The villages of India have played surprisingly important roles in some of the big ideas of history. Karl Marx, for example, saw the villages of India as reflecting a particular stage of human progress. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi saw the village as the strongest building block for the future development of the country.

In this spirit, this exhibition showcases examples from the long-term study of three Indian villages, as a way to think broadly about the possible futures of the rural world. The villages in question are quite ordinary but quite different from one another, and located in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha.

When these villages were first studied by anthropologists in the 1950s, India was recently independent and a spirit of optimism reigned in the country. The countryside was seen as a ‘vast rural slum’, ruined by colonial exploitation and in need of development. Subsequently, the Indian countryside became site of intense Cold War activity as the USA and USSR competed for markets and influence. Studying the same villages again today has allowed us to see, in unrivalled detail, the changes which have occurred during a unique period of India’s history.

Once upon a time, the rural world was thought of as the cradle of the nation, a place of earthy wisdom, and the antidote to unsustainable and destructive modernisation. But our relationships with pastoral and agricultural landscapes have changed.

By looking to the past, we are encouraged to look to the future. Who lives in villages today? What are the materials of life – mud, cement, plastic? Are villages’ places of peace or conflict? Has the village become the waiting room for the labour markets of the city? What language and theories can we use to rethink cities, villages and our relationships to them? And perhaps most significantly, what can we learn from the Indian village? Are there lessons here which will better prepare us for our future world?