11 October 2014

National Museum, Delhi


“Working at a museum is simply fascinating. You meet people from several fields – art, archaeology, anthropology, culture, war history – and each of them is an expert in their field. The avenues for learning and progress are numerous and you gain more knowledge than you had thought possible!” beams Shakshi, a student from Delhi University’s Lady Irwin College doing her internship at National Museum, Delhi. Her area of interest is unique, quite unheard of – the attire of regal elephants, especially the jewels and armor draped over them during wars. I couldn’t have agreed more – this was my second visit to the museum, the first was just a day earlier but I couldn’t complete all the galleries then – boasting of over two hundred thousand antiquities and items of cultural and anthropological interest, the museum is the largest in India and exemplary well-maintained and well-endowed. From the outside it doesn’t appear to be as vast as it eventually proves to be, but one gets an idea of the graceful magnificence of the museum both from the beautiful modern building it is housed in as well as the massive wooden chariot gracing the courtyard intermediate the entrance gate and the steps leading within. In fact, visitors are left awestruck by the rows of ancient sculptures representing divine and often mythical personalities that line the gardens immediately outside the entrance – if such beauty is strewn outside, what wonders lie within?!


National Museum - A civilization within a building


And wonders there actually are – purchase the tickets and deposit the security for the audio guide if you are taking one at the reception, and then you are immediately ushered into a long, narrow passage lined on either side by some splendid and no doubt extremely heavy stone sculptures. The sculptures bear testimony to the artistic skill of ancient Indians – the vast span of imagination relating to features, attire, weaponry and steed that has been employed in chiseling these splendid mythological figures from massive blocks of very hard stones is beyond comparison and description. The placement of the sculptures in this passage here connecting the reception area to the rest of the museum proper in such a heartwarming manner as a welcoming gesture indicating to visitors what exquisite artwork actually awaits them speaks laurels about the immense thought and hard work the museum curators and management put into its setting up and display. If you aren’t already impressed and going click crazy – yes, photography is allowed inside – then apart from the remarkable sculptures that overwhelmingly line every corridor of every floor besides having dedicated galleries of their own, there are several colossal galleries, each pertaining to artifacts of a particular kind – paintings, numismatics, decorative arts, tribal attire and headgear, arms and armour, manuscripts and archaeological discoveries besides others – that the three-floor structure is divided into, most of them possessing permanent exhibits but several visiting exhibitions and special displays lent from other museums and private collectors. According to the museum brochure, if one spent just a minute looking at each item in their collection, it would still take three years, nine months and twenty three days to go through them all! To my dismay, I realize I must have skipped most of the items on display and yet I managed to click over five hundred photographs on each of the two days I was there.


A massive sculpture representing Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and nourishment


The museum was originally envisaged by a committee headed by Sir Maurice Gwyer, the first Chief Justice of India, to be located within the Presidential House (refer Pixelated Memories - Presidential House) and inaugurated on August 15, 1949 by C. Rajgopalachari, the first and last Governor-General of independent India. It had its origins in a small nucleus of artifacts collected in 1946-48 from several Indian museums and private holdings for the purpose of organizing an exhibition representing Indian arts and culture in some of the most notable museums of Britain. The small collection, later displayed at the Presidential House, was painstakingly and gradually magnified into a massive collection of over two hundred thousand specimens belonging to a rich history five thousand years in its age and eventually housed in the present building which was constructed from 1955-60 and inaugurated on completion by Dr S. Radhakrishnan, then Vice President of India, on December 18, 1960. At present, the museum, whose entire collection has been categorized into numerous galleries, is under the administrative control of Ministry of Culture, Government of India and draws over 7.4 million visitors every year. Since 1983, it also functions as a university – National Museum Institute of History of Arts, Conservation and Museology – offering Doctoral and Masters level courses. 


