Like the beginning of many relationships, I first became acquainted with TN Mukharji by name. Specifically, his name written on labels assigned to hundreds of dried botanical specimens that had been clustered in the storage cabinets of Museum Victoria for over a century, and which had about them a faded scent of stale spices or perfume. It was my job at the time to catalogue this collection. As such, I was eager to discover the identity of TN Mukharji. My cursory research, to improve the catalogue record, suggested very little had been written about the man. But, my curiosity was piqued. Since then, my study of TN Mukharji has lead me to explore British India, late nineteenth century exhibitions, Indian botanical medicines, dyes, oils and foods, and lavish collections of Indian artware. I was excited to discover that many of these collections are still extant in museums in Australia and abroad.

This afternoon I would like to talk about Museum Victoria's economic botany collection, collected by TN Mukharji and presented to the Industrial and Technological Museum (as the institution was then called) by the Indian Government in 1887. I want to place the collection in context with the writings published by TN Mukharji on India's raw products and art wares that were sent to exhibitions of the late nineteenth century. I will talk about the relevance of the economic botany collection to international exhibitions and to Australia's nascent trade relationship with India during the period. I would also like to identify examples of Indian art ware that were displayed at the Melbourne International Exhibition and remain in Melbourne collections. But first, I want to answer the question that puzzled me 'Who was TN Mukharji?'


Trailokya Nath Mukharji was born 22 July 1847 in a village called Rahuta, in Bengal. He left home in 1865 in search of employment and travelled throughout India. In 1870 he was appointed clerk at the Bengal Gazeteer office in Calcutta. Mukharji later became the head clerk in the Trade and Agriculture office of the North Western provinces. He was soon promoted to personal assistant of the Divisional Director. In 1881 Mukharji was transferred to the Department of Revenue and Agriculture, where he was employed as assistant clerk for exhibitions - the highest-ranking post for an Indian at the time. The principal role of this department was to improve and develop India's agricultural resources. Mukharji worked closely with Dr George Watt and Sir Edward Charles Buck. Watt was an expert in the fields of medicine and botany and wrote the monumental six-volume Dictionary of the Economic Products of India. Buck was a member of the Bengal Civil Service and organised the department and its projects. He acted as the President of the Commission for the Indian Court at the 1880 Melbourne International Exhibition. Mukharji was first responsible for the collection of raw products, and contributed to the index of Watt's dictionary. Mukharji's expertise in this area permitted him to compose various official publications and catalogues that accompanied India's displays at local and international exhibitions. In 1882 he wrote A Rough List of Indian Artware and A Descriptive Catalogue of Indian Products Contributed to the Amsterdam Exhibition. On the success of these publications, Mukharji compiled A Handbook of Indian Products for the Calcutta International Exhibition in 1883, where he was employed as an official. Mukharji's flair for writing exhibition catalogues caught the attention of the Indian Government, and he was commissioned in 1888 to write the significant volume Art Manufactures of India for the Glasgow International Exhibition.

That same year he was assigned by the Government of India to oversee the arts and economic displays of the Indian Court at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London. There, he introduced Indian arts and economic products, and answered visitors' questions about the Indian exhibits. He participated in debates about India at the Royal Society of Arts and delivered lectures on the Raj's resources. Following the exhibition he travelled throughout England and the Continent for nine months as an official representative of the Indian Government. Mukharji documented his experiences, firstly in a serial for the Indian Nation newspaper, and later as a book published in 1889, simply titled A Visit to Europe. In it, he reflects in detail on his observations of English characteristics, vividly comparing them to Indian traits, and wrote profusely about English life, on everything from travel on the Underground, to the types of food eaten, social customs and the attractiveness of English women. I will talk more on Mukharji's travels to England later.

Mukharji received his pension in 1896, at the age of 49, and died 11 March 1919.

Economic botany collection

Museum Victoria's extensive collection of economic botany - in excess of 750 specimens - is a tangible example of Mukharji's collection work. Raw products featured prominently in the Indian Courts of international exhibitions, and demonstrated to visitors, merchants and traders, the wealth of India's natural resources.

