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Naga showcase at Museum in Basel
Published on 19 Jan. 2009 12:37 AM IST
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The Museum der Kulturen (Museum of Cultures) in Basel, Switzerland, mounts a spectacular ‘special exhibition’ once a year. Its current edition, ‘Naga — A Forgotten Mountain Region Rediscovered,’ however, is not just spectacular, it is unique, reports Deccan Herald. It’s the first-ever major international exposition of Nagaland’s material culture. The show is as comprehensive as it is visually compelling. The new films and photographs bring us right into the contemporary Naga scene, while the old artefacts — ranging from bamboo warrior-baskets adorned with monkey skulls and rugged spears to embroidered cowrie shell-decorated costumes and carved totem poles — take us back to their ancient ritual life. The exhibition has an additional dimension in the form of works by the contemporary artist Cristina Fessler. In her work cycle, ‘Nagaland-Transfer 1992-2008’, the Zurich-based sculptor deals intensively with Naga art and what her own imagination sees in, and draws from it. The show, which will run until May 2009, has been curated by Richard Kunz, head of the museum’s South-east Asian art section, and anthropologist Vibha Joshi of Oxford University. “The idea of holding the show developed after Peter Fanham, who authored ‘Hidden World of the Nagas’, saw the Basel collection in 2003 and suggested putting it together with the great Naga collections in Germany,” says Kunz. “Vibha Joshi and I then worked together with the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the State Museum for Folk Art in Munich and the Ethnography Museum of the University of Zurich to put the show together.” The curators also travelled together in Nagaland extensively in the last five years to study the current scene and add new items to the show. “The exhibits date from the late 1870s to the early 2000s. The Berlin collection is the oldest, dating back to Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), the founding father of German anthropology, who was among the first to conduct research among the Naga in 1878-79,” Kunz says. “The Basel collection is more recent but covers a longer time-span: 1930s to the early 2000s. It includes artefacts gathered by three anthropologists: the German Hans Eberhard Kaufmann (1899-1986), the Swissman Paul Wirz (1882-1955) and the celebrated Czech-Indian Milada Ganguli (1913-2000), who, as an Indian citizen, was able to travel extensively in Naga territory between 1963 and 1992, during a period when the region was officially strictly closed to visitors.” Milada Ganguli’s photos of Naga life are evocative — her shot of a Sangtam Naga girl sorting cotton lingers in the mind’s eye long after you quit the show. And some of her artefacts shed light on little rituals, like the three types of carved wooden spoons presented by young Angami Naga men to their lovers (or by men to their unmarried young daughters and nieces) that are used in rituals at the spring festival. The exhibits are all fascinating, though a few, like the ‘Panji basket’ (for bamboo spikes) adorned by a circlet of tiny wooden human heads, are more eye-catching than others. (Continued on page 5) This basket is the only known piece of its type in museum collections. But my favourite are three simple things: an exquisitely woven four-inch-high, fibre weighing-scale for opium; a snail-shell container for betel-lime; a girdle made of glass beads. I found the video-films on the contemporary Naga scene — shot by the curators — engaging too. “Nagaland is a volatile region, as you know. I will not dwell on the politics of the place — that’s not our brief,” Kunz says. “Theirs is a complex reality. The ritual life of the Naga has changed dramatically. But I was as surprised by the continuity as by the changes — and by their burning desire to document and preserve their existing material and oral culture.” Many Naga traditions, including head-hunting, are a thing of the past, as is much of the ritual lifestyle associated with it, but the Nagas are evidently returning to other rituals to reconsolidate their identity — such as making giant log drums from carved-out tree trunks, eight or nine metres long, which take three to four months to prepare (as shown in a film) — and are also expressing increasing interest in their pre-Christian rituals and legacies. “Headhunting is alien to all but the oldest of the tribe, but the Nagas like to exhibit their ancestral head-hunting tools and large panel-carvings from their morung (ceremonial house) depicting dramatic scenes from head-hunting expeditions and buffalo worship, and to remember their heroes,” Kunz reveals. “The term ‘headhunting’ evokes images of exotic and barbarian practices of wild, uncivilised and remote tribes in our imagination. But the rationale behind headhunting was never wanton killing. It was always part of making war. And there was a religious background — life force and fertility. The Nagas believe that life force concentrates in the head before death and that a head’s force passes to its slayer and can in turn be passed to clan, family, animals and land.” The practice of bringing home war trophies, evidence of one’s own victory, has always existed, and continues to do so, even in so-called ‘civilised’ societies, the curator points out. “There were ‘skull trophies’ in World War II — as Life magazine exposed in its May 22, 1944, issue, which carried a photograph of a young American woman posing with the autographed skull of a Japanese soldier sent to her by her Navy boyfriend. During the Vietnam War, US soldiers picked up countless ‘trophy skulls’. Six such skulls are still to be found in the Walter Reed Army Medical Centre in Washington DC. There is also evidence that US troops in the first Gulf War under George Bush Senior removed body parts of slain enemies.” Barbaric indeed — but there’s little anthropologists and museums can do about it. But can his museum bring the Naga show to India? “That will be difficult, but we are considering having a virtual exhibition,” replies Kunz. “We also intend to work together with the Nagaland Museum and Nagaland University in the long term. We are talking to the museum in Kohima about how we can help them augment and analyse their collections and develop exhibition content. We are trying to work out exchange programmes in the field of anthropology with the university. Oxford University has already begun a scientific exchange with them and we will follow suit. That will enrich us all.”

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