RIHA Journal 0308 | 31 May 2024

The Designed Object and Its Imperial Histories: On T.N. Mukharji and the Art-Manufactures of India

Tapati Guha-Thakurta

This essay locates a late 19th-century category of objects variously named as 'industrial' or 'decorative arts' within the specifically imperial institutional circuit of the World Exhibitions. Taking up a segment of the World Exhibitions of the 1880s, it traces a history which connects the three cities of Calcutta, London and Glasgow and creates a trail of travelling exhibits and museum collections of this most proliferating category of objects. It follows in particular the career of the Bengali exhibition commissioner and museum curator Trailokya Nath (T.N.) Mukharji and the anthology he compiled on the Art-Manufactures of India for the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888 to map a specific network of commissioning, collecting, cataloguing and documenting India’s 'art-manufactures'

[1] This essay takes up the category of the designed object of the late 19th century – the 'art-manufactures' – and locates it in a specifically imperial institutional field in which the pedagogy and connoisseurship of design come together with the valorisation of craft traditions and the practices of collecting, exhibiting and presenting decorative art objects. Revisiting the widely studied phenomenon of the World’s Fairs, it devotes itself to a specific segment of the serial history of these colonial exhibitions in the decade of the 1880s, which connects the three cities of Calcutta, London and Glasgow and creates a trail of travelling exhibitions and museum collections of this most proliferating category of objects. Variously referred to as 'industrial' or 'decorative arts',1 this genre of products from various Indian states that filled the "Artware Courts" of the Indian Pavilions acquired the particular designation of 'art-manufactures' in a compendium compiled by the Bengal exhibition commissioner and museum curator Trailokya Nath (T.N.) Mukharji on the occasion of the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888. Moving between the three exhibition venues of Calcutta (1883–1884), London (1886) and Glasgow (1888), the essay uses the career of T.N. Mukharji (1847–1919) to reveal a specific network of commissioning, collecting and cataloguing India’s 'art-manufactures'.

[2] Set off against the more elevated category of the 'fine arts' that remained the unshakable monopoly of Western civilisations throughout the 19th century, India’s 'art-manufactures' became the hallmark of her alterity, of her different positioning in time and space, where her art remained relegated to the realm of hereditary craft practice and artisanal industries. The 'art-manufactures' came to connote a field of commodity production that was not quite 'art' but not mere 'manufacture' either – the hyphenated category implied the coming together of the artistry of 'art' with the labour and skills of 'manufacture' to create a field of traditional practice, where Indian artisans could offer the lessons of superior design and workmanship to the degraded circuit of modern industrial manufactories. The 'art-manufactures' of his country, which T.N. Mukharji so avidly collected, studied and documented for the colonial state, signified an archetypal imperial genre of objects. Seen as symbols of a pre-industrial 'village India', these objects were nonetheless exemplary products of colonial tutelage, emerging from a large institutional consortium of exhibitions, journals, museums and art schools in late 19th-century India, all of which were geared at restoring to India’s 'art industries' its best principles of workmanship and design (Fig. 1). The benefits were to be reaped, as much by British commerce and industrial design as by all the craftsmen who were placed under the care of a new, self-reforming empire (Fig. 2) – an empire that sought to undo its own damage to the country’s artisanal economy through an alternative protectionist and conservationist ideology.2

1 "Cashmere and Yarkandi brass and copper teapots", plate III from The Journal of Indian Art and Industry 1 (1886), no. 1 (photograph by the author). This journal was launched in 1886 by the headmaster of the Mayo School of Arts in Lahore, John Lockwood Kipling (1837–1911), and contained extensive text and visual documentation on Indian ornamental art-ware and craftsmen, most of whom worked under the tutelage of the art schools.