At the Melbourne International Exhibition, the Indian Court and its display of raw products were reviewed favourably in The Age. It was written:
The Indian Court is an exceedingly attractive one, as it possesses numerous curious articles of oriental manufacture. The representation of raw products of the empire is on an extensive scale, and for the best part made up of samples of cotton, jute, fibres, silk, indigo, lac, spices, drugs, dyes, tannery materials, tobacco, cigars, coffee and tea. Altogether it may be said that this court will prove a source of attraction to visitors.

The transience and impermanence of exhibitions, and the peripatetic life of objects displayed, means exhibited articles from the colonies of Britain are now located in museums around the world. At the close of exhibitions, displays were often exchanged, donated and purchased by imperial and colonial representatives and commissioners. These contacts occurred not only between London and the colonies, but between Calcutta and Melbourne also.

The Calcutta International Exhibition 1883-84 Report of the Royal Commission for Victoria refers to exchanges with the Indian Government. The president Joseph Bosito writes:
Following out the custom adopted in connexion with other Exhibitions, the collections contributed by the various Government departments of Victoria were presented at the close of the exhibition for distribution amongst the Imperial museums, educational institutions and other public bodies . For all of these suitable exchanges were promised, and already several collections of plants and seeds, books and other publications, obtained from the Indian Government for presentation to various public institutions in Victoria, have arrived, and it is understood that no time will be lost by the officers of the Indian Government in completing and forwarding other collections for this colony.

It is likely that Mukharji assembled the collection of economic botany specimens at the close of the Calcutta International Exhibition. The collection was later presented to the Industrial and Technological Museum in 1887, having taken some time to prepare.

Indian trading connections with Australia

TN Mukharji considered India's raw products a crucial component of international exhibitions owing to their inherent properties and diversity of applications and, hence, potential to fuel the Indian economy. He writes in A Handbook of Indian Products:
Fortunes lie scattered all over India, ready to be picked up by those who have eyes to see them, and the energy and means to acquire them. The object of this little work is to draw the attention of enterprising capitalists, merchants and traders to the unlimited resources which India possesses.

The abundance of India's raw materials was noticed by Victorian delegates at the Calcutta International Exhibition, with the Economic Products of India display commended in the Report of the Royal Commission for Victoria. It states:
One of the most interesting and useful features of the late Calcutta International Exhibition was the admirable manner in which the whole of the economic products of India were displayed in the Economic Court. The evident desire of this department is to obtain a thorough knowledge of the value of every plant indigenous to India, and to point out its utilitarian uses if of a prominent character.

Significant to the Calcutta International Exhibition, as indicated in the official report, was the emphasis on developing a trade connection between India and Australia. A letter written by the secretary to the Victorian Commission, and subsequently published in a leading Calcutta newspaper, grandly claimed 'a great future before the trade of India and Australia'. The exhibition, it was observed, had succeeded in extending knowledge of Australia and its people in India, as well as demonstrating that marketable Indian products, such as jute cotton and other piece goods of native manufacture, carpets, rice and tea could be lucratively traded. There was only one hindrance. It was noted 'one cause of the non-development of the Indo-Australian trade is undoubtedly the want of direct steam communication and, until this is secured, it will be useless to expect any important results to follow the exhibition'. In 1885 the British India Steam Navigation Company introduced a monthly Calcutta-Australia service using the Rajpootana steamship. Outboard cargoes from India included tea, gunnies, coir and kapok. Australia exported horses for the Indian Army and wheat.