Origins - Tiny toys, Harappa Gallery


The ground floor has been notably divided into several galleries prominently displaying sculptures and effects from ancient and medieval civilizations. The first of these is the Harappan Civilization Gallery, accessible immediately after crossing the sculpture-lined passage – post overcoming the thrill of actually witnessing Harappan seals bearing numerous symbolic indentations including the script, animal figures and strange unicorn-like creatures, one registers considerable surprise at their small size. Tiny would be the word to describe the seals as well as the small toys either carved either out of stone/bone or sculpted from clay and baked. The “Dancing Girl” sculpture is another surprise – dexterously crafted out of metal through the “Lost Wax method” (more on that later), the nude statue is extremely small (4.5” only) and yet skillfully endowed with proper physical features and even jewellery and braids. The Harappa or Indus Valley Civilization existed some 5,000 years ago and spanned a massive territory of almost 1,600 kilometers between the rivers Indus and Saraswati – though the territory they supervised over was immense, most of the archaeological discoveries concerning them have been of such dwarfish items, the largest repository of which is the National Museum. Probably the most interesting thing about their existence was the gigantic cities they conceived and raised, which were an epitome of linear sophistication and composed of residential quarters, courtyards, roads and drainages all laid in grids consisting of impeccably parallel or perpendicular lines – a conjectural plan of the city of Dholavira (Gujarat) greets visitors as one of the first items as soon as one steps into the gallery, but the most endearing artifact in my opinion are the metal toys, not very different from the ones still in circulation today, mounted on wheeled platforms that would have been pulled to-and-fro by toddlers – in their own small, unsuspecting way, it is the toys make one reflect on the continuity of civilization more than any other item in here. 


Wheeled toys, also from Harappa Gallery


Following the Harappa gallery, one traces the way to the numerous galleries dealing with huge sculptures dating back to the ancient dynasties – Mauryas, Kushanas, Sungas and Guptas. A large proportion of the sculptures here deal with Buddhism, and not only statues of Buddha but statues of his disciples, Buddhist sages, carved pillars and immense sculptural panels depicting scenes from the lives of Buddha and the sages and ornamental and bejeweled figurines – interestingly, in many of these the Buddha is not represented physically, but symbolically, through a pair of sacred footprints, a lotus or a wheel representative of the faith. Several statues also commemorate Hinduism and Jainism – a few are especially noteworthy either because of their uniqueness (like sculptures of the river Goddesses Ganga and Yamuna) or because of the interesting information they impart (did you know that Surya, the Sun God, is the only deity in the Hindu pantheon who is depicted wearing footwear? Might have something to do with the way he scorches the ground and makes it unbearable for one to walk on barefoot!). Other notable sculptures include cave carvings from Bharhut Stupa (Madhya Pradesh), massive panels resting on multiple supports depicting scenes from Buddha’s life and the Jatakas, Jain votive plaques from Mathura, and less known Hindu mythological deities such as the enigmatic Yoginis, the dreadful Goddess Chamunda, Lord Jagannath, the mythical Garuda said to possess the face of a man and the body of an enormous eagle, besides several incarnations and legendary manifestations of holy trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Next in line is an entire gallery dedicated only to Buddhist sculptural art belonging to several periods of Indian civilizational history, but by now every statue begins to appear as a blur since there are literally hundreds of them and each characteristically unique and glaringly different from the others – it earnestly seems as if of all the artistic designs and styles, one representative specimen was painstakingly picked up and displayed here. If I have to pick the single most unique artifact here, at the end of the gallery is a vertically elongated gold shrine surmounted by multiple conical spires – the shrine is said to contain the sacred relics of Buddha himself, discovered in excavations being carried out in Uttar Pradesh – several Buddhist devotees, silently traversing the gallery, would in the end come and fold their hands before the shrine and spend several moments with their heads bowed before moving on – probably the most apparent gesture of faith, especially in a museum, and a touching commentary on the museum’s success in bringing people closer to faith and history.


No end to sculptures here! Another one, also representing Vishnu


From the sculpture galleries, one astoundingly returns to witness even more sculptures – this time, in the circular passages connecting the different galleries located around the circular core of the museum that is in essence an open-to-sky courtyard lined with potted plants and statues and overlooked by numerous windows and terraces – there are in fact so many sculptures that if one walks to the very end of the passage, one can see scores of them lying about, unmarked and ignored, perhaps being transferred from store to display or vice versa. The museum’s sculptural collection is vast, spanning over two millenniums (3rd-century BC – 19th-century AD) and is regarded as amongst the largest collections pertaining to such an elongated period of art history.