2 From the object to its manufacturing process and its makers – "Group of Damasceners in Gold", photo-chromo-lithograph, frontispiece of Damascening on Steel or Iron, as Practised in India, ed. Colonel Thomas Holbein Hendley, publisher W. Griggs & Sons, London 1892

The exhibitionary chain and complex

[3] The first section of this paper presents a comprehensive overview of the sequence of imperial exhibitions and the connecting flow of exhibits which alternated between the exhibition venues of Calcutta, London and Glasgow. T.N. Mukharji’s career within this imperial exhibitionary apparatus provides an important link in this circuit, offering a travel narrative in which the commissioner along with his objects becomes part of this ambit of circulation. The two "second cities of empire" Calcutta and Glasgow had their own "Great Exhibitions" to hold at intervals of a few years of each other.3 Each fair became the occasion for the largest assemblage and presentations of objects that the cities had held up to that time in what was to become their first imperial exhibitions; each had a transformative impact on the architectural topography, museum collections and public spectatorship of the city.

[4] The Calcutta International Exhibition – Calcutta’s own "Great Exhibition", which opened on 4 December 1883 – had spread its halls and pavilions from the new magisterial edifice of the Indian Museum (completed in 1878) out across Chowringhee Road to the open space of Calcutta’s Maidan (Fig. 3).

3 Aerial view of the entire complex of the Calcutta International Exhibition, 1883–1884, stretching across the Calcutta Maidan, in front of the new building of the Indian Museum, 1883. Photograph by Shivshankar Narayan, albumen silver print, 21.5 × 28.3 cm. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, ref. no. PH1982:0432:003 (courtesy: CCA, Montreal)

Divided into various international pavilions and with the central Indian pavilion housing all the 'Art-ware Courts' from the states of the country, the exhibition space is said to have been filled with 2,500 exhibitors from India and other parts of the world, and over 100,000 exhibits, "numbers that dwarfed all previous Indian exhibitions". When the exhibition officially closed in the first week of March 1884, it is recorded to have attracted an average of 6,000 visitors a day, with an unprecedented peak of 20,000 visitors on one particular holiday in December,"bringing more people to the exhibition grounds on a single day than some of India’s provincial exhibitions had drawn over the entire course of their run".4 All these statistics proved that the Calcutta International Exhibition could rival London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition as a spectacle, as a commodity fair and as a mass public event, and that the great apparatus of a world exhibition of commodities and manufactures could be replicated on an equal scale in the metropolises and colonial cities.

[5] A similar prestige of a foundational event surrounded Glasgow’s first International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry held in Kelvingrove Park on the banks of the river Kelvin from May to November 1888. The centrepiece of the spectacle was a huge palatial pavilion with a large central dome and turrets flanked horizontally by oriental-style domes and minarets. The pavilion was designed by Glasgow architect James Sellars, who had won the competition to design the exhibition building, which was nicknamed the "Baghdad by Kelvinside" (Fig. 4).5

4 Perspective View of the Principal Buildings of the Glasgow International Exhibition 1888 at Kelvingrove Park, 1888, by the architect, James Sellars (1843–1888), pen, watercolour and wash on paper, 34,5 × 116 cm. Glasgow Museums, ID no. 711 (courtesy Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Museums)

In front of it stood the massive terracotta fountain, reputed to be the world’s largest, made by the British commercial exhibitors Doulton & Co., who also constructed for the exhibition the sumptuously ornamental Indian Pavilion. With products of Scottish firms making up almost two-thirds of the exhibits, the exhibition marked Glasgow’s passage over the course of the 19th century from a centre of heavy industry, iron foundries, engineering and ship-building to a trading and manufacturing hub of consumer goods.

[6] To mark the city’s long history of trading links with the Indian colony, it was John Muir of the trading firm of James Finlay and Company who chaired the Indian Committee of the exhibition and made possible the setting up of three large Indian Artware Courts. The wealth of hand-crafted 'art-manufactures' of these courts would offset the lavish 'fine arts' display of British and European painting and sculpture and would give 'art' its pride of place side by side with industry and manufacture at this first Scottish world fair. Like the Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883–1884, the Glasgow event, in its sheer number of exhibits and visitors, was rated to be the largest exhibition held till then in the Anglo-imperial world outside the capital of London.

