Pint-sized coins, with niggardly transactional value, may now be falling out of circulation but in olden times, these were not only a legal tender but also an instrument for kings across the world to assert their power, establish the sweep of their kingdoms, and advertise their faith and legitimacy.
Some of these coins of exquisite craftsmanship were on display as part of a landmark international exhibition, ‘India and the World: A History in Nine stories’, at National Museum.
Besides coins, the exhibition also displayed some iconic currency notes which reveal loads of information on nation building, statecraft and politics of the time, such as the shared currencies of India and Pakistan immediately after Independence and of West and East Germany after the Second World War. There were also banknotes on the Cuban independence.
The nine-gallery exhibition, with one section devoted to coinage, was jointly mounted by National Museum, New Delhi; the British Museum, London; Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), Mumbai; and some 20 private collections. On display were 104 extraordinary works of art from the Indian subcontinent in dialogue with 124 exquisite pieces from the British Museum.
Overall, the exhibition showcased 31 historic coins and 16 currency notes, and a number of them, lent by the British Museum. These included Gupta gold coins (dinar), Roman gold coins, Pallava copper coins, Chinese copper coins, and Islamic coins as also shared banknotes of India and Pakistan and the first currency on Cuban independence.
As for currencies, the exhibition displayed Cuban one peso paper note (AD 1879), which has been lent by the British Museum. It was printed before Cuba gained independence from Spain, and became the first way for that country to express its identity as a free nation.
Equally fascinating was the first note issued by the RBI in 1938 with a portrait of King George VI, and this design continued in British India. Immediately after Partition, Pakistan continued using RBI notes with a superinscription, which read ‘Government of Pakistan’ in English and Urdu. India also used these notes until 1949, when the first one-rupee note for independent India was released with the national emblem, the Ashoka Lion Capital.
Likewise, when Germany was divided into East and West after the Second World War, the first currencies issued by the two countries in 1948 were one-mark notes. West Germany, led by the US, later introduced a new currency. To counter it, the Soviets introduced a rival currency, the Ostmark in East Germany, signalling the completion of Germany’s division.
The nearly two-month-long exhibition, which began on May 5, concluded on Saturday, June 30.