The Museums of Delhi

From trains to toilets to terracotta: Delhi’s museums range from commonplace to unusual to sheer whacky. A brief roundup of some of the best museums in town.


National Gallery of Modern Art

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 30, 2006

The National Gallery of Modern Art celebrates fifty years in 2006, so we decided to visit. The Gallery isn’t huge; you can do it in two hours. But it’s a fine collection, and contains some of India’s best art.

At the entrance, next to the ticket counter (tickets are Rs 150 each), is a shop that sells somewhat grubby prints. We continued, past a circular atrium featuring a group sculpture of metal figures, into the first gallery. This one, like most others, contained a mishmash of styles and artists. There were delicate paintings in the Company style, of peasants and artisans; vivid images of the snowcapped Himalayas by the Russian Nikolai Roerich; and exquisite miniatures, perfect in every detail, of Buddhist monasteries and mendicants, by B Sen. There was an amazing painting (At Rest) of a man reading a newspaper, by Pestonjee Eruchshaw Bomanjee; an 18th century watercolour depicting the fort at Chunargarh, by William Hodges; and a photograph of a Maharaja by the famous Indian photographer Lala Deen Dayal.

From here, we turned left into a gallery of 21st century art. The works here, almost universally show Western influences - as in Sachin Karne’s boldly erotic painting of black-and-white lovers entwined within the outline of a plane etched onto a red-and-black reproduction of part of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. My favourites here, however, were two large paintings by Chintan Upadhaya. Both were in solid, bright backgrounds, one with a human face outlined, the other with a dancing figure - and the outline filled in with traditional Rajasthani painting. Visually unforgettable!

The heavyweights of Indian art are represented in the gallery on the right of the first gallery. Here are the soft, distinctly Oriental watercolours of Nandalal Bose, the impressionist paintings of D P Roy Chowdhury, and the works of the brothers Abanindranath and Gaganendranath Tagore (other works by them, along with some drawings by their uncle, Rabindranath, are on the first floor). And there’s an entire gallery dedicated to the diva of modern Indian art, Amrita Sher-Gil (1913-41). The Indo-Hungarian Sher-Gil was influenced by Gauguin and Cezanne, and her paintings -of Indian and Western subjects- are awesome (her sensual Self-Portrait and the delightful Two Elephants are both part of the Gallery’s collection).

Upstairs, on the first floor, are more paintings- a gallery of Sher-Gil (which we couldn’t see; an art class was using the room to sketch a nearly-nude male); some stunning works by Antonio Xaviour Trindade -his The Pan-Patti Shop is a masterpiece of light and shade- and a room of Jamini Roy’s works. Roy is another of my favourites. His style, which was influenced by Bengali peasant art, consists of sweeping curves, solid colours, and stunning figures characterized by huge, almond-shaped eyes. Among the most fascinating works here are Bengali Woman (a face, with hauntingly beautiful eyes, looking out above a billowing white sari); and Three Pujarins- three priestesses, clad in blue saris.

All in all,  very satisfying two hours - money well spent! The gallery’s open Tuesday through Sunday,  from 10am to 5pm.

National Gallery of Modern Art
Jaipur House, India Gate
New Delhi, India, 110003
011 23384560

National Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 30, 2006

With a collection of 206,000 artifacts, the National Museum covers 5,000 years of Indian history, and is definitely one of India’s best museums. It spreads across three floors, and you get a glimpse of what’s to come as you enter. The corridor’s lined with intricately carved stone statues, some more than 500 years old. India, never a homogeneous entity, has mostly been divided into individual kingdoms or states. Many of these patronised art, and you’ll get to see some good examples in the museum. If you don’t have the time to see them all, head for these galleries:

1. Harappan Civilisation: Harappa and some smaller sites form part of the Indus Valley civilisation (one of the four major Bronze Age civilisations in Asia). The gallery has about 3,800 objects, including painted jars; tiny (and I mean miniscule) figurines of people and animals; jewellery; and beautifully crafted bronze figurines. Some of the exhibits are so stunning, it’s hard to believe they’re nearly 4,000 years old.

2. Archaeology: A vague name, but this gallery actually contains about 800 stone and metal sculptures from across time and space. Look out for the immensely ornate idols of the Cholas (a South Indian dynasty between the 9th and 13th centuries). Also worth a peek are the Satvahana sculptures, and the displays of Gandhara art - a form that drew inspiration from Greece.

3. Indian Miniature Paintings: The museum has one of the world’s largest collections of miniature paintings. There have been dozens of schools of miniature art in India (Rajasthani, Mughal, Deccani, Bengali and Pahari are among them), and they’re amply represented, with about 350 works displayed. The paintings depict a variety of themes - love stories, religion, and hunting. Among the best are portraits of Mughal emperors and princes, painted by court artists. My favourite work, however, is a 24 x 21cm painting depicting the court of the Mughal emperor Shah Alam. The painting dates back to 1800-10. About 50 people or so are shown, and the painting’s so fine, you can actually see details of clothing, and of the embroidery on the throne canopy. It’s stupendous.