[7] The Calcutta International Exhibition became a one-of-a-kind event in the city. The changing ideological thrust of the British Raj in India would make Delhi, the old Mughal capital and the new projected capital of the empire, the chosen site of the Imperial Durbars and their accompanying exhibitions of 1902 and 1911 – for which the stage had already been set by the first Delhi Durbar of 1877 to mark Queen Victoria’s coronation as the Empress of India.6 By contrast, the 1888 event facilitated Glasgow’s chain of three more international exhibitions in the early 20th century, in 1901, 1911 and 1938. Like many of the exhibition pavilions of this era, Sellar’s magnificent architectural ensemble in wood had been designed as a temporary dismountable structure. But Glasgow’s first International Exhibition found its permanent afterlife in the construction, on the same picturesque riverside site, of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum complex, which was almost entirely funded by the exhibition’s earnings from object sales and visitors’ admission fees. This permanent complex served as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1901 International Exhibition in the city.7

[8] Among the large collections of 'fine' and 'decorative arts' that moved from the 1888 exhibition to this permanent museum at Kelvingrove were more than 300 items of 'art-manufactures' – among them brass and copper utensils, damascened metal ware, lacquered and inlaid woodwork, enamelled pottery and jewellery, and woven textiles – that were purchased for 700 pounds from the three India Courts that had been assembled here by T.N. Mukharji (Fig. 5).

5 One of the three Indian Artware Courts filled with hand-manufactured objects, human models and architectural structures, Glasgow International Exhibition, 1888 (reprod. from: An Album of 36 Photographs of the Glasgow International Exhibition, Glasgow 1888)

[9] The late 1870s and 1880s marked a new phase in the form and reach of this imperial exhibitionary complex. It took on its full global sway in this period, as it spread itself across Euro-America and the British colonies – producing the grand run of the International Exhibitions of Paris (1878), Melbourne (1879–1880), Amsterdam (1883), Jeypore (1883), Calcutta (1883–1884), London (1886) and Glasgow (1888). Tim Barringer offers an important classification of three periods in this imperial exhibitionary history to broadly conform to the wider changing ideologies of British imperialism.8 From the first "didactic moment" when, following the Great Exhibition of 1851, India’s decorative and industrial arts became crucial in South Kensington’s movement for design reform and pedagogy, we move to the "moment of academic imperialism" of the period from the 1870s to the mid-1880s, when we see a new emphasis on the compilation of detailed scholarly compendiums on India’s economic goods, raw produce, botanical specimens and the variety of her 'art-manufactures' that went on show at these exhibitions. J. Forbes Watson’s Classified and Descriptive Catalogue of the Indian Section for the Vienna Universal Exhibition of 1873, G.C.M. Birdwood’s anthology on The Industrial Arts of India (1880), initially prepared as a Handbook to the Indian Court at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878, George Watt’s multi-volume A Dictionary of Economic Products of India of 1885, or T.N. Mukharji’s own series of handbooks and catalogues of Indian agricultural products, commercial and art-manufactures for exhibitions across Europe, Britain, Australia and India during the 1880s, stand exemplary of this trend. What followed was the final phase from the mid-1880s to the turn of the twentieth century of a popular triumphant British imperialism, when the exposure to the resplendent Indian Courts fuelled a new mass imaginary of the Queen’s Indian empire. In Barringer’s view, this phase was launched by the Colonial and Indian Exhibition that opened in South Kensington, London, in the summer of 1886, and reached its high point with the completion of Ashton Webb’s new building that would become the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1909.9

[10] Like its Calcutta counterpart that preceded it and the Glasgow one that followed, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 was again billed as the biggest exhibition to have been held so far in London, surpassing all the ones that had gone before, not just in the numbers of exhibitors, exhibits and persons that it brought into its ambit but also in its imperial flamboyance. No other exhibition till then had so directly displayed on the external frontage of its building the vast territorial map of Britain’s colonial possessions across the two hemispheres of the world; none other had given Britain’s most prized possession of the Indian empire and its bounty of procured and commissioned objects such a definitive place in an exhibition, making the contributions from the other colonies – Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand – small supplements to the Indian pavilions.10 India’s status as the 'jewel' in the British crown had already been dramatically proclaimed by the display of the Kohinoor diamond in the Crystal Palace in 1851, with the Queen and not the East India Company acting as its official exhibitor.11 In 1886, at South Kensington, that status found a greater ceremonial endorsement in the opening royal pageant that passed through a vestibule lined with life-sized clay models of various ethnic groups of Indian soldiery (Fig. 6) and converged in the glass-domed circular Royal Albert Hall, where, following the singing of the first verse of the English national anthem, the second verse was sung before an audience of over 10,000 in Sanskrit in a translation by Professor Max Mueller.12