The next gallery – Miniature Paintings Gallery – offers a welcome relief from the world of sculptures but soon the staggering collection composed of 17,000 paintings, at times arranged in sets and other times just affixed on the walls one after the other, makes one wonder if the sculptures were better! After all, they were large enough to be easily observable; half the paintings here are of the miniature style so successfully perfected by the Mughals that one has to peer closely to make out all the chronological scenes clustered into a single sketch and separated only by vertical differentiation of background and calligraphic inscriptions. The more famous specimens include folios from Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur’s (ruled AD 1526-30) illustrated autobiography “Tuzukh-i-Babri” (aka “Baburnama”), manuscripts from Jain religious texts depicting Vardhaman Mahavira and several holy invocations, vibrantly colorful paintings from the royal ateliers of Rajasthan, and specimens of ancient and traditional Indian board games (“Chaupar”) and Persian card games (“Ganjifa”) and miniature figurines used in them.


Colors! - The Miniature Paintings Gallery 


Of course, after I returned home after documenting the museum’s collections, a friend posted a photograph of a painting depicting Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, the renowned Sufi and the patron saint of Delhi, listening intently to a rendition of one of Amir Khusro’s heavenly composition – this was soon after we had organized an Instawalk for Delhi Instagramers Guild (DIG) to Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah for the Thursday evening Qawwali session (refer Pixelated Memories - Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah and Pixelated Memories - DIG Instawalk - Qawwali Mehfil at Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah) – all the best for finding the said painting! It’s not inconceivably beautiful or visually mesmerizing, in fact on the contrary it is mundane and doesn’t do pictorial justice to history, but then it is one subject I have written about in fine detail, hence the painting remains embedded in my mind still even though the rest I have largely forgotten. The entire gallery has been divided into several sections and accorded the appearance of pavilion palace through the use of wood partitions with arched openings, the same have also been used to highlight some of the more significant and often comparatively larger paper/leather/cloth/palm leaf/canvas or wood paintings. Some of the corners have been inset with large, brilliantly-lighted showcases displaying the more vibrant and magnificent artworks as representatives of their kind. A diorama inset in a corner realistically depicts a painting atelier complete with artists immersed in their craft in the foreground and household scenes and women in the background.


Vibrant and creative - Diorama depicting Rajasthani artists at work  


Up next is a very interesting collection – the Decorative Arts Gallery where numerous fascinating items such as silver sculptures, exquisite life-size woodwork figurines, jewellery and cosmetic accessories, ivory artworks, and several more specimens of “Chaupar” and “Ganjifa” games and the figurines used in them have been displayed. The most appealing, of course, is the ivory artwork – a five-feet large elephant tusk, bathed in orange light and complemented by the deep orange walls of the chamber, is the nucleus of the collection, displaying in a upward helical fashion numerous exquisitely carved circular inset panels featuring scenes from the life of Buddha; another enthralling item is an extremely small flawless white shrine depicting each of the ten incarnations (“Dashavatar”) of the Hindu God Vishnu and adorned with numerous floral motifs and vase-like additions. Given its miniature proportions and yet the plethora of details it encompasses, the Dashavatar shrine has been photographed, magnified into a huge poster and displayed as the same prominently near the entrance of the gallery. The remarkable snake-and-ladder board/cloth games, in a very Indian manner, attempt to impart values like generosity and humility to children by depicting these values as ladders and the undesirable qualities as snakes. 


Unbelievably exquisite! - Section of the long tusk carved with scenes from Buddha's life


Apart from the ivory items, visitors seemed to be captivated and attracted by a glass-encased, very elaborately carved and jewel-studded throne belonging to the erstwhile Maharaja of Benaras, but my eyes only held attraction for a richly sculpted silver elephant figurine originating from 19th century Rajasthan. This is one gallery where I would have loved to stay endlessly and photograph each and every item – from the vibrantly colored and glittering card games to the ivory figurines and even the mundane looking board games and ornamental accessories, but alas, the gallery is small and contains a very limited number of displays, probably owing to the transitory nature of such articles. The throne is definitely worth observing, such intricately skilled jewel work is rare and hard to come by. The gallery exists in two separate sections, one considerably smaller than the other and housing only the smaller items such as games, ivory items and objects of reverence, interconnected by a narrow passageway surprisingly not lined with sculptures but several sharply-lit, large transparencies (glass panels painted and etched on the inside to reveal patterns and characters) dealing with the origin and evolution of Indian scripts and numismatics. 