4. Decorative Arts and Jewellery: Adjacent to each other, these are the museum’s most sumptuous galleries. The Decorative Arts gallery houses just about anything made of semi-precious stone, ivory, enamel, and the like: pen cases, jewellery boxes, a miniature temple, huqqa bases, and what not. The Jewellery Gallery begins with fairly simple Harappan necklaces, and goes on to huge necklaces, crowns, bracelets and more, dripping with precious stones.

If you have a few minutes, visit the Arms and Armour Gallery on the second floor - it has interesting weaponry, including some fearsome maces and clubs. It also contains personal armour and weaponry belonging to a few of India’s most distinguished warrior kings.

Entry to the museum is Rs 300. An audiotape with headphones can be hired near the ticket counter. A tip: try not to visit on weekdays, when hordes of noisy schoolchildren descend on the museum.

The National Museum of India

Janpath, New Delhi

The Crafts Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 30, 2006

The Crafts Museum (officially the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum), is more than just exhibits; artisans display their skills and sell their wares; there’s also a reference library and a crafts shop - and an indifferent cafeteria.

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.

The Crafts Museum
Pragati Maidan, Bhairon Marg
New Delhi, India
011 23371370

The International Museum of Toilets

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 30, 2006

Delhi’s wackiest museum is about 6 km from the International Airport (3 from the Domestic Airport), so a quick look in transit is convenient. Alternatively, take the Metro from Rajiv Chowk to Dwarka Sector 9, 10 minutes by autorickshaw from the museum.

The Toilet Museum is part of a complex with a school, a college of vocational training, a biogas plant, and research laboratories for waste disposal. It’s run by Sulabh International, an NGO that provides eco-friendly solutions for waste disposal. Sulabh’s synonymous with public loos in India, and run thousands of paid loos.

We visited the complex one hot Saturday afternoon. The staff were very welcoming. They showed us round, explained their work, and guided us round the museum. By the end, our feet hurt, but we’d gained an insight into shit!

Anyway: more about the museum, which was established in 1994. Though small, it contains a wealth of information on the history of personal hygiene, toilets, baths, and more. Almost every inch of the walls is covered with framed posters, arranged in chronological order as you move clockwise from the door. The display begins with a history of toilets in India. Ancient archaeological sites like Lothal, Taxila, and Harappa (2500 BC, with the Indian subcontinent’s oldest toilet) are showcased, as are the baths, sewers and drainage systems at newer sites like Golconda and Fatehpur Sikri. There’s also - snigger, snigger - a 'Toilet Etiquette Code’ from the Manusmriti Vishnupuran (1500 BC).

There’s lots of other information on the world’s first sewer (Rome, 615 BC); the public baths and sewers in Egypt (3000 BC), Babylonia, Crete, Jerusalem, and Pompeii. I didn’t read everything - there’s just too much - but I did learn some truly loony trivia. That till the 1100s, it was common in Europe for chamberpots to be emptied out the nearest window. That the first sewers in Paris were built in the 1200s; that in medieval Austria a bucket and a voluminous cloak could be hired if you suddenly 'felt the urge’ while out walking. That Louis XIII insisted on privacy while dining, but was quite comfortable crapping during an audience (I pity the poor audience). There’s more modern trivia too: Hatington invented the WC in 1596; Jennings invented the closet 300 years later; and the microwave loo appeared in 1990.

And there are models of historic loos: prettily painted chamberpots, urinals, bidets, and whatnot. There are loos disguised as upholstered sofas; a wooden chair; and a stack of books (English classics - this was a French invention). There’s the portable PortaPotti, and the Incinolet (which uses electricity to dispose of waste).

There’s even a handy tip: Su-jok therapy. To suppress the urge to 'go’, use a pen or other blunt object to press firmly down on your palm, tracing a square in an anticlockwise direction. Make sure it’s anticlockwise; clockwise will have the opposite effect.

Very informative, great fun - and worth a visit. The museum’s open from Monday to Saturday, from 10am to 5pm. Entry is free. For more, see Sulabh Toilet Museum.

International Museum of Toilets
Sulabh Bhawan, Mahavir Enclave, Palam Dabri Marg
Delhi, 110 045
91-11-25031518-19

Museum of Indian Terracotta and of Everyday Art

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 30, 2006

There are many reasons to visit these two little known museums. Firstly, they’re both quiet, peaceful places - the day we went visiting, we were the only people around. Secondly, though small, they have excellent collections. Thirdly, entry is absolutely free. The fact that both museums are set in pretty gardens, and that the staff (in particular the coordinator, a cheerful girl called Supriya) are very helpful, doesn’t hurt either.

We entered at the gate of the Sanskriti Kendra (literally, the 'Culture Centre’) and made our way to the reception area, where Supriya told us a bit about the layout of the museums. She then left us to do our own thing, and we wandered off to the Museum of Indian Terracotta. The museum spreads out across a series of interconnected rooms daubed with mud to look like rural houses- very quaint.