6 The Queen Empress as the key symbol of the new phase of the British Empire – the royal procession at the opening ceremony of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in 1886 (reprod. from: Robert Wilson, The Life and Times of Queen Victoria, vol. 4, London 1900)

[11] Let us also consider at this point the thick flow of Indian art, craft and architectural objects into the South Kensington Museum over the prior years that would set the context for the central place of the Indian pavilions in the spectacle of empire. Regalia and luxury goods from India’s princely courts that had been a major attraction at the Crystal Palace exhibition – especially those that had exemplified the best of traditional Indian design – had come into the short-lived Museum of Ornamental Art that was set up in 1852 at Marlborough House, under the initiative of Henry Cole, as the repository of the vast left-over of unsold exhibition items.13 Subsequently, it was at Henry Cole’s relocated museum at South Kensington, driven by his relentless pursuit of a reformed pedagogy of design to boost British manufacture and commerce, that the collection of Indian decorative arts grew providentially. This is where Cole systematically amassed select art-ware from Indian Courts at world’s fairs across Europe. This is also where the main collection of the East India Company’s India Museum was transferred, when the museum at Leadenhall Street was disbanded at the end of the 1870s. Henry Cole’s 1874 Catalogue of the Objects of Indian Art Exhibited in the South Kensington Museum was supplemented by George Birdwood’s 1880s compendium on The Industrial Arts of India, as he oversaw as Art Referee this amalgamation of the Indian collections in a new gallery within a vacant building of the South Kensington Museum complex. A further huge cache of Indian objects came into the museum in 1883 from the collecting tour of Caspar Purdon Clarke of the museum, who was sent by the India Office to scour the country for the best of ornamental art-ware – "specimens of pottery, metal-work, papier-mâché, lacquerware, inlaid sandal wood and ivory, embroideries, printed cottons", etc. The best of Purdon Clarke’s acquisitions were said to have been large architectural structures, including full wooden painted and carved house-fronts from Northern and Western India, that came to be built into the great Architectural Courts of the South Kensington Museum (Fig. 7).14

7 Carved wooden door and front facade of a merchant’s house in Lahore, of the late 18th century – from the Caspar Purdon Clarke acquisitions of 1883, South Kensington Museum Indian Series. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, acc. no. IS.432-1883 (courtesy: V&A Archive, London)

[12] As a part of a pan-European museum scheme of acquiring full-scale replicas of grand art and archaeological monuments from around the globe, a gigantic plaster cast had already been installed here of the eastern gateway of the Sanchi Stupa (made on site, transported in parts all the way from Sanchi to be reassembled in London). In a photograph of 1872, we see the gateway installed amidst other architectural facades from India, 33 feet high, looming towards the sky-light of the arched ceiling, dwarfing the other cast of a corbelled pillar from the Diwani-i-Khas building of Fatehpur Sikri and rivalling in its antiquity and artistry the casts of famous Western objects like the Trajan column from Imperial Rome or Michelangelo’s David from Renaissance Florence in the adjoining courts (Fig. 8).

8 Installation of the casts of the Sanchi gateway and the corbelled pillar from Fatehpur Sikri in the Architectural Courts of the South Kensington Museum, London, in 1872 (courtesy: V&A Archive, London)

[13] The South Kensington Museum had emerged by the 1880s as a heterotopic site of world civilisations, where visitors like Moncure Daniel Conway could make their imagined "pilgrimage across the earth" by winding through plaster cast monuments, architectural simulacra and artefacts from all over the world. As he wandered through the Indian Section that opened on 7th May 1880, making his way through ancient Buddhist gateways and Buddha heads, medieval courtly regalia, village dioramas and showcases of ornamental artware, he wrote that "there was no university in the world where one could learn so much about India". The Indian galleries could offer visitors like him a "spiritual biography" of India’s civilisational past, even as it could serve for others as a "giant three-dimensional mail order catalogue for Indian manufactures".15 The node of Britain’s design reform movement, and of the British government’s Department of Science and Art that controlled a centralised network of art and design schools throughout Britain, South Kensington with its expanding museum collections had also developed as the main locus of the material archive of the Empire. It provided therefore the most natural venue for the grand spectacle of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 and the choice repository of many of the travelling exhibits that went on display.

