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October 9, 1997


Manjula Padmanabhan

Back to the future

Dominic Recently, there was a wonderful exhibition at the National Museum. It was called Macedonians: The Northern Greeks, and it offered, in the space of half an hour, a keyhole glimpse of the magnificence of the ancient world.

It began and ended with two sculpted heads of Alexander the Great. The first one was Greek and, though it was severely damaged, the vitality of the young conqueror shouted across the ages, the mouth open, the hair thrown back in ruffled curls. The second head was Roman and, though it was as attractive as the first one, the handsome features had settled a little too smugly, a little too heroically. Already the man had become a marble myth, his dynamic presence stilled by history.

We, in the 20th century, can look at that head and think of the British princess who died recently in a car crash and was transformed, in the space of a few hours, from a vain and giddy celebrity, into a royal martyr-saint. If that can happen in full view of the world's media, what must have happened to the real Alexander, hidden behind impenetrable veils of time? Which of the two images displayed in the exhibition are closer to the truth? It is pleasant to believe that it must be the Greek one, if only because it is so urgent with life. But there is no one to tell us for sure.

In the rooms which separate the two heads are tantalising fragments of a distant society: graceful vases, a silver wine-strainer and wine cups with flying handles, gravestones and early safety pins in the form of shoulder clasps for a lady's garment. If there are touches which are familiar, it is of no surprise, because some of the people who made these items must have had friends and relatives who travelled with Alexander over the mountain passes and into India. Their distant ideas and genes have been immortalised in the Gandharva styles of Indian art and in the light skins and eyes of many Indian citizens.

There's a model in miniature of the tomb of King Philip, Alexander's father. It seems amazing to me that the treasures which were found within the tomb were not immediately plundered for their gross values, including two small funerary chests made of gold (presented at this show in replica).

We live in a time when the survivors at the site of a disaster are at the mercy of opportunists who will strip them of their valuables as they lie wounded and helpless. A relative of mine who survived a car accident in which her husband was instantly killed, says that her first conscious memory was of the rough hands of nearby slum dwellers, ripping her jewellery off before the police arrived on the scene. But, at this show, we see artifacts ranging from the mundane to the precious, including a glorious wreath of bright gold leaves that would look impossibly artificial if it were anything but the real thing.

How grateful we must be to those ancient artisans that they and their patrons favoured realism in art! What would remain to us of that society if their sculptors and craftspeople had adopted the standards of today's artists? What would we know of mourners at a Greek funeral or Nike with her wings?

Of course we have other media now to record our reality. We have photographs, slides, films, video tapes and digital storage. But photographs are notoriously fragile, some barely lasting one human generation to the next. Slides and film are even less robust unless they are scrupulously and expensively protected. Video tape and other electronic data require highly specific retrieval systems, as many of us have discovered when trying to watch PAL videotapes on NTSC systems or tow run computer software on incompatible hardware. I would place the chances of survival of these systems very low as compared to the exhibits at this show, made of pottery, bronze and silver. Modern plastic would survive the centuries well, we're told, but very few artists consider plastic the ideal medium for heroic memorials.

If, 2,400 years from now, an exhibition were to be mounted of artifacts from our time, what would remain, I wonder? Huge mounds of industrial products, ranging from plastic telephones to electric cables, light bulbs, batteries, soda bottles, plumbing fixtures and automobile, spare parts. Trillions of nuts, bolts, screws and washes of every description, but very few (if any) books, cloth made of organic materials, paintings or canvas.

In India, the images of gods would survive but of the worshippers there would be even less physical evidence than what we have from ages past. Very few Indian artists choose to represent modern Indians in anything approaching a natural style. There will be no bas-reliefs of mourners for future archaeologists to puzzle over, no jeans clad bronzes showing the trade-links with contemporary New York. But then, 24 centuries from now, who can say whether the viewers themselves will be human!

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Manjula Padmanabhan