New Delhi, India
December 30, 2006
But it’s the galleries that steal the show. They’re only a handful, but they house some unusual Indian crafts. Most exhibits date from the early 1700s to the early 1900s, but there are some odd ones that are either 21st or 16th century. But regardless of their antiquity, they’re all worth seeing.
The first gallery, the Bhuta Sculpture Gallery, is the only one devoted to a single art. The black walls form a stark backdrop to solid, angular 18th century statues of deities and animals, carved from jackfruit timber. The Bhutas of Southern India used these in sacred rituals.
Beyond is the Folk Arts Gallery, crowded with regional arts and crafts. There’s basketry, terracotta pots and jars, and realistic dolls depicting fishermen, vegetable-sellers and washerwomen. There are masks, leather and fur headdresses; spears, necklaces, and more.
But my favourite are the galleries of Cultic Objects, Textiles, and Courtly Crafts - three galleries that partly overlap each other. If the ivory miniature of a donkey laden with shoes qualifies as a 'courtly craft’, the equally lovely ivory carving of Shiv and Parvati is obviously a 'cultic object’!
The Gallery of Cultic Objects has a few Islamic, Jain and Buddhist artifacts, but is overwhelmingly Hindu. With Hinduism’s thousands of deities, there’s ample scope for sacred art. Here are massive masks of gods and mythical heroes; statues; ceremonial lamps; temple pillars; wall hangings and rag board paintings; and (truly splendid) the pichhwai paintings of Gujarat. Pichhwai aren’t paintings at all - they’re huge embroideries, so intricate they look painted.
The Courtly Crafts gallery steps into the world of the luxury-loving nawabs and maharajas. Here are rich, ornate wares of silver, enamel, gemstones, and ivory. Heavy jewellery, huqqas, massive plates, carved ivory, statuary, even carpets and caparisons for royal elephants: all are on display. But by far the best exhibit is the beautifully preserved 18th century haveli (mansion) of a Bohri Muslim family. All finely carved wood, mirrors, and marble floors, it’s been transplanted here from its original Gujarat, and it’s magnificent.
The Textiles Gallery lies above the Courtly Crafts section, and is equally enthralling. Do see the sari display - it has some gorgeous traditional saris. Brocades from Banaras and Kanjeevaram; tie-and-dye ikats and paithanis from Western India; gossamer-light Bengal weaves. Beyond the saris, there are samples of the fragile chikan embroidery of Lucknow; the vivid rumaals (handkerchiefs) of Chamba, covered in colourful embroidery; and breathtakingly lovely shawls from Kashmir. One of these, about 50 square feet, was covered - every single square inch of it - in crewel work in shades of pink, mauve, green, and blue. The work was so fine that the effect was one of no definable colours: just an amethyst-like shimmer. Awesome - very much like the museum itself.
Entry is free. The museum’s open from 9.30am to 5pm, Sunday through Saturday.
From journal The Museums of Delhi