[14] In the colonial capital of Calcutta, in the same years, the city’s first International Exhibition took its position within a comparable imperial knowledge complex and vast material archive that had grown around the nodal institution of the Indian Museum. This earliest and largest museum of the Indian empire had been designed to hold an encyclopaedic compilation of the country’s collectible objects – where all of India could be configured through a spectrum of objects representing her flora and fauna, her fossils and minerals, her cultures and customs, and her antiquities and arts.16 The transference of the mixed museum collections from the Asiatic Society (where the Indian Museum began) into the newly completed building designed by Walter Granville in the mid-1870s was followed by the parallel shift of the Government School of Art from its earlier precincts in Garanhata in north Calcutta to its new building that was an extension of the Indian Museum’s architectural complex. This integrated spatial unit of the museum and the art school in Calcutta at the crossing of Chowringhee and Park Street would now emerge as the centralised hub of all the Surveys of India, the scientific agencies of an empire that was assiduously transforming itself into a "knowledge-state".17 Its galleries and grounds came to host the object collections and offices of the Geological, Zoological, Botanical, Archaeological and Anthropological Surveys, whose red buildings still surround and occupy the rear precincts of the main white museum building (Fig. 9).

9 The Geological and Fossils Gallery from the 1870s that continues to occupy the same room at the entrance of the Indian Museum, Calcutta (photograph by the author)

Calcutta’s spatial axis of power and knowledge ran along Park Street onto Chowinghee Street – from the offices of the older Survey of India, the central engineering agency, set up in 1813 under the first Surveyor-General, Colin Mackenzie, past the precincts of the Asiatic Society into this concentrated hub of the Indian Museum, the Art School and the Geological, Botanical, Zoological and Archaeological Survey Offices – with the Maidan then connecting this knowledge hub with the seat of the governmental authority at Tank Square and the military power at Fort William.

[15] The hosting of the Calcutta International Exhibition (1883−1884) on the grounds and front expanse of the Indian Museum would lead to a marked expansion in the departments and collections of the museum. This was the time of a growing thrust towards disciplinary specialisations within the Indian Museum, with a move away from the earlier preponderance of natural history, geology and zoology towards archaeology and the industrial arts. The museum’s first Archaeological Gallery had just been instituted in 1878, with the transference and re-assemblage within the museum of the remnants of the red sandstone railing pillar and gateway of the Bharhut Stupa. The immediate aftermath of the International Exhibition saw the formation of a new Economic and Art Section within the museum under the curatorship of T.N. Mukharji, which would absorb the collections of the old Economic Museum of the Bengal government and acquire a substantial body of the architectural ensembles and exhibits from the Artware Courts following the dismantling of the temporary pavilions. There was a specific attempt by Mukharji to select for this new Economic and Art Section of the museum a corpus of artistic and decorative crafts, as against mere economic produce and commercial manufactures. Proposals were also afloat for amalgamating this new Art Section of the Indian Museum with the adjoining Calcutta School of Art and its Art Gallery with the intention of creating in Calcutta a South Kensington-style nodal centre of design and the decorative arts, where the museum and art school together would serve their function as "a storehouse of tradition and a forum of visual instruction" on the artistic wealth of India.18

