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By Roger Highfield on

Illuminating India Celebrates Five Millennia of Creativity

On 3 October 2017 the Science Museum opened new season Illuminating India to VIP guests.

Two exhibitions and an ambitious events programme that celebrate the remarkable impact of Indian civilisation on science, technology and mathematics were unveiled last night at a Science Museum launch event featuring dhol drummers, the aroma of incense and dance.

The launch of the Illuminating India season marked the opening of two exhibitions – 5000 Years of Science and Innovation; and Photography 1857-2017 – which have drawn together extraordinary scientific objects and photographs from public and private collections in India and Britain, along with France and Israel.

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum Group, told the 600 guests:

“Many photographs and objects are being seen in these exhibitions for the very first time, and to allow as many people as possible to relish the cultural significance of this double bill both exhibitions will be free,”

Guests exploring ‘Illuminating India: Photography 1857-2017’

The Times hailed Illuminating India: 5000 Years of Science and Innovation as a “beautifully assembled show” which has at its heart the concept of jugaaad, which means the ‘art of creatively but parsimoniously solving problems for yourself.’

The oldest objects on display belong to the Science Museum Group, a set of weights and measures from the Indus Valley civilisation. The newest are artworks commissioned by the museum from the British Indian artist Chila Kumari Burman. “I originally asked Chila for one modest painting inspired by India but she was so inspired by the exhibition she presented us with 29 pieces of artwork and created a glittering tuk-tuk that welcomes visitors as they enter the museum.” said Blatchford (who added he dreams of driving it down Exhibition Road).

Guests exploring Chila Kumari Burman’s work

The most sensational object on show is a folio from the Bakhshali manuscript from the Bodleian Libraries, which contains the earliest written record in Indian mathematics of the concept of zero.

Recent radiocarbon dating by the University of Oxford instigated by mathematician and museum adviser Prof Marcus du Sautoy has proved that parts of the manuscript are more ancient than previously thought and that it contains the world’s oldest recorded origin of the zero symbol that we use today, underlining India’s pioneering development of profound mathematical concepts that include infinity and algorithms.

When Prof du Sautoy made TV series The Story of Maths he travelled to Gwalior in India to see a zero carved on a 9th century temple. Thanks to this ground-breaking research by the university, “we now know Marcus could have crossed the road from his office in Oxford and seen a 3rd Century one in the local library,” said Blatchford.

Illuminating India: Photography 1857 –2017 is an ambitious survey of the technological and cultural development of the medium in India, examining how photography charted the recent history of the country, from the beginnings of photography in India in the mid-19th century partition, independence and the present day.

As Illuminating India celebrates taking a fresh look at ancient ideas and familiar objects what better event to herald the beginning of a new visual identity and branding for the Science Museum. This follows the launch earlier this year of the new look at another museum in the Science Museum Group – the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford.

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Karen Bradley, sent a recorded message to the launch from the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, to “convey my congratulations and those of the entire UK Government…It is especially fitting that tonight the Science Museum, which is the most visited museum in the UK by school groups, celebrates India’s contribution to science, technology and mathematics.”

The Secretary of State went on to thank the British High Commission and British Council, notably Baroness Prashar, Deputy Chairman; Alan Gemmell OBE, Director, British Council India; and highlighted key supporters, notably the Bagri Foundation, the Helen Hamlyn Trust and the John S Cohen Foundation.

She extended a warm welcome to the Indian High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Yashvardhan Sinha, who told the guests that it was important that the people of his country and the UK connect and share, “not just what we did in the past but what we are going to do in the future.”

He praised the Illuminating India exhibitions and referenced India’s recent Moon and Mars missions, the Indian Space Agency’s recent record breaking deployment of 104 satellites by a dedicated group of scientists and highlighted the diversity of the team involved.

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Dame Mary Archer, thanked Shivprasad Khened, Director of the Nehru Science Centre, Mumbai, in coordinating negotiations; the help of fellow Trustee Lopa Patel; and the distinguished historians, cultural commentators and scientists, such as Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, who sat on the Illuminating India project board.

L-R: Alan Gemmell, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Yashvardhan Sinha, Dame Mary Archer, Baroness Prasha, Dinesh K. Patnaik, Ian Blatchford

Sir Venki, Alan Gemmell, Yashvardhan Sinha, Baroness Prasha and Dinesh K. Patnaik, India’s Deputy High Commissioner, joined Ian Blatchford and Dame Mary on stage to cut a ribbon to declare the exhibition open. “Our aspiration,’ she said, “is to develop a skills and knowledge exchange programme with Indian museums and to work far more closely with India’s industrial powerhouses from the Indian Space Research Organisation to Tata.”

Dame Mary added:

“It is our dearest hope that – with the support of people in this room tonight – we might see both these exhibitions heading to India once its six-month stay at this museum draws to a close.”

A series of public events, presented in partnership with the Bagri Foundation, will run alongside the Illuminating India season, including film screenings, workshops, panel discussions and live performances.

In his personal thanks, Ian Blatchford said he “would not have reached the finishing line” without Dinesh Patnaik, Deputy Indian High Commissioner. “On my many visits to India House, he and his team sustained my team with wise advice, gallons of tea and the best chocolate biscuits in London.” Ian finished his speech by thanking the Surveyor-General of India and his team:

 “The Survey of India is one of the most venerable scientific bodies in the world, and 250 years old this year. Despite their own celebrations they have lent generously to us and so let’s wish them a very Happy Birthday!”

Members of the Illuminating India team from the Science Museum present last night at the launch included Zoe Few, Project Management Support Assistant, Matt Kimberley, Head of Content, 5000 Years of Science and Innovation, Shasti Lowton, Assistant Curator, Photography 1857 –2017, and Susan Mossman, Project Lead. The team were also joined by Rahaab Allana, the guest curator of Photography 1857 –2017 from the Alkazi Foundation.