Peabody-Essex Museum offers window into the reality of South Asia
By Will Broaddus Staff Writer Feb 4, 2016
We all have images of India, whether it’s the Taj Mahal, intense poverty or Bollywood movies.
“It’s hard to get beyond those,” said Sona Datta, curator of South Asian art at Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. “I want to give people a way in, so it isn’t just an exotic, far away other.”
To help people explore the reality of India, the museum is hosting “Imagine, South Asia” this weekend with films, an art exhibit, a writing workshop, hands-on activities and a dance party.
There are eight nations in South Asia, including Afghanistan, Nepal and the Maldives islands, but the focus of “Imagine” will be on India and Pakistan.
These countries are the main subjects of “Treasures of the Indus,” a series of three films that have been broadcast in the United Kingdom, but will have their North American premier at “Imagine, South Asia.”
“It’s a series that I made with the BBC, that I wrote and narrated,” Datta said. “It’s a three-part historical travelogue that takes the viewer from northern Pakistan, through Moghul India and the Taj Mahal, and down into the south, where you have the big temples of southern India.”
While covering all this distance, the films — two of which will be shown on Saturday and one on Sunday — will also cross 5,000 years of history.
“It’s not only a series about grand monuments or architectural sites,” Datta said. “It’s about connecting history to modernity, and giving people a view of southern Asia they might not have.”
Datta’s first film, “Pakistan Unveiled,” explores misconceptions of that country on the part of both Westerners and native Pakistanis.
“We think of Pakistan as an Islamic country, newly formed, but actually it’s a new country with a very old history,” Datta said.
That history includes some of the first planned cities, which differed from those in Egypt because they weren’t governed by either “a great king or military.”
“It was egalitarian, counter to our image,” Datta said.
Pakistan has ignored these traditions because, following their partition from India, the country has sought a new identity to contrast with India’s, in spite of all the two countries share.
Two of the screenings will be followed by panel discussions hosted by Datta, who will be joined by scholars, artists and journalists.
Peabody Essex Museum is the perfect place to hold these events, she said, because its collection includes extensive and unique holdings of South Asian art and artifacts.
“I see South Asia as being part of the DNA of the museum,” Datta said. “The Asian narrative here is very strong.”
There are South Asian textiles, furniture and maritime instruments from the 17th and 18th centuries in the collection, along with a “world-class collection” of 19th century court photographs.
But there is also a collection of contemporary art from the Herwitz Collection that Datta said is “the biggest and broadest collection of Indian art in Europe or North America.” It’s what brought her to Salem from London.
“It was almost a frustration to me that none of the British museums where I worked for 10 years were engaging with the modern landscape of India,” she said.
One way Peabody Essex is doing just that is through the current exhibit “Intersections,” by Pakistani artist Anila Agha, who will discuss her work at “Imagine, South Asia.”
“It’s a very simple thing: a 6-foot steel cube that has been laser cut by patterns from Alhambra in Spain,” Datta said. “Inside, it’s lighted by a single 800-watt bulb, which casts shadows right across the room and visitors, so you become bathed by the installation and part of it.”
Alhambra was a palace built in the 14th century in Granada by Muslims, Christians and Jews, all working together, according to a museum statement.
Agha’s lantern attempts to recapture that sense of peaceful coexistence, which has often been denied to her as a Muslim and a woman.
“As a child, she felt a sense of awe and beauty at Islamic sacred spaces, but felt excluded, because in Pakistan there is gender segregation,” Datta said. “She was confined to worship at home.
“As an adult, she moved to America and felt welcomed and included as a woman, but she felt alienation as a Muslim.”
Agha will discuss her work in a conversation Sunday with National Book Award finalist Carla Power, who wrote “If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran,” about studying with an Islamic scholar in India for a year.
“This is an account of that encounter,” Datta said. “What this is really about is this whole picture of the East and West and the clash of civilizations, saying you’re with us or against us."
One way to keep people from assuming rigid positions is to undermine them, and Indian performance artist Mithu Sen will give an alternative tour of the museum on Saturday at 2:15 p.m. that unsettles most people's ideas of art and artifacts.
“She’s very interested in the etiquette of museums, and why we give values to things,” Datta said. “It’s an alternative tour, which she calls a ‘misguide.’
“There will be a level of discomfort, because she believes that discomfort is the moment of transformation.”
A drop-in, art-making activity inspired by the Taj Mahal will also be held Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m., and a dance party will be held that night with British arts collective House of Honey and DJ Ben “the Bee” Taylor.
“I wanted to have a party as part of the weekend, but it’s not just an add-on,” Datta said.
The group has been commissioned to prepare an audio-visual performance, which responds to Agha’s “Intersections” installation.
“It’s going to be a great party, so people better bring their dancing shoes,” Datta said.
IF YOU GO
What: “Imagine, South Asia,” a weekend of art, music, film, discussion and dance with a South Asian focus
When: Saturday, Feb. 6, and Sunday, Feb. 7, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. “Treasures of the Indus” tickets available day of programs: “Pakistan Unveiled,” Saturday, noon; “The Other Side of the Taj Mahal,” Saturday, 3:15 p.m.; “Of Gods and Men,” Sunday, 11 a.m. Concert by Jawwad Noor, 2:15 p.m., East India Marine Hall; unless otherwise noted, programs free with museum admission.
Where: Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem, Massachusetts
Cost: Museum admission adults $18, seniors $15, students with ID $10, youth 16 and under and Salem residents with ID free
Information: For a complete list of events or more details, visit pem.org or call 978-745-9500