The spectacle of the Indian Artware Courts

[16] It is within this particular sequence of the world exhibitions, running from Calcutta to London and Glasgow during the 1880s, that the Indian Artware Courts can be seen to acquire its distinctive form and heightened visibility. The Indian Court of the 1851 Great Exhibition had consisted of triumphant displays of conquest and commerce, flaunting the looted wealth of the annexed royal courts alongside the bounty of the agricultural, botanical and mineral produce of the country as the prized resources for British trade and industry.19 This unabashed celebration of India’s monarchical opulence and raw natural resources would give way in the subsequent decades to a revisioning of India as a lost haven of traditional artistic skills, artisanal guilds and village industries. If the Great Exhibition had rendered the manufactured commodity into the new fetishised object of gaze and desire, the Indian hand-crafted object would give a new gloss to the meaning of manufacture. By showing the superiority of the work of the human hand and mind over that of the machine, it would give back to the term 'manufacture' the "true etymological meaning" that the West had forfeited.20 As the century progressed, Indian exhibition commissioners developed a new concentrated focus on the category of 'art-manufactures' as the prime pedagogic and artistic objects of these displays – developing for these elaborate orders and classifications, region by region, genre by genre, material by material, within the new setting of the Artware Courts.

[17] This shift in priorities from India’s agricultural and natural resources to her artistic wealth is mapped within T.N. Mukharji’s own administrative career as a Bengal civil servant. During these years, he moves from the Exhibition Branch of the Central Revenue and Agricultural Department to the charge of the Economic and Art Section of the Indian Museum and becomes the main commissioner of Indian craft exhibits for the Calcutta, London and Glasgow exhibitions. From preparing his detailed catalogues of Indian minerals, raw materials, agricultural implements, botanic collections of plants and seeds for the Economic and Commercial Sections of various world’s fairs, he graduated to a specialised connoisseurship of the category he termed 'art-manufactures', of which he took pride in searching out and selecting articles of the "best and purest workmanship", on which he produced his definitive compendium in 1888 to introduce this full field of traditional hand-manufacture to the visitors of the Glasgow International Exhibition. The Art-Manufactures of India stands testimony to the depth of Mukharji’s expertise and knowledge of the field, to his detailed documentation of materials and techniques involved in each of the crafts, and to the labours of the travels he undertook to all parts of the country to search out the finest hand-manufactures and their production histories. "The patient preserving industry" that went into the making of these objects, that he hoped would attract both the commercial interest and artistic appreciation of the British public, seems to have been reciprocated in the patience and perseverance of his own study of these manufactures.21

[18] T.N. Mukharji’s compendium takes its place beside the voluminous official catalogues of the Calcutta International Exhibition of 1883–1884 and the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. In these, we find the most extensive textual descriptions of these Artware Courts, with their dense accumulation of exhibits, classifying the individual items and detailing their origins in the various British and Indian principalities.22 We see how each of the exhibitions became an occasion for an encyclopaedic exercise of documenting and classifying objects, by way of region and state, by way of material, processes and prices, and by way of names of specific manufacturers and donors.

[19] We also have a rare visual testimony of the Artware Courts that were set up on the Calcutta Maidan in the winter of 1883–1884 in a series of commissioned photographs taken by a Bombay photographer, Shivshankar Narayan, who is said to have set up his photographic business on the premises of the Sir J.J. School of Art and worked under the Archaeological Survey of India.23 These photographic images are staged as meticulously as the ensemble of objects and the architectural simulacra, each offering a different order of detailing of individual objects and their designs, each also capturing the collective impact of the full tableaux. In one of the most resplendent examples – the Central Indian Court – a carved stone screen from Gwalior jostles for attention with a cast of a Mauryan pillar from Sanchi, a spread of furniture, textiles, ornamental crafts, framed paintings and photographs of the region’s architecture, and even a human exhibit of a liveried attendant (Figs. 10, 11). While the catalogues and handbooks overwhelm the reader with a bewildering surfeit of manufactures and their information, the photographic folios carry a more seductive invitation to immerse oneself in the density of the displays, to search out individual items from the massed assemblage and look more and more closely at their minuteness of forms and details.

10 The Central Indian Court at the Calcutta International Exhibition,1883–1884. Photograph by Shivshankar Narayan, between Dec. 1883 and July 1884, albumen silver print, 22.1 × 28.2 cm. Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, ref. no. PH1982:0432:013 (courtesy: CCA, Montreal)