Many of Mukharji's raw products catalogued into Museum Victoria's economic botany collection are commonplace in Australia today. But this could be attributed more to the later influence of migrants to the country than to Mukharji's direct efforts. Spices and herbs such as turmeric, curry, cumin and coriander clutter the spice racks of most Australian kitchens. Other plant products are frequently used in natural remedies, as Ayurveda medicine gains popularity in western cultures. Indian-dyed textiles, aromatic oils and jute products can be purchased inexpensively from any number of 'ethnic' outlets. Naturally, in the nineteenth century this was not the case. Yet an article titled 'A popular condiment', published in the Age Supplement for the 1888 Melbourne Centennial Exhibition does suggest a shifting attitude towards such 'exotic' Indian products:
There is amongst people of the British race a good deal of confusion of thought as to the purposes to be served by the use of condiments. In India and in other hot climates they are largely used. But amongst large sections of the population, who are imbued with British prejudices, and obstinately adhere to British habits, the most grotesque notions prevail as to the object to be obtained by the use of condiments. Take curry, for example. In many a household, curry is supposed to be a convenient device for disguising food that has undergone a second process of cooking.

Clay models

As well as raw products, India exhibited a panoply of regional art manufactures. Visitors to the exhibitions could gaze upon examples of India's fine and decorative arts, musical instruments, jewellery, pottery, glass and textiles; as well as metal, wood and stonework, ivory, shell and lacquered ware. These displays were among the most popular at exhibitions, as Mukharji himself observed at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. He writes:
For the common people, the Indian Art-ware Court was a centre of great attraction, and it was chiefly around the glittering cases that displayed costly jewellery of antique patterns and rare workmanship the crowd largely congregated.

The opulent displays of artware demonstrated the wealth and history of India's artistic traditions - a contrast to Australia's more utilitarian contributions. Visitors, particularly those in Australia, were attracted to the exotic novelty of Indian art, and were encouraged to purchase souvenirs at the exhibition.  One such item for sale was the clay ethnological figures representing the various Indian regions, castes, trades, and professions. Mukharji writes in Art Manufactures of India, 'Models of native life in clay, full size or miniature, have of late acquired great celebrity'.

Museum Victoria holds a collection of these clay models, over 140, known colloquially as 'Poona figures'. The most admired of these clay models were made at Krishnager, a town about 60 miles north of Calcutta. In 1888 there were only four modelers of clay figures working at Krishnager - Jadu Nath Pal, his brother Ram Lal Pal, his nephew Bakkeswar Pal and his relation and neighbour Rakhal Das Pal. Their work, according to Mukharji, displayed 'considerable delicacy and fineness', and the use of actual hair, wool and other accessories on the figures gave them 'a very life-like appearance'. The Krishnager modelling industry originated from the making of idols for worship.

The figures had gained medals and certificates at exhibitions since 1851, including a 'Second Order of Merit' for figures made by the Government modeler Jadu Nath Pal at the Melbourne International Exhibition. Large quantities of clay figures were also made at Poona, which closely resembled those from Krishnager, both in their superior finish and in the practice using pieces of cloth for dresses. Poona figure models were assigned a fourth order of merit at the same exhibition. A good collection of the Poona manufacture, consisting of about 30 figures, could be had for 60 Rupees.

Miniature scenes were also modelled from clay, depicting Indian village life, trades, professions and customs. These could include models of a marriage or marriage procession, the smoking of opium, a village school, sugar-cane irrigation, ploughing, animal sacrifices and one, of unique interest, which showed a woman performing the rite of Sati - or burning herself on the funeral pyre of her recently deceased husband.

A model of an indigo factory was sent to the Colonial and India Exhibition, and is now housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The model was said to be an object of particular attention during the exhibition. It showed the manufacture of indigo through all the various processes, from the bringing in or harvesting of the crop to the finished manufactured product. During the mid nineteenth century, indigo was only surpassed by opium as India's most lucrative export.

Art wares and musical instruments

Other collections of Indian art wares from the Melbourne International Exhibition remain amongst Melbourne's collections. For example, approximately 50 instruments, with the original exhibition labels, were discovered in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in the mid 1970s. These are remnants of a 'complete collection of Indian musical instruments' that was assembled for exhibition by Raja Sir Sourindo Mohun Tagore, a prominent Hindu musician and scholar from Calcutta. The instruments are now on permanent loan to the School of Music Conservatorium at Monash University.

