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New Delhi, India
December 11, 2009
I had visited (and subsequently reviewed, on IgoUgo) Victoria Memorial 7 years back, and though much—including the entry fee (Rs 150 for foreigners, Rs 10 for Indians) has remained the same, much has changed too. Most importantly, the museum at the Victoria Memorial has opened a stunning new exhibition that merits being exulted over.
The Victoria Memorial, a grand white-domed building in honour of Queen Victoria, Empress of India, was conceived by the Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1906 (Victoria had already been dead 5 years). The structure was built on a spacious 64 acres of land, the building itself made from the prized white Makrana marble, the same stone used in the Taj Mahal. In the case of this memorial, however, the stone is said to have come free: the maharaja in whose domain Makrana lay gave (or was compelled to give?) the marble free of cost.
Whatever the case may be, the architect William Emerson and his assistant Vincent J Esch, laboured at creating a grand building in the Indo-Saracenic style, complete with an imposing dome, capitals and columns and much statuary. It took all of 15 years to complete and was finally inaugurated in 1921. Today, the Victoria Memorial is one of Kolkata’s most famous landmarks. It’s somewhat greyish, but impressive nevertheless, its white dome topped by a 16ft high, 3 ton Angel of Victory that can be seen from way off.
The memorial’s main attraction is the museum, a small but interesting one that spreads out across two floors and focuses on the history of Kolkata, especially its colonial history. This is one of my favourite museums in India, so I was keen to see it again. Accordingly, we arrived at the gate of Victoria Memorial about 10.30 AM (the museum opens at 10 AM), and bought our tickets. From the gate, straight broad gravel paths cut through well-kept lawns, past a massive statue of a brooding and grim Queen Victoria, up to the steps of the Victoria Memorial. Having traversed this stretch (and admired both Victoria and the bronze friezes below her statue), we climbed up to the entrance, where our tickets were examined and we were made to turn off our cell phones—no phones are allowed inside the museum (no photography is allowed, either).
On the ground floor, off to the right is a large gallery called the Calcutta Gallery. As you can probably guess, this is devoted to Calcutta: its history, its inhabitants, its architecture, its topography and more. We’d seen most of this before, so took only a brief while to check out the wonderful old photographs and prints that form a large part of the gallery. It has reams of information (in English only) describing the city from its conception to the present day, with an emphasis on colonial Calcutta. There are also odds and ends relating to historic Calcutta here: scraps of embroidery, maps, clothing, and so on.
From the Calcutta Gallery, we headed back towards the circular hall that forms the centre of the building, topped by the dome. This hall is dotted with white marble statues of some of colonial India’s most illustrious personages, including Robert Clive, the man who led the British to some of their most important victories in India. This hall has an eclectic blend of displays in glass cases: there’s the theodolite that was used to originally measure the height of Mount Everest; there are lengths of cable from the first telegraph line laid in India, and even a cannon that was seized by Clive at the decisive Battle of Plassey (1757.
From the rotunda, we moved on to the next hall, the Darbar Hall, which houses the Artist’s Eye Gallery: India 1770-1835. Fairly obvious what this is: a gallery of paintings depicting India between 1770 and 1835. This is considered one of the finest collections in India of what is known as Company School of Art (after the East India Company). The paintings are by greats such as William and Thomas Daniell, Tilly Kettle, Johann Zoffany, William Hodges, James Wales and Thomas Hickey. They cover a vast range of subjects, from portraits of native rulers and head honchos of the East India Company, to sceneries, historic monuments, depictions of battles and other violent activities like pig-sticking or tiger hunts, and—these are rather rare—natives at work. There are lots of excellent paintings here—my favourites are a painting of the Nawab Shuja-ud-Daulah, his sons and a couple of British officers (by Tilly Kettle), and a superb portrait of Warren Hastings (by Lemuel Francis Abbott).
