The Ritual of a National Art Exhibition
D Tapati Guha-Thakurta
There is no argument that carries greater persuasion with it in favour of a country's ideals and way of life than its art, and Indian art, richly documenting the past culture of India, has a unique position in this respect as revealing the mind of the people....1
It was the power of this conviction that impelled the Government of India in 1947-48 to undertake what was seen as 'the first serious attempt towards a stock-taking' of the nation's art heritage, through the event of an art exhibition. The occasion was Independence, to celebrate which the new nation-state arranged in the halls of the Government House of New Delhi a spectacular display of the 'Masterpieces of Indian Art'. As it opened in the winter of 1948, the show was described as 'the largest, most comprehensive and representative assemblage of the art of India ever seen in Europe or at home. . .2 In every sense, the event lent itself to a flow of superlatives: in the sheer volume and scale of the art objects it brought together, in the choice of their selection from museums and collections all over the country, in the historical sequencing of their display, and in their new heightened visibility in the prestigious site that was chosen for the show.
It becomes specially instructive to reflect on the spectacle of this exhibition at the Government House on this fiftieth anniversary year—to look back from the present fanfare to this earlier enactment of a national ritual.3 For this exhibition offers the best instance of the way the moment of Independence was figured and institutionalized in art. This one event, in its timing, venue and the attention it drew, provides a key motif for studying the way the nation invoked itself in its art history and ritualized its presence in the ceremonial space of such a display.
There are numerous ways in which we can foreground the 'national' implications of the event. Not only does the exhibition, in its objects and orders, poses and