Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Tehnyat Majeed teaches Islamic Art and Architecture at LUMS and has curated the special exhibition “Rediscovering Harappa: Through the Five Elements” at the Lahore Museum 


On Saturday, 21st November 2015, the Lahore Museum opened its doors to the public with its first-ever Special Exhibition called Rediscovering Harappa: Through the Five Elements. This exhibition was conceived and put together by the Inheriting Harappa Project team under my direction and curation and was brought to fruition with the UNESCO International Fund for Promotion of Culture (IFPC) Award 2014-2015 and the co-sponsorship of the Lahore Museum.

Before I give a background to this exhibit, a quick word on what is meant by a ‘Special Exhibition.’ Unlike exhibitions at art galleries, a ‘Special Exhibition’ in a museum is a completely different beast. First of all, while it can include objects from the museum’s permanent collection, to make it ‘special,’ it has to feature artworks and artefacts from sources and collections outside of the museum. Secondly, these diverse artworks are brought together under a single title which means that a museum special exhibition must follow some thematic coherence that is, most often, framed by historical, aesthetic and didactic concerns. And thirdly, beyond its intellectual and curatorial content, a special exhibition essentially requires a variety of design-oriented expertise that has to be finely orchestrated into collaborative team effort within a limited span of time, for exhibition development. Since so many people and resources are involved in such a production, co-operative team-spirit is key to a successful special exhibition.

Belonging to the genre of special exhibitions, Rediscovering Harappa: Through the Five Elements features a set of original Harappan artefacts from the permanent collections of the Lahore Museum juxtaposed with the clay works of two contemporary potters: Mohammad Nawaz and Sheherezade Alam. However, its most unique feature is the creative artwork in the form of maps, drawings and mixed media collages that artistically interpret significant aspects of Harappan material culture. These interpretive artworks were produced by collective groups of young Pakistani students of fine arts, design, architecture, archaeology, history, and anthropology. These students who I have called ‘artist-interns’ represented ten different educational institutions in Pakistan. In fact, out of the thirty odd ‘artist-interns’, five were from LUMS! And there’s been more LUMS student participation coming from the course I am teaching this semester entitled Exploring the Indus – that however, will be another blog entry. Here I want to talk about what motivated me, an Islamic art historian, suddenly to venture into the depths of the proto-historic Harappan world of the third millennium BC, and then to put together this special exhibition. And just to clarify, ‘Harappa’ here represents the entire Indus Valley Civilization and not just the archaeological site. Archaeological convention uses the ‘type’ site — the first site discovered, as a term for the entire civilization.

What is it that I learnt in my first meaningful encounter with these ancient people who lived in the same land that we occupy today? The most pervasive and striking quality of Indus remains is that of humility: there is no glorified individual, no palaces, no overt display of wealth neither in their homes, nor in their graves. Most Indus objects are small and unassuming and for that reason easily dismissed as commonplace. But as I tell my students, time and again, in order to really appreciate the subtleties inherent in this material evidence, we must cultivate an attitude of humility, and then we are able to see the love, the joy, the playfulness and the spiritual qualities of the people who made these objects. Indus is about the extraordinary in the very ordinary things of life.

It was this essence of the Harappan world that resonated the most with me when Sheherezade Alam, the founder of the Inheriting Harappa Project approached me to curate this exhibition. Around that time, I had been deeply immersed in the study of the Five Elements and how this was part of the essential world view of all traditional and classical cultures – be it Chinese, Vedic, Buddhist or Greek. The building blocks of the universe were: Water, Earth, Fire, Air and Ether. It was therefore, a meaningful coincidence to find that Sheherezade Alam used the same framework to teach children about pottery. This became the lens through which I started rediscovering this inheritance from the past. We cannot say definitively what the Harappan world view was but by using this Elemental framework, we could create connections between objects and viewers of all age groups – for everyone from a child to an adult understands the very basic qualities of water, earth, fire and air. Ether may be a little elusive and this is the one element for which the Harappan artefacts become the interpreters to understand its highly abstract, imaginal and ideological qualities.

More than 200 guests turned up for the Opening of the Rediscovering Harappa: Through the Five Elements as the Lahore Museum auditorium was packed by 10.30 am and the provincial minister for education punctually arrived for the inaugural! As for my Inheriting Harappa Project team, they have felt validated for their hard work and sustained efforts by the continued appreciation of visitors at the Rediscovering Harappa exhibit. The most touching words, however, came from an architectural conservationist when she said: “you have given a gift to the city of Lahore.”

For more information about the Rediscovering Harappa special exhibition, as well as, about the Inheriting Harappa Project, please visit, www.inheritingharappa.com.

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