Indecipherable and to an extent boring - The glass transparencies


The first floor is again divided into several galleries of which two are reserved for special exhibitions. The permanent displays include another colossal section on manuscripts and paintings, not very different from the one on ground floor, a mind-blowing section on numismatics and a collection of Central Asian antiques. The days when I visited the complex, a special exhibit titled “A Passionate Eye” and comprising of a selection of artifacts donated from the privately-held Bharany collection was showcased. Nestled in deep violet panels and contrasted by similar-hued pillars and wall coverings were several textiles, paintings, terracotta sculptures, coins, modern art posters and small idols representing amongst themselves every era of Indian civilization from 1st-20th century BC and every territory of the country besides different social contexts ranging from rural settings to affluent palace scenes. Showcased in different clumps depending on the nature of material used or the diverse themes exemplified, the exhibition aimed to highlight the role played by private donors in the expansion and blossoming of the museum’s expansive collection. The highlights include painted woodwork panels and sculptures from south India and paintings from Rajasthan that contrast with the violet backgrounds and yet contextualize the diversity of the theme with their eclectically colored and multi-textured surfaces.


A mind-numbing diversity of antiques - The Bharany exhibit


Adjacent to the special galleries are several more massive chambers dedicated to paintings and manuscripts – the museum flamboyantly revels in its fascinating collection of such artworks and historical texts, sketches and inscriptions. Situated adjacent to these galleries and at a corner of the first floor is a large souvenir store that would perhaps have been better suited for a proper tourist site like the bazaar at Red Fort or Chandni Chowk – on sale are numerous items of chinaware, hundreds of kinds of jewelry and ornaments, books about different Indian states and the tourist spots, woodwork items and small exceedingly unrealistic replicas of idols and sculptures – I couldn’t really fathom what purpose does such stuff, especially the very highly adorned and vibrantly colorful chinaware plates and boxes, serve in a museum souvenir store? Though photography is prohibited within the store, the people manning the counters allowed me to click a few photographs after much persuasion and then reverted back to idle gossip with expectedly little to do to spend their time.


Porcelain souvenirs at a museum that doesn't have anything to do with porcelain?! Somebody pray explain


Much better is the souvenir department located on the ground floor immediately behind the ticket counter and accessible from the sculpture-lined narrow passageway connecting the reception area to the museum proper – available here are numerous replicas of the idols, paintings and sculptures, besides small chalk duplicates of the Harappan seals. The books, detailing the museum catalogues, its collection of paintings, artwork and manuscripts, are equally inviting. Especially beautiful and conveniently priced are the copies of medieval paintings and royal texts, such as a collection of images, complete with explanations and commentary, derived from Babur’s autobiography "Baburnama” that I purchased. One can even pre-decide, like I did, on what to purchase and note the item’s price from the listing available on the museum’s official website. Of course, the ticket counter that doubles as a sales counter generates and provides an invoice of every item purchased.


My favorite from the Decorative Arts Gallery - An adorned silver elephant and its riders


Through the intermittent light and dark patches produced by the large rectangular windows that intersperse the first-floor passages circumferencing the circular courtyard of the museum, one heads to the next gallery, sparing only passing glances to the numerous heavy sculptures that stand sentinel along the wide corridors. At different times, different galleries are closed for visitor entry in order to spruce up the presentation and inspect the artifacts displayed for any untoward effects. The next gallery I could visit was the coins and numismatics gallery – and it actually answered one of the primary questions that kept popping up in my head, viz., why are the numismatics only limited to the few glass transparencies on the ground floor. It is here in this vast gallery that mounted in massive, extremely brightly lit, wooden displays are thousands of coins, characterized and segregated according to the era they belonged to and the emperors who issued them, belonging to different eons of Indian history from 6th-century BC to 21st-century AD. Amongst the finest are gold coins issued by ancient Indian dynasties like the Guptas and Kushanas – these coins depict extremely fine, completely detailed figurines of horses, elephants, lion-slayers, archers and warriors besides subtly indicating to historical events such as regal marriages and conclusion of fearsome and rewarding military campaigns. The displays are often accompanied by information charts and small sculptures displaying the sartorial and ornamental features of the age. The coins emerging from the Sultanate-era (AD 1192-1526), marked with Arabic and Persian texts and calligraphy, are characterized into the various reigning dynasties and sub-characterized into the emperors and empresses who issued them, while the coins that belonged to Indian princely states and British India are assisted in the curation by information panels throwing light upon princely symbols and texts. A separate display is dedicated to punch-marked coins and is flanked on the side by a diorama depicting the process of minting such coins and on the top by charts depicting the symbols most commonly punched, the areas where these coins have been recovered from and a large blow-up of one of these detailed coins. Also fascinating is the currency minted during the reign of Indo-Greek governors and kings – most of these are characterized by indentations of the issuing authority’s own face with a perimeter of inscriptions and markings – possibly the one that would be identifiable to every Indian would be Selucus Nikator, the Governor-General charged with the administration of his Indian territories by Alexander of Macedonia who was defeated by Chandragupta Maurya (ruled BC 322-298) who then went on to establish the advanced and widely renowned Maurya Empire.


