Do you know where you can find the ‘Indian Mona Lisa’, the sacred ashes of the Buddha, or the pistol of Chandra Shekhar Azad? As it turns out, in Bihar, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, respectively. India has so much packed inside its museums; it’s a veritable lived history of the country and the subcontinent. And yet few people can name five artefacts of note. Meanwhile, museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the British Museum in London draw millions of visitors every year, each of whom have heard since their teen years of the iconic objects held within.
Why do we know so little about what and where India’s treasures are? How can we begin to reach out to the masses, inform and educate them, about the most fascinating objects preserved across the country? We went on a virtual treasure hunt across India’s museums, in this session of our show, Heritage Matters.
Our guests at this session were Dr Sunil Gupta, Director of the Allahabad Museum; Dr Tejas Garge, Director of Archaeology & Museums with the Government of Maharashtra; and Trisha De Niyogi, Chief Operating Officer & Director at Niyogi Books. The panellists and the LHI research team led the audience through an array of objects from some of India’s most prominent museums. Take a look.
Most museums in Maharashtra can be grouped into three categories– museums transferred from the region’s princely states, government museums set up before Independence, and regional museums set up by the state government after independence, said Dr Tejas Garge, Director of Archaeology & Museums with the Government of Maharashtra. Here, he highlights objects from museums across the state of Maharashtra, like those in Kolhapur, Ratnagiri and Sangli.
A sculpture that hints at ancient trade connections and influences, this bronze sculpture of the Graeco-Roman God of the Seas, Poseidon, was excavated from a hillock called Brahmapuri, on the banks of the Panchganga River in Kolhapur, in the 1950s. It is fashioned in typical Greek style. It was initially thought to be an import, but recent analysis has revealed that it was made locally.
This object, probably dating to the Satavahana or the Shunga era, cast in the lost-wax method, forms an important motif in Western Indian rock-cut architecture, as a pillar capital. But it was never retrieved as an artefact, until this one was found in an archaeological excavation, said Dr Garge.
This sculpture belonging to the Shilahara period represents a transition from the early historical phase to late historical phase. Unlike sculptures of Vishnu from an earlier phase, like the Kushana phase, where all four arms are positioned in the downward direction, this sculpture depicts two arms at waist-level and two arms raised.
These paintings, of Nana Phadnavis (a statesman in the Peshwa court of the Marathas) and Madhavaro Peshwa, were executed by James Wales, and commissioned by Sir Charles Malet, the Resident of the British East India Company in the court of the Peshwas. Both these paintings, in European styles, are at the Sangli Museum. Another famous portrait by James Wales is that of Maratha Commander, Mahadji Shinde, now housed in the Nagpur Museum.
This painting by 19th-century painter Rao Bahadur M V Dhurandhar, an alumnus of the JJ School of Art, depicts a traditional Marathi wedding ceremony, and captures in evocative detail a Marathi household of a bygone era, Dr Garge said.
Dr Sunil Gupta, an archaeologist and Director of the Allahabad Museum in Prayagraj, took us through the distinguished collection at the institution. The Allahabad Museum, now one of the four national museums, started out in 1931 as a municipal museum, Dr Gupta said. The site on which it stands is very significant, located in the Middle Ganga Valley, a fact reflected in the museum’s grand archaeological collection. Today, the museum is within the Chandra Shekhar Azad Park (formerly Alfred Park), marking the spot where that great freedom fighter was martyred.
The Allahabad Museum is a great repository of Mathura and Gandhara art, modern art, and iconic objects from the freedom struggle. It also houses one of the largest collections of paintings by famous Russian artist Nicholas Roerich. Here are a few objects from the museum that Dr Gupta presented to the audience.
This exquisite piece of a carved Shiva Linga dates to the 5th century CE, during the Gupta period, and is a classic example of Gupta Period art. What makes it particularly riveting is that Shiva’s face can be seen projecting from the Shiva Linga, bearing an evocative expression, eyes downcast, the hint of a smile on the lips.