The NGV holds a collection of Indian jewellery, pottery, ornaments, domestic items and basket ware.

Melbourne's collections of Indian art ware and musical instruments resemble, albeit on a smaller scale, those held at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum that were acquired from the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888. Mukharji's book Art Manufactures of India, written for the exhibition, contains general descriptions of the articles, and is useful to consult for details on the history, workmanship and cultural significance of these collections.

I would like to further explore the relationships between collections of Indian material housed in museums in Melbourne and abroad that were acquired from international exhibitions.

TN Mukharji travels to England

Mukharji's travel to England in 1886 for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition was then an uncommon occurrence for an Indian. His travel memoir A Visit to Europe reveals many conflicting emotions elicited by the trip. As a Hindu, he risked loss of caste by embarking on the journey. In London, he encountered English fascination with and, often, ignorant conceptions of India. Mukharji was conscious of the curiosity he and his companions aroused amongst the English public. Their startled exclamations over differences in dress, language and manner invited comment from Mukharji, and gave him opportunity to challenge their perceptions about the colonised. He was also not above poking fun at their ignorance, and is in fact, at his most humorous when doing so. In one chapter of his book A Visit to Europe, Mukharji reports how English women would often speculate on the number of wives they left behind, the common guess being 250. With this in mind, one of his colleagues approaches an attractive waitress:
'I am awfully pleased with you, and I want to marry you. Will you accept the fortieth wifeship in my household which became vacant just before I left my country?' She asked - 'How many wives have you altogether?' 'Two hundred and fifty, the usual number' was the ready answer. 'What became of your wife, number 40?' 'I killed her, because one morning she could not cook my porridge well.' The poor girl was horrified, and exclaimed - 'Oh you monster, O you wretch!'

Mukharji occupied a rarefied position within the British Raj. He was a prominent government employee whose official position enabled him access to the highest classes of society in Europe. He was also a Hindu, brought up in the heart of Hindu society and steeped in Hindu traditions. It is this ambivalence that makes Mukharji's case so interesting. Mukharji considered himself, as I think his writings suggest, an intermediary between the government and the Indian people. For Mukharji, the development and trade of raw products was a means of alleviating the poverty of India. In his view, that meant emulating European industriousness and employing European resources. He writes:
The resources of India are unlimited, which, if intelligently utilised, would give employment to thousands, raise the standard of life and, if wealth is power, would enable the people to command respect of other nations in the world.

At the same time, Mukharji's job collecting and composing catalogues of Indian raw products and local art manufactures for international exhibitions, demonstrates that the British, too, were dependent on local knowledge and did in fact learn from India and Indians. Mukharji's observations and experiences counterbalance the view that imperialism was a fundamentally oppositional, hegemonic affair, of western power over non-western cultures. Mukharji's relationship with the British he encountered and worked with was foremost one of a willingness to engage, collaborate and understand. It was Mukharji's intimate knowledge of the realities of India and its people, and his journey to England to experience the empire at its source that enabled him to be, as his editor writes in the introduction of A Visit to Europe, 'an interpreter of the government to the people'.


Mukharji's reflections on India and British rule, conveyed in his exhibition catalogues and travelogue, provide a rare perspective into the complexities of empire during the late nineteenth century. His collections of Indian products that remain in museums offer another way of interpreting the relationship between culture and imperialism. Museum Victoria's economic botany collection tells a story of India's encounter with the empire and its colonies, and of burgeoning trade relations and cultural understanding between India and Australia.

Above all, Mukharji's narratives put a human face on otherwise inert, impersonal and sometimes forgotten, museum collections. Mukharji's writings reveal a man of exuberant energy, curiosity, wry humour and irony. For India he expresses empathy, pride, indignation and hope. For me, TN Mukharji has become more than a name on a label or passing curiosity, but rather a point of departure to further study and discovery.

This paper was presented by Cherie McKeich as part of Museum Victoria's 'History and Meaning of Things' seminar series on August 6th, 2008.
The paper was based on her recently published paper in Recollections -

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