Thousands of coins!


Past the very intriguing coin gallery is the Central Asian antiquities Gallery which actually resembles a grand, impeccably and affluently furnished rectangular drawing room given the presence of rich silken tapestries hanging along the walls and excellent artifacts such as huge Buddha statues and glass-encased horse-mounted warriors thrown tastefully around. Also strewn around in glass display cases are remnants of porcelain and pottery ware and manuscripts and religious documents. Possibly the most famous antiquity present here are the fragments of an ancient painting depicting Buddha and his disciples that has been dated to 3rd-4th century AD and originated from Miran (China), a prosperous little town and an important trading center along the ancient Silk route.

The first floor also houses galleries dedicated to maritime heritage and Tanjore and Mysore classical paintings but these were sadly closed for upkeep when I visited and the entire area was cordoned off – all I could admire were the dozens of sculptures stacked against each other in the corridors unmindful of any order or classification, possibly waiting to be transported to the spots along the passages or in one of the galleries where they would next be placed.


The Central Asian Gallery - Wish there were more items displayed here


Ascending the stairs leading up to the second floor, one comes face to face with the entrance to Textiles Gallery where enclosed in glass cases are fragments and in many cases pretty large sheets of different traditional textiles and cloth-associated art forms. Shakshi tried her best to explain many of the aspects (commonly used design motifs and the place where these originated) to me but sadly it all failed to imprint on my memory since I was more concerned with clicking everything I saw. The one display that really fascinated me was the recreation of a royal chamber within one of the massive wall cavities – it is hard to believe that the museum’s walls could be hollowed to such an extent! – the display, complete with intricately woven expensive carpets, rich tapestries, overhanging tents, beautifully embroidered bolsters and exquisite wall hangings, portrays the affluence and the exorbitant richness of regal and noble lifestyle in 18th-19th century India. Scattered around the carpets and the pillows are other accessories like hookah (smoking pipe), vessels to hold betel leaves and rose water for sprinkling around. The gallery also reveals the different, intricate textile arts originating from different states of the country and belonging to different eras in time long past.


Regal - A royal chamber recreated 


Parallel to the Textiles Gallery is the Pre-Colombian and Western Art Gallery, perhaps located here with the singular motive of highlighting the distinctive differences in Indian and native Central American and Latin American Pre-Colombian artworks originating from countries like Mexico, Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica – while the former is highly intricate and vibrantly colorful, the latter appears in many cases to be dull and macabre, especially in the sculpting of figurines and divine appearances – of course, a comment wouldn’t be justified since I am not aware in detail of these artworks and their history, nor is the museum gallery occupied with enough specimens to formulate an understanding. Expectedly so, the gallery was empty of visitors and there was just one guard on duty sitting on a chair near the entrance, thus, as is observable in the photographs, I was able to click the specimens and the entire chamber quite freely. The highlights of the gallery are stone and wood figurines of Jesus and Christian saints, some of which are pretty large compared to most of the antiques displayed here. Also morbidly fascinating are the ornaments meant for horses, ritualistic masks and medieval weapons like daggers and axe heads that line the gallery walls.

Next ahead is the small Copper plate Gallery where copper plates used in various rituals and administrative functions have been stacked along the walls – there isn’t much to observe here since most of the plates look very similar and are inscribed with languages not spoken nor written anymore.


Pre-Colombian Arts Gallery


The Wood carving Gallery is in parts interesting and in parts extremely boring – the former since most of the carvings are detailed to an immense degree and etched with figurines of deities, musicians, mystics and floral and geometrical motifs carved with stupefying dexterity and exquisiteness, but the monotony springs from the realization that a large number of articles displayed here are of a similar nature and there is little to excite visually or emotionally – in fact, majority of the items here are doors, massive lintels and window frames executed skillfully and sourced from different parts of western India and Nepal. Glass panels along the walls house figurines, brackets and toys, the most exquisite of which are perhaps the sculptures of Hindu Gods stacked in the corner. My personal favorite was a 17th-century colossal window frame from Nepal, long enough to take up an entire wall, and intricately carved to such a state of beckoning precision that I was compelled to click it numerous times to focus on each of the numerous distinctive individual features.