As far as I’m concerned, the best part of the Victoria Memorial art collection is contained in a gallery that they’ve recently opened, devoted to the Daniells. William Daniell and his nephew Thomas arrived in India in 1786 on the first of a series of excursions around the country, painting the land and its many marvels. Their work was largely commercial (on their return to England, they made a hefty profit by selling their paintings), but is also often very pleasant to look at. The Victoria Memorial has purportedly the world’s largest collection of Daniells, including oil paintings and aquatints, with subjects ranging from historic structures like the Jama Masjid and Taj Mahal in Delhi (both, alas, very disproportionate!), the Qutub Minar, scenes of Calcutta (invariably excellent), and the Ellora Temples. Many of the paintings, especially those of Calcutta and of the temples of Southern India, are exceptionally detailed and intricate.
We were in a hurry to get along, since we’d promised to meet someone right after, so we couldn’t see all of the Victoria Memorial on this trip. But the Daniells collection, even by itself, is reason enough to visit: it’s superb. The museum, by the way, also offers for sale low-priced reproductions of some of the works in its collection, including works currently not on display. Don’t bother buying: the reproductions are really grotty and probably not even worth the paper they’re printed on.
Yes, one last piece of advice: do look up at the ceiling as you wander through the halls of the building. There are beautiful murals all along the inside of some of the halls, and the towering rotunda below the dome is stunning.
From journal Kolkata, Very Very Quick
new delhi, India
February 3, 2003
Today the museum houses a major collection of paintings, sculptures, and manuscripts from the British period.
Here's their website.
From journal The capial of British India
December 8, 2002
Explore the grounds (which are dotted with bronze sculptures of Queen Victoria, and of many of India’s governors-general), and then enter the memorial, an imposing domed structure of white marble that looks straight out of Europe.
Inside, you’ll come to what’s known as the Queen’s Hall, fringed along its walls by marble busts of colonial Calcutta’s glitterati- Warren Hastings, Clive, Cornwallis and William Makepeace Thackeray- the latter’s here by virtue of having been born in Kolkata- among others. Also displayed are French cannons seized by Clive at the decisive Battle of Plassey (1757) and theodolites used to trigonometrically measure Mt Everest.
To the right of the Queen’s Hall is the `Artist’s Eye Gallery: India 1770-1835’, a fine collection of paintings depicting India in the 65 years from 1770 onwards- when the East India Company managed to get a foothold in India, and finally succeeded in establishing British rule here. The gallery features works by a vast number of painters- William Daniell, Arthur William Devis, William Hodges, Thomas Hickey, Johann Zoffany and Tilly Kettle (Kettle’s creations here include two splendid works, one of Mughal emperor Shah Alam reviewing the East India Company’s troops at Allahabad, and the other of the Nawab of Awadh, Shuja-ud-Daulah, with his four sons). The paintings in the gallery are very varied, and depict cities, people (British and Indian, common and noble) and Indian monuments.
Beyond the Queen’s Hall is one gallery you should aim on spending time in: the Calcutta Gallery. Amazingly eclectic, it’s largely occupied by a highly detailed account of the city’s history, including illustrations, old maps, photographs, and a few lifesize models. For those who haven’t the time to read each panel, do browse through the delightful odds and ends here. Among the best are sets of original paintingof natives (a hookah-burdar or hubble-bubble bearer; a coolie, a gwallan or milkmaid, a roti-wallah or bread-seller, etc); and of Calcutta during `Company’ days- tiger and hog hunts, parades and processions, merchants, scenes from Fort William, and more.
Other must-sees: parts of the first telegraph line laid in India between Calcutta and Diamond Harbour in 1851; Lord Minto’s office box (titled: `Governor General: Private’); Lord Hastings’ cufflinks; the original copy of the oath and proclamation of Robert Clive when he took over at Calcutta as Governor of Bengal; and a shockingly long listing of the servants in the household of Alexander Macrabie, Sheriff of Calcutta (110 servants for a family of 4!).
Entry tickets cost Rs 150 for non-Indians; the Memorial’s open between 10 and 4.30.
From journal The Charm of Kolkata