Terracotta has been an important part of life in India for thousands of years; in fact, in some places, patterns used today resemble the pottery made by the people of the Indus Valley civilisation 3,000 years ago. There are many variations of terracotta, with red or black ware being made in different regions. Icons, especially of Hindu deities, are common, as are depictions of birds and animals. The museum houses examples of these, arranged in order of state or region. There are statues, large urns, jars, pitchers, platters, and even mud walls painted with traditional art used to decorate terracotta. Not a large display by any means, but pleasant enough. Outside the museum, a group of traditional potters were at work, from whom we bought a lovely little birdbath for Rs 300.

From the Museum of Indian Terracotta, we walked on, to the Museum of Everyday Art, a large hall that Supriya got unlocked for us. This museum is enough reason to visit the Sanskriti Kendra. It offers an interesting insight into the traditional art forms that used to permeate (and still do, to a sadly decreasing extent) daily life in India. From carefully carved wooden toys to huqqa bases, from little idols of deities to pots and pans - houses in India have used the work of skilled artisans in items that would have otherwise been pretty mundane. Bidri ware (gunmetal inlaid with silver); copper, brass, bronze, carved wood, ivory, silver: it’s all here, in a rich variety of forms from across India.

The exhibits are arranged in a series of glass cases, all well labelled and very user-friendly. Items are grouped in order of usage: toys and items to be used by children; items used in smoking; writing instruments, pen cases and inkpots; kitchen utensils; items that were part of a woman’s beauty kit; religious items; and so on. Among the most imposing is a large hundred-year old accountant’s ledger, covered in beautifully stamped leather, all of 700-odd pages thick.

Very impressive. Like the museum itself. Both museums are open from 10am to 5pm daily, except Mondays.

Sanskriti Museums of Indian Terracotta and of Everyday Art
Anand Gram, Arjun Garh, Ghitorni, Near Aaya Nagar, Mehrauli Gurgaon Road
New Delhi, India
011 26501796

The National Rail Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by phileasfogg on December 30, 2006

150 years of history - and the world’s largest network - aren’t to be sneezed at. Indian Railways has loads to show off, and it’s all displayed here.

Inaugurated in 1977, the National Rail Museum is an outdoor affair spread over 11 acres. The tiny Joy Train chugs along every few minutes on a circuit of the area, and an unsightly eatery stands in the middle of it all.

The museum’s most conspicuous exhibits are steam locomotives. Most date to the late 1800s, and were built largely by British manufacturers with evocative names: Dubs Co., Glasgow; Vulcan Foundry; Saltley Works; Kerr Stuart and Co.; and Beyer, Peacock and Co. Ltd. There are some impressive locomotives here: the HG-/C-1598, with a massive silver-coloured cowcatcher; and the F-734, built at the Ajmer Workshop of the Rajputana Malwa Railway in 1895. There are, equally, some surprises: the Mourbhuj Coach has no brakes. The world’s oldest functional steam locomotive, the Fairy Queen (1855), used to be the star attraction, but has now been pressed back into service and does leisurely tours to Alwar.

You can climb into most locomotives for free, but Rs 50 is charged to view one of the saloons. There are three: the Prince of Wales saloon, built for the Prince (later Edward VII) when he came for the Royal Durbar of 1896; the saloon of Maharaja Krishnarao Wodeyar of Mysore; and the saloon of the Gaekwar of Baroda. If (like us) you arrive at lunchtime, when nobody’s around to open the saloon, climb the steps and peer in - you’ll see part. The Gaekwar’s saloon, all gold-enamelled ceiling and etched glass, is definitely worth a peek.

There are some modern locomotives including a dynamometer car and a track recording car; a crane, built in 1883 at a cost of Rs 7,000; a sheep van; and an indoor gallery.

The gallery houses a neglected souvenir shop and lots of railway memorabilia, including signals, telephones, a station clock, electrical fittings, and Victorian tableware. Cases of buttons, badges and first day covers occupy one section, as do some quaint photographs of VIPs on trains and platforms: Gandhi, Nehru, maharajas, and Viceroys such as Hardinge and Linlithgow.

One wall’s covered with emblems of defunct state railways, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, the Gaekwar’s Baroda Railway and the Cooch Behar Railway among them; and there are dozens of builder plates of rolling stock. A large section is devoted to models of locomotives and hill railways such as the Nilgiri Railway and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR, a World Heritage site). The DHR section has some amusing engravings of the work done on the DHR.

There is also, interestingly enough, the skull of an elephant killed in 1894 when a train banged into it (was the locomotive akin to the Mourbhuj Coach?). One tusk was dispatched to London while the other was presented to the engine driver, so what’s here is a somewhat depleted version of the pulverised pachyderm.

The Museum is closed on Mondays. Entry is Rs 10 per adult.

The National Rail Museum
Chanakyapuri
New Delhi, India, 110021
91-11-26881826

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