Dating to the 2nd century CE, this terracotta piece makes for an interesting artefact as one can see intestine-like structures on it. It was probably used as part of medical demonstrations to students. Interestingly, this was also the time when the great Indian scholar and physician Sushruta, who compiled the treatise Sushruta Samhita, lived. This piece was discovered from the site of Kaushambi, the capital of the Vatsa kingdom, one of the sixteen mahajanapadas.
This 0.32 Colt pistol was recovered from the freedom fighter’s room in Colonelganj, Allahabad. Though it was not used during his encounter with the British Army in 1931, it remains an iconic object in the collection. The pistol was taken to the UK by an English police officer, who later returned it to the state of Uttar Pradesh in 1977.
The Ford lorry in which the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were taken to the Triveni Sangam for immersion in 1948 is preserved at the Allahabad Museum. The ashes were carried to the sangam in this vehicle from the Allahabad railway station, where they arrived via train from New Delhi. The vehicle was carefully restored and rendered functional again in 2008, by a team of engineers and mechanics.
The Allahabad Museum houses a collection of more than 200 paintings by Asit Kumar Haldar. An Indian artist of the Bengal school, Haldar was an assistant of Rabindranath Tagore at Shantiniketan. In this painting, he portrays the Mughal Emperor Akbar watching the construction of the Allahabad Fort.
Trisha Niyogi, COO and Director at Niyogi Books, took the audience through an exquisite series of Pahari paintings from museums across India. Niyogi Books, a leading publisher, has published many titles on Indian art and museums. Work on a series called Treasures, highlighting the objects and artefacts held within India’s museums, is underway. Four books in this series, covering the National Museum in Delhi, CSMVS in Mumbai, Allahabad Museum in Prayagraj, and Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, have been published. Take a look at some of the Pahari paintings highlighted by Niyogi.
This intricate Pahari painting from Basholi in Jammu & Kashmir is quite unique, Niyogi said, as it has muted and earthy colours, unlike the characteristically bright colours of most such paintings. What catches the eye are the intricacies, such as the details of flora and fauna.
A depiction of the Nayika, or the moods of the heroine, this painting captures the essence of the Sringara Rasa, one of the nine rasas or expressions of the Indian performing arts. Radha can be seen here waiting for Krishna. One of her friends is also depicted in the painting. “Being a dancer, this is one of my favourites,” Niyogi said.
This painting shows a king, a nobleman and a jogi or a mystic, seated together. Through the imagery, one can grasp the differences in their status. Attention has been paid also to details such as the instrument of the mystic resting on his shoulder and the different attires of each of the three men.
This painting shows the characters Manu and Shatarupa from Hindu mythology in three different scenes, and this unusual approach of putting three situations together in one Pahari work is what makes it unique. Seen along with Manu and Shatarupa are Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.
The research team at LHI also presented some unmissable objects from India’s most prominent museums.
The sacred ashes of the Buddha draw are a major draw at the National Museum in Delhi and the Patna Museum. Preserved at the National Museum are about 20 bone fragments of the Buddha, excavated in the 1970s from Piprahawa in Uttar Pradesh and later identified as the site of Kapilavastu (the city of Budhha’s birth) by scholars. The casket contains these sacred fragments, precious stones and ornaments that were discovered with them.
At the Patna Museum in Bihar is another casket containing relics of the Buddha, excavated by the noted archaeologist and historian A S Altekar between 1958 and 1961, from the stupa at Vaishali in Bihar. Along with the relics, a few beads, a copper punch-marked coin, a conch and a gold leaf were also found, and remain, in the casket.
The Didarganj Yakshi, also known as the Mona Lisa of India in art history circles, is housed in the Bihar Museum. It is considered the finest example of Mauryan art. The life-sized Yakshi stands 5 ft 2 in tall and is a statue of the Chauri (or fly whisk bearer). The statue is carved from a single piece of sandstone and has the characteristic Mauryan mirror polish. It dates to the late Mauryan period, around the 2nd century BCE. The statue is named after the area in which it was found in 1917 – Didarganj in Old Patna City. It was buried in the banks of the Ganga River.