Yellow and brown - Woodwork, intricate and antique 


Interestingly, part of the museum’s conservation lab, also located near the Wood carving Gallery, is open to public entry though the central portion where the conservation work is actually carried out is prohibited section. From the passage walls protrude numerous perpendicular wall sections that divide the entire narrow passageway into numerous subsections where charts and photographs expound upon how various conservation techniques are executed and photographs of the final product are displayed and compared vis-à-vis the original antique. Pretty informative, the sections reveal in much detail how sculptures, wood and metal works, textiles and paintings are restored as near to their original condition and conserved for display. 


A sectional expounding upon the various kinds and facets of restoration-conservation techniques


Adjacent to the Wood carving Gallery is another colossal collection, displayed in brightly lit sections painted eclectic orange and stuffed to the seams – this is the astounding Musical Instruments Gallery, possibly the largest collection of antiques and antiquities of a particular type that the museum possesses – in fact, the number of items displayed in glass-lined cases along the dark orange walls is mindblowing and one is, after a point, forced to concentrate only on the grander or the quirkier items, such as the small figurines of musicians and instrument players arranged in a side exhibit or the mammoth bamboo statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess of learning, language and music, sourced from West Bengal. The Goddess is depicted as a beautiful lady reading a manuscript while her Veena (Indian string instrument) lies next to her and her swan stead sits behind. The major part of the collection was donated to the museum by the Sarod (another Indian string instrument) maestro Padamshree Sharan Rani Bakliwal.


Let the music play!


The Musical Instruments Gallery is spread over a colossal room and an adjacent narrower wing – this wing is connected to another gallery, the unbelievably magically charming Tribal Lifestyle Gallery, such that to enter in and exit from the latter one has to pass through the former. The Tribal Lifestyle Gallery is, in my opinion, a rather haphazard collection that could have been arranged in a far superior manner than it is at present – though the articles housed, including the complete attires, collections of headgears, models of various buildings and schools, are splendid and deeply enchanting, especially with their vibrant colors and animalistic appearances, but the large glass cases, free standing or projecting from the walls, in which these are displayed often overlap with the cases behind them so that there is a general feeling of clutter and disorder, not very conducive to photographic compositions. More than anything else, the collection of tribal attire is quite alluring and one has only to let one’s imagination run wild to visualize tribal chieftains and old warriors dressed in these sartorial specimens walking straight out of these cases.


Isn't the attire flamboyantly grand?


The next gallery, Ethnic Indian Art Gallery, visually the most attractive both in terms of the presentation as well as the items displayed, is dedicated to exploring continuity in Indian art and tradition. Immediately opposite the entrance, the vision behind the gallery’s existence is summed in a small paragraph imprinted in black on the deep orange walls –

“The Indian subcontinent is rich with varied flora and fauna which is home to a diverse group of communities who have distinct cultures and habits. Within this kaleidoscope of cultural diversity, there still exists a common vocabulary for the ways and means adopted in designing and constructing day-to-day objects. 


The artefacts (sic) displayed in this gallery reflect how a similar concept or techniques adopted by different communities with their own way of expression and aesthetic sensibilities are commonly tied together.” 


A display of Rajasthani ethnic crafts, influenced by the desert's severe climatic conditions


