“I am interested in simple ideas”
March 30 2014 12:22 AM
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—William Greenwood, Curator, MIA

By Anand Holla

One of the most inspiring sights for William Greenwood unfolds when he walks into the exhibition that he has put together, right after an uproarious batch of school children makes its way out.

The young and rather genial curator at the Museum of Islamic Art, in charge of Kings and Pawns: Board Games from India to Spain that opened recently to warm response, lets out a chuckle when he muses over the sight.

“At about my waist height, the glass cases are just covered in their hand prints, nose prints and face prints. I really love to see that. I think that’s a really good sign,” he says, referring to the many schools that have been keenly paying visits in the mornings, “I hope children find this exhibition fascinating.”

On the other hand, grown-ups often walk in with their mind made up, feels Greenwood. “Adults usually make a decision before they come to see, whether they are going to be interested or not. Children start on a clean slate. They look forward to get impressed,” he says.

It’s said that children must be taught how to think, not what to think. MIA’s latest exhibition, which is on till June 21, sets out to do just that — for both children and adults alike.

Greenwood wants people to reignite their natural curiosity while they marvel at dice made of gold and diamonds.

“I am interested in simple ideas,” he declares, “Ideas so simple that people don’t really think about them. That’s because those are the ones that can tell you the most about civilisations or how people thought. Chess and board games are among those ideas.”

Resplendent with the finest collection of game pieces, boards, manuscripts and other artefacts associated with chess, pachisi, backgammon, and gyan chauper (the snakes and ladders of yore), the exhibition takes you through the origins of some of the world’s most celebrated board games.

The underlying narrative is, of course, their journey across the Islamic world between the seventh and twentieth centuries.

“People don’t really think about chess. I would like people to consider where things are from. I think it’s important to understand the history and the chronology of things,” he says.

Most often, India is the point of origin for these board games, as in the case of chess, pachisi, and snakes and ladders, Greenwood points out.

“They all seem to have travelled to the West like other Indian ideas, you know, from India to Persia to the Arab world and then to the West. The title of the exhibition explains that movement; it’s everything from Mysore to Madrid,” he says.

For Greenwood, it’s also the movement of ideas that excites him. “I would like to understand as ideas change, how things change with them or how things stay the same, how some things were adopted, how they moved places, and whether they retained their meanings or acquired new meanings,” he wonders aloud.

So it’s left to you to mentally join the historical dots scattered across more than a millennium when you see inlaid chess and backgammon boards from the 15th or 16th Century Egypt, Syria or Spain that are masterfully made with wood, ivory, bone and metal.

Likewise, seeing a majestic pachisi piece from 18th-19th Century India which is crafted using gold, diamonds, and enamel and stands only 2.7 cm tall, will make you ask questions that will unravel the forgotten past a little more.

Of the lot, Greenwood’s favourite piece of antiquity is a knight that stands perhaps just an inch tall. “It’s a very abstract, simple piece, but really perfect. It’s made of ivory, and it maybe from the 12th century Sicily. But this knight is truly the mascot for the exhibition,” he says.

A knight in shining ivory armour as a mascot augurs well in a show where chess is the driving force. Greenwood feels chess is a terrific hook to bring people in because everyone has played chess.

“Chess is such an intellectual game. Even if people don’t know to play it, they know about it. Besides, more has been written about chess than other board games, and chess pieces are spectacular-looking while if you think of the backgammon pieces, they aren’t really fancy,” he reasons.

Apart from the exhibits, the event is spiced up with a series of activities like live chess matches, art workshops, film screenings and lectures from experts on board games. Since the exhibition peers into how these games forged intercultural connections and gives us a glimpse into the societies that adopted and adapted them, Greenwood’s curiosity lies not necessarily in the objects on display, but their actual meanings.

“I am more interested in how people related to those objects and how those objects helped people relate to other people. This is why a big part of the exhibition is about games furniture,” he says.

The curator for Central Islamic Lands at the MIA since 2011 has a simple way of explaining his region of focus: “I handle the area between the Nile and the Euphrates.”

After studying Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University and Art History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, Greenwood worked in the Indian and Islamic Department at Bonham’s auction house in London, and also as an Arts Correspondent for Cornucopia, a magazine for connoisseurs of Turkey’s art and culture.

Previously, Greenwood was the lead curator of last year’s Steel and Gold: Historic Swords from the MIA Collection.

“Working on exhibitions is a small part of what we do. Most of our work is about constantly updating the database of our collections, because our job is to provide the best information we can on the objects in our care. We have to bring things to the public and make them aware of what we have,” he says.

That’s especially crucial in today’s age of digital excesses. “I think it would be a terrible shame if these games are overtaken by the digital world. Playing online versions is absolutely fine, and the thought process is the same. But there’s something very satisfying about actually moving the piece, or even more satisfying taking your opponent’s piece,” Greenwood says.

The cultural wealth steeped in these four games showcased in the exhibition is so dense that we can see ourselves as part of this legacy, he points out. “When you play chess, backgammon, snakes and ladders, or pachisi, you are following in others’ footsteps, of a thousand years or more of history,” he says.

Although Greenwood acknowledges piecing together an exhibition of the quality and scale of Kings and Pawns to be a “huge collaborative process,” he almost surprises you by saying how easy the process has been.

“All the lending institutions were extremely kind and generous,” he says and smiles, referring to lenders from Kuwait to London, New York to Moscow.

Possibly, the star of the exhibition is the Book of chess, dice and tables, which was specially made for King Alfonso the 10th of Spain, in the 13th century.

“It’s the only copy in the world and it’s an original made just for him. It has 250 miniature paintings that show different games of chess and they are almost like photographs. They show people’s faces. You can see the king, his wife, and the people who worked with him,” Greenwood rattles off.

Still thinking about the one-of-a-kind relic, Greenwood makes a heartening observation. “The fact that the Spanish National Patrimony was willing to even think about lending such a precious artefact is a tremendous gesture. I feel this is also a testament to Qatar, and that they would lend this unique copy for our exhibition is just splendid,” he says.

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