This is the capital from the Ashokan Pillar at Sarnath in Uttar Pradesh, which was adopted as our National Emblem after Independence. It originally crowned a pillar said to have been erected during Ashoka’ reign, around 250 BCE. The capital was excavated from Sarnath by German-born civil engineer Friedrich Oscar Oertel in 1905 and is now housed at the Sarnath Museum.
It depicts four lions, looking in the four cardinal directions, on top. These lions stand on a cylindrical base decorated with a bull, a horse, an elephant and a lion, and the Dharma Chakra or Wheel of Dharma, all significant symbols in Buddhism.
This elaborate bronze sculpture of a man riding a chariot drawn by bulls is believed to be one of the earliest depictions of Shiva. You can see it at the National Museum in Delhi, but it comes from the site of Daimabad in Ahmednagar district in present-day Maharashtra, a Chalcolithic or Copper Age site dating to 2200 to 1000 BCE. Daimabad is the largest Chalcolithic site in Maharashtra. Daimabad Man was part of a hoard of four bronzes found there.
This 3,000-year-old anthropomorphic copper figure from Shahabad, Uttar Pradesh, was part of the enigmatic Copper Hoards of the Ganga Valley. You can find it at the Mathura Museum. It has been adopted by the cultural and heritage organisation Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Copper objects, usually implements and weapons, have been found scattered across Northern India, especially in the Doab region. These figures, known as anthropomorphs, form a significant part of these hoards.
This is just a small glimpse of the great wealth of history, culture and art that our museums hold. How we reach out to more people about them? How can museums become exciting places that portray stories through their objects? Our panellists had some answers. They agreed that a lot needs to be done to revive our museums. Steps being taken in this direction are increasing engagement and making people aware of what the museums hold. Citing the example of innovative initiatives like the Museums on Wheels by CSMVS, where a ‘museum bus’ is taken around with thematic collections, to reach out to schools, colleges and NGOs across Mumbai and Maharashtra, Dr Garge said, “It was a wonderful outreach programme. We could cover around 27,000 students in one year. We are willing to take this program further. Education is the key and I see all these museums as centres of knowledge that should become cultural hubs of every region. They should come alive and even local people should have a sense of belonging. We have also given freedom to locals to design their own events. In Kolhapur, once a year, there’s a festival for a local artist that takes place at our museum there.”
While audio guides and guided tours were also discussed, an interesting point was raised about how gift shops and souvenir shops at museums might help make them more engaging and extend their reach. People can take back a little piece of history in the form of replicas or other merchandise. In this context, taking the example of initiatives at the Allahabad Museum, Dr Gupta said, “I agree that we have not done enough to generate merchandise… from the rich troves of museum collections that we have. In the West, even a small museum has an attractive gift shop. But apart from that, the Allahabad Museum, for the last two decades, has had a very active replica-making workshop. Many of our paintings and art works are developed into folios which we frame and sell. We have that core activity going. But yes, it’s a huge market waiting to be tapped.” Modernisation of museums in terms of technology and upkeep, documentation and cataloguing, and better awareness programmes are all part of the way forward. Books, catalogues and publications on museum collections play an important role too. Niyogi highlighted how publishing a book in their series on museum collections has also been a tough task. “The first step of doing this book is the detailed knowledge of the holdings of these museums. So we had to actually go to each museum, several times, to study them and understand what to focus on.”
Dr Gupta also suggested that museums, which act as curatorial hubs, serve as consultancy wings for other institutions of research etc, as this would enhance opportunities for collaboration between various organisations. Such thoughts offer a ray of hope that our museums and their great repositories will reach wider audiences and garner the attention and respect that they so richly deserve, as guardians of and windows into our great past.
You can watch the complete conversation on Treasure Hunt at India’s Museums here:
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