Immediately next to this description is placed a collection of tribal Dhokra figurines – amongst the native art forms that I especially revere, Dhokra, concentrated in the tribal areas of Chattisgarh is an extensive, time-consuming yet strikingly eye-catching art form in which very realistic and thoroughly detailed metal figurines are created by pouring molten metal in a baked clay cast which has been prepared by application of lumps of moist soil to a wax figurine and then heating so that the wax melts out and the clay mould remains (aforementioned “Lost Wax method”). Since to remove a metal idol from the mould, the latter has to be shattered to pieces, every Dhokra figurine is unique in its appearance and visual constitution. This makes the art form so valued and expensive, but it is also very time consuming and increasingly offering diminishing returns to the tribals since the profits are cornered by the intermediaries and merchants and never reach the former – hence, most tribals are letting go of this traditional practice and the technique is classified as a dying art form and this especially hurts me since the idols are exquisitely unparalleled and touching. Apart from the Dhokra items, the gallery is lined with vividly-colored tapestries and paintings besides playing host to numerous individualized exhibits consisting of several decorative items and day-to-day utilities like toys, puppets, ornamental statues, water bags and clothes originating out of a particular belief system or a region with distinctive climatic or cultural conditions. Flanking the exit doorway are two very unique, ornamental, religious articles – the first being a classic facial representation of Goddess Durga, the Hindu feminine embodiment of universe’s energy, from Bengal (I have seen so many and far superior versions of this representation, most of them crafted from baked clay, bamboo and even grains of rice (!), while I stayed in Bengal the past four years; two even grace my home in Delhi), the second being a golden skull surmounted by a flaming trident representing the ferocious form “Sabdag” of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, that is worshipped in the mountainous regions of Spiti valley (Himachal Pradesh) as a protector from evil spirits and demons.


Singularly unique - Dhokra figurines


The final gallery, located in a corner of the museum’s top floor and yet the most appealing to the male visitors, is the Arms and Armour Gallery – displayed here, in numerous floor to roof glass cases, are various arms and body armour used in Indian history. The two longer sides of the gallery are taken over by rows of these unique display cases, while in the center are thick hexagonal cases with a larger item, such as full body armour or an entire collection of swords or pistols, along each face. The place of pride is a single massive display at the far end of the gallery – recreated here is the statue of an entire war elephant, draped over with silver shield plates and ornamented coat mail and surmounted by a wood and silver carriage (“howdah”). The majestic beast would have once served both military and ceremonial functions, even today the armour appears stately regal and awe-inspiring. The shields used by medieval Rajput warlords and kings from Rajasthan are also deftly and splendidly ornamented – some of them, such as the one belonging to Maharana Sangram Singh II of Mewar, display entire army retinues on march with the king leading the campaign; others display lions and animal motifs along with inscriptions of Sanskrit hymns; almost all of them feature a masculine moustached golden face on the central medallion with numerous rays emanating from its circumference, representative of the sun God Surya who was part of the royal insignia of almost all the Hindu dynasties of northern India. A single diorama inset in one of the walls shows scenes from the Battle of Busheher (Bushire, 1856), Iran in which Indian soldiers led by British East India “trading” Company participated.


Arms and armour - Notice the attired and armored elephant on the right - This is what Shakshi is researching upon


This brings us to an end of the tour of the museum. I believe I have written about almost all the galleries and thrown light upon the major displays of each – the purpose being to promote the museum and motivate more people to visit the same, since it is rather disheartening to see most of the galleries empty and a majority of the visitors present being foreigners and not Indians who should ideally be taking pride in their history and heritage and spending more time visiting museums. The museum also inculcated in me a tremendous desire to visit the rest of the museums in the city, a sojourn that I have been procrastinating since long. Surprisingly, the Calcutta Museum, the oldest in the country (refer Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum, Calcutta), never provoked me to discover more of our heritage associated with crafts, arms and sculptures in such a manner – it must have a lot to do with the presentation, since the Delhi Museum has been conceived, built and assembled very tastefully and the collections have been displayed, categorized and accompanied with information panels and plaques in a considerate manner to make one’s visit more entertaining as well as informative. Do visit the museum at least once to revel in the unique unbridled flood of an unparalleled history originating from the country and savor an unsurpassable collection of arts, textiles and sculptures!


Endearing - Ganjifa cards


Website: Nationalmuseumindia.gov.in 
Location: Janpath, near Connaught Place
Nearest Metro station: Udyog Bhavan
How to reach: Walk/take an auto from the metro station – the distance is around 850 meters. Buses also ply to and fro between the museum and Connaught Place.
Admission timings: 10 am to 5 pm 
Entrance fees: Indians: Rs 10; Foreigners: Rs 300; Students of any nationality (uon production of valid ID): Rs 1
Facilities available: Audio tour (cost included in Rs 300 paid by foreigners; Rs 100 and 150 for Indians opting for the cassette in Hindi and other languages respectively)
Photography charges: Indians: Rs 20; Foreigners: Rs 300
Video charges and tripods: Prior permission has to be solicited.
Time required for sightseeing: 4 hrs minimum.
Other museums that I've written about - 

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