The currency of shame
By: Rohit Chakraborty
Zadie Smith has called shame “quite a useful emotion”. But as I stood before Tipu’s Tiger at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I did not find my shame particularly useful. The V&A, especially its South Asia wing, is awash with a sizeable loot from India that is on display without a hint of shame or repentance. I do not use ‘loot’ lightly. The absence of the British shame at having stripped the Tiger of Mysore of his belongings after the fourth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799 has moved me to call it so. Recently, the V&A launched a new exhibition, Maqdala 1868, and promised Ethiopia a “long-term loan” of the collection of objects which are part of the exhibition that were acquired by the museum after the suicide of Ethiopia’s emperor, Téwodros II, in the Battle of Maqdala. By publicly offering to lend, but not return, the Ethiopian loot, Tristram Hunt, the director of the V&A, believes that England and Ethiopia have entered into a “close collaboration”. There is something sly about such an offer. The only appropriate atonement would be the return of the loot to those who have been stripped. ‘Collaboration’ sounds like a project rooted in the idea of reiterating the martial glory of yore and touching up on the receding sheen of the Empire. The V&A cannot really offer the Maqdala objects as a loan when, ethically, the museum is the debtor.
It is always difficult for me to confront Indian artefacts in London museums. The shame produced is neither useful nor collaborative because the jewellery, furniture, weapons and clothes coerce a shame deeply rooted in conceptions of national fragility, fractured identities and disunity. It is a reminder of how the many freedoms in postcolonial India – sexual, linguistic, religious – are fragile and fractured. The shame of Tipu’s looters is not quite as pronounced or even explicit as my own. The South Asian section of the V&A has become a site of unilateral, monolingual, and mono-geographical shame. What use is a collaboration if there is no simultaneous admission of shame of the two distinct kinds, from both the colonizer and the colonized?
At a time when we speak of reparations – they are long overdue to the colonies – the colonizers’ shame has to be as visible and audible as a response to or a balm for the shame that the colonized has been coerced to feel. Despite this, for visitors to the V&A who find remnants of battles lost well-lit and labelled behind glass façades as reminders of the unchangeable vulnerability of their histories, the apology for the coercion of shame can only close a transaction. We are sorry that we shamed you and now we reimburse you by being ashamed for our looting. This cannot possibly be called a ‘collaboration’ since the apology comes much too late. Post-imperial shame of any kind closes a deal. This transaction is a return in kind(ness): an expression of shame for inducing shame.
It would be naïve and myopic to argue that I am being unfair in demanding shame from the keepers and conservationists of Tipu’s belongings who neither participated in the looting nor are responsible for the production of an apology. One might also argue that as an individual with no familial ties to Tipu, I have no right to demand this shame. But I belong to the same nation as Tipu and the keepers and conservationists belong to the nation of the men who executed him and looted his summer palace. The cloud of usurpation of the Indian claim over Tipu’s collection hangs over our heads. Underneath it, the burden of deprivation produces a shame within me. But it is discomfiting that the V&A remains imperceptive not only to my shame or to the shame of any individual of South Asian descent but also to the usefulness of their own shame.
William Gladstone “deeply lamented” the transfer of the Maqdala objects. Portions of his speech form a part of Maqdala 1868. The public expression of the prime minister’s shame has been an extremely useful act. There is something admirable about Gladstone urging the return of the loot to Ethiopia. It is the failure to fulfil this desire of his that becomes the problem. To publicly display the failure of his desire as part of the exhibition is to mock those who demand an expression of shame from the objects’ ‘custodians’. When I think of Tipu’s Tiger and the sultan’s other belongings, I am grateful for the acts of restoration carried out by the conservationists. But there is something alarmingly repetitive about the tendency to maintain a status quo, to usurp custodianship over the Tiger as its ownership has been usurped. This sustained custodianship over Tipu’s remnants begets the question whether the V&A will ever become aware that an apology for its quietude would contribute, in however small a way, to the completion of this transaction – the closing of the deal I spoke of earlier.
The return of the Tiger, Tipu’s jama, palanquin heads, pistols, brooch, telescope, and pocket watch may not be able to expunge the history of theft from our memories. The ‘loaning’ of Tipu’s belongings to India for a fixed term would only be a painful reminder of these ‘permanent acquisitions’. But Maqdala 1868 has urged me to aspire for an attempt on the part of Tipu’s ‘custodians’ to speak either for the East India Company and express shame for their theft, or for themselves, to rectify their silence and lament, as Gladstone did, for the objects’ unfair import to England. This will close the transaction, at least, where shame remains the currency.