures and Jodhpuri paintings, but the soul is all her. When an artist’s work can speak to you at length, and have a calming effect, you know you’re a part of a great exhibition. Some work at the exhibition was Indian-ised Optical illusion work, and I loved that too.  Owing to her being hugely influenced by Yoga and Buddhist philosophies, she uses classic Indian motives such as the lotus, the hands, the eyes, and so on and inspired by the natural landscapes comprising of the seven seas, the mountains, the rivers and goes on to depict concepts such as the seven chakras; the pulse of breath, held in between exhaling and exhaling particularly during meditation where the focus is on the breath; the awakening of the kundalini; the half opened eye reminiscent of Buddha himself in meditation and many such icons. Most people know her as William Dalrymple’s Begum, and their endearing welcome-introduction at the exhibition, which was also a partnership with the Grosvenor Gallery, UK made the evening better!

4 Conserving the Collection – a caring path for 5000 years of our art : by CSMVS, Mumbai

Half of a 1,500 year old stucco Buddha head was cleaned with pulses of laser light.

I have still not stopped raving about this exhibition. I love this exhibit for a lot of reasons, the no.1 being the choice of the theme, i.e Conservation. Most people, who visit Museums are curious about the objects and artefacts and the only thing they’re told is, “Do not touch”. Right from the communication strategy to the brand-partnership with Citibank, Conserving the Collection got it all right. For a layman, this was great learning and gave visitors a personal lesson in what goes into caring for objects that are National Treasure!  If you missed the exhibition, there’s hope in the form of a book which details out the exhibition, objects and the processes used to conserve them. You can find the link to it in the Resources section.

5 The Everlasting Flame, National Museum, New Delhi

exhibitions 2016
The execution of the 6th century Iranian heretic and social reformer Mazdak depicted in Firdawsi’s epic the Shahnamah (‘Book of Kings’): Mazdak’s followers are seen beneath the gallows, buried alive upside down. This copy of the Shahnamah probably originates from the 15th century.

This exhibition was a huge step towards preserving Parsi Heritage and Culture and the first of its kind to provide a visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions. ‘The Everlasting Flame’ came highly-recommended, and did not disappoint. The exhibition takes you on a journey from the earliest days of the religion to its emergence as the foremost religion of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian empires of imperial Iran; and the influence it has had on the major world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. You can see an online version of the exhibition and its narrative here.
The Everlasting Flame first opened in 2013 at SOAS, curated by the British Museum. The India version  comprised over 300 objects loaned from the British Library, British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, State Hermitage, National Museum of Iran, National Museum of India and many smaller institutions and private lenders. While the exhibition was basically the same as in 2013, it also included 77 new items; the highlight being a replica fire temple installation, modelled on the Maneckji Navroji Sett Fire Temple in Mumbai.

A Special Mention : Pastoral Light at IGNCA, New Delhi

The year is closing on a special note. Pastoral Light, a recently held exhibition at IGNCA opened to rave reviews and the photographs of friends and colleagues attending this one on Facebook got me quite jealous. I missed this one, and regretfully so. Here’s what people said :

“The beautifully curated exhibition offered a glimpse into the lives of nomads in India. Nomads who travel from place to place ring a tune with us , who too wander to add beauty to their lives. The exhibition also throws up the question about our consumerist life styles versus the minimalistic lifestyles of the Nomads who travel with very few possessions.”

Like I said, when an exhibition engages with you, makes you think, makes you reflect, you know its a great one.

What to look forward to in 2017 : A little secret that Santa told me…

CSMVS is also working on hosting several rare pieces of art on loan from Britain for a 2017 collaborative Britain/India Year of Culture – to coincide with the 70th anniversary of India’s Independence – in collaboration with the Nehru Centre in London and the British Council. So time to gear up for more excitement and learning!

I hope you enjoyed the post. If you attended a Museum-Exhibition and loved it, do share 🙂

Featured Image: An ear-cleaner, attending to a man’s ear
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

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Year in Review: The Top 5 Museum Exhibitions of 2016