South Asian history is so complex and layered that making sense of it can take considerable effort. T Richard Blurton’s richly-illustrated India: A History in Objects emphasizes precisely this complexity and diversity—“The variety of South Asia is remarkable in terms of language, script, ethnicity, religion and architecture”— rather than a single narrative throughline.
Rulers, peoples, polities are furthermore rarely more than names; many historically important names and events are mentioned in passing, if at all. This, to be fair, is not Blurton’s purpose and indeed, several subjects are (deliberately) illustrated by objects produced centuries later than the chronological period in which the discussion is inserted.
The topics have been placed within a broad chronological frame, though some, for instance, the use of ivory, the long-standing tradition of storytelling, or the epics such as the Ramayana, cut across chronological boundaries.
Sometimes this works extremely well. An all-too-brief section on “Dice and the lure of chance” has examples of 4000-year-old four-sided “stick” dice from Mohenjo-daro to a 19th-century “Snakes and ladders” board. In India, where the latter originated,
By throwing dice, the players hope, through moral excellence, to ride up the ladders, eventually to the abode of the gods – and to avoid the snakes that lead to perdition.
Rather more at stake then.
There is far too much material to hope to cover it in a single volume, especially one that is at least 50% illustrations. Blurton has further restricted himself to “using the collections of the British Museum”. While “these collections have been accumulated over more than 250 years” and “are of great variety, reflecting the cultures of the subcontinent”, and hence certainly suffice, no one museum can have the best of everything.
There are certainly many fascinating works to choose from. The section on “Greeks in India and trade with the West” includes shards of Roman red-slipped sigillata pottery found in Puducherry and a cameo of Hercules found in Pakistan. Blurton also casts a wide net to include such arts as textiles, the contemporary arts and such lesser-known areas as the Nilgiri Hills, mostly in northwestern Tamil Nadu:
a remote upland area maintained relations with the settled cultures of the plains. Densely forested, the Nilgiris were peopled by non-caste groups, including the peoples known as the Toda
with quite different aesthetics.
Also interesting are the discussion of materials, why stone predominates in the south and brick in the north, and the rare vestiges of wooden architecture. There are discussions (and examples) of lost-wax casting of bronze and the various methods of textile manufacture and printing, including the somewhat unexpected information that Indian silk dates back to the 3rd millennium BCE:
From an early period at Harappa comes evidence of silk. Use of two species of wild silk moth has been recorded, dating to c. 2450–2220 bce. Further evidence comes from Chanhu-daro with a similar date. The chronology suggests a separate first exploitation of silk to that known from China.
Blurton is particularly strong on the relationship between art and religion:
South Asia has been a land of great religious variety. Four of the world’s major religions have originated here – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. Other religions from outside the subcontinent, such as Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity, have also been prominent …
Imagining deities in human form has been a feature of Indian culture and is very evident in Buddhism and Hinduism …. South Asian culture is one where the human form is frequently used also to present ideas: speech is venerated as the goddess Vach, physical features such as the Himalayas or rivers like the Ganges are known as male or female, and philosophical concepts enshrined in texts are anthropomorphized …
This includes usefully clear summaries of “The life of the Buddha and the Jataka stories”, “Mahavira and early Jainism”, “The Mahabharata” and “The Ramayana “ and how they influenced art (and each other).
Blurton’s aim, he writes, is to “make links between works of art and historical change.” One perhaps needs some prior grasp of the broad sweep of regional history for this aim to be realized. Nevertheless, even those without this will nevertheless come away with an appreciation of the cultural depth and variety of the region and some understanding of sources and developments.