Bollywood Superstars shine at Louvre Abu Dhabi

The writer talks about the one-of-a-kind exhibition on Indian cinema that will run from January 24 to June 4 in the Louvre Abu Dhabi
Photo credit: © Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.
Photo credit: © Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.

While India awaits the Oscar nominations announcement on January 24 to know what lies ahead for its four films in contention—RRR, All That Breathes, Chhello Show and The Elephant Whisperers—a one-of-a-kind exhibition on Indian cinema will be unveiled the same day at Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Organised in association with Paris-based Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac and the international museum consultancy France Muséums, Bollywood Superstars: A Short Story of Indian Cinema, opens on January 24 and will run till June 4.  

The first exhibition of the five-year-old Louvre Abu Dhabi that is entirely dedicated to cinema, it’s also one of the museum’s most ambitious events. According to Louvre Abu Dhabi’s director Manuel Rabate, a show on Charlie Chaplin was planned a few years ago but had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. “This correspondence between arts, visual arts, classical arts and cinema is something we [the museum] always had in our DNA. We play with cinematic material in our galleries. We have a hall on digital work that can be associated with cinema. But it’s the first time that we are doing a full, temporary exhibition that is dedicated to cinema,” he says. 

Bollywood Superstars has been three years in the making and has been co-curated by Julien Rousseau, Curator and Head of the Asian Collections, Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac and Hélène Kessous, PhD in Social Anthropology and Ethnology, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, with the support of Dr. Souraya Noujaim, Director of Scientific, Curatorial and Collections Management at Louvre Abu Dhabi. They have been working on it since April 2020. Rousseau compares the act of putting together an exhibition to making a movie. “It takes time. We work on it for several years for the project to finally arrive [and take shape],” he says. 

The exhibition intends to put the history of Indian cinema in perspective, from its beginnings in the late 19th century with the use of nascent technologies like lithograph and magic lanterns to its wide reach, popularity and clout in the present day. It also intends to shine a light on certain elements like music and choreography that are integral to Indian cinema and the cult of its stars who are deified like gods by the masses.

Despite “Bollywood” in its title, a monolithic term that the linguistically and culturally diverse Indian cinema is often mistakenly clubbed under and identified with, the exhibition doesn’t limit itself to stars and films of Mumbai. Rabate calls it just an “entry name”. The stardom in Tamil cinema—Rajinikanth in particular—and the naturalism of Satyajit Ray are pivotal aspects of the exhibition. 

Cinema is regarded as the confluence of several art forms like painting, photography, literature, theatre, music, dance, storytelling, shadow puppetry. Bollywood Superstars also aims to juxtapose the tradition of image-making and popular culture in India with its rich and diverse culture, heritage and literature, religion, folklore and mythology. For instance, how the colours, imagery and style of Rajput and Mughal miniatures and artiste Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906) inspired the aesthetics of early Indian cinema, how the tradition of royal portraits evolved into historical films. The father of Indian cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke, who made Raja Harishchandra, India's first full-length feature film, worked at Raja Ravi Varma’s press. Not only did Varma help Phalke financially but influenced him artistically as well. “Phalke used the lithography of Ravi Varma to set up the setting, the costumes, the jewelry, the hair in his film,” says Kessous. 

“Since the very beginning, cinema [in India] was very Indian. It was not like Western technology coming into India. It was recreated in a new, unique way of its own,” says Rousseau. “What we wanted to talk about in the exhibition is how filmmaking came to India from the very beginning of cinema, and how India has completely recreated its own cinematographic language, its own way of filming by integrating its own culture, tradition of dance, song, theatre, even aesthetics and colour,” says Kessous. 

She admits Indian cinema is a tremendously vast subject. What then was their focus and approach? “It is not an exhibition that is planned for a cinematheque. It is an exhibition that is planned for a museum. So, we had to create a dialogue between cinema and the works of art,” she says. For Rousseau rather than being encyclopaedic, it was about relating Indian cinema with works of art and through this very small focus try and give an insight into the many layers of Indian cinema. 

It’s fascinating to see the parallels between a film still featuring Yashoda and Krishna from Baburao Painter’s Muraliwala (1927) and Raja Ravi Varma’s undated chromolithograph “Go-dohana”. On the other hand, we have contemporary Indian artistes, like Atul Dodiya, who have been inspired by Bollywood kitsch. “It is about how a work of art can make us see cinema in a different way and also how the works of art can be better understood through the cinema,” says Rousseau. “The focus is not only on cinema but on Indian culture and civilization,” says Kessous. It’s about using cinema as a medium to discover, explore and understand civilizations, says Rabate. He calls the exhibition both “pedagogical and fun”.

More than 80 artworks—photographs, textiles, graphic arts, costumes, posters—from the collections of Louvre Abu Dhabi and partner French museums Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Musée de l’armée, Musée national des arts asiatiques-Guimet, al-Sabah Collection Kuwait, and India’s Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation and Priya Paul Collection will be on display. Additionally, 30 iconic film extracts will be screened. 

The song “Inhi logon ne” from Pakeezah (1972) is used to talk about the kathak dance tradition, another from Tamil film Raja Raja Cholan (1973) spotlights Bharatanatyam and “Choli ke peeche” from Khalnayak (1993) is used to discuss costume design. Indian animation artiste and filmmaker Gitanjali Rao recreated the original painting of “Kaliya Mardan” on glass for the Magic Lantern experience.

Highlights include prized artworks like “A Page from a Harivamsa Series: Krishna and His Courtiers by the Sea at Pandaraka (ca. 1820, Kangra, India)”, Mail and Plate Armour called “Four Mirrors Armour (ca. 1600 – 1800, Mughal, India)” and “Krishna Surrounded by Gopis (ca. 1655, Rajasthan, India)” from Louvre Abu Dhabi’s own collection. There’s “A statuette of Krishna as a child playing the flute (second half of the 19th century, Rajasthan, India)” from Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac; “Dagger (late 17th Century, Kuwait)” from al-Sabah Collection; “Indian Armour (18th Century)” from Musée de l’armée; and “Coat (19th century)” from Musée national des arts asiatiques-Guimet. 

The colours, ambience, lighting and design of the exhibition are inspired from Indian films. The idea is to create an immersive experience and recreate the spectacle and escapism that is typical of Bollywood while giving artistic, anthropological and ethnological insights into the country and its cinema. 

Targeted at both Indian museumgoers and visitors of other nationalities, fans of Indian cinema as well as those not so well-versed in Indian movies, the exhibition is not just an attempt at strengthening ties between UAE and India, nor is it merely a marker of the tremendous popularity of Bollywood in the Arab world. 

The larger attempt, and one of the principles of Louvre Abu Dhabi, which Rabate calls a “universal museum, covering more than 12,000 years of history, from all regions of the world”, is to build bridges between diverse civilizations and cultures. 

Bollywood Superstars will travel later this year to Paris where it will be hosted at Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac from September 26 to January 7, 2024.

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