I love museums. Regular readers of this blog will know that museums have played a very important part in developing and furthering my interests and knowledge in art, culture, history and sometimes, even deciding where to travel to next. Though not all museums have been uniformly good, I have never left one without having learnt something new there, something that has added to my knowledge. Till recently, that is.
About 10 days back, I went to see an exhibition titled “Wonder Weaves of Varanasi” at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai. The aim of the exhibition was to showcase textiles and weaves from Benares / Varanasi as part of the larger ‘Make in India‘ campaign. It had been curated by Shaina NC, and was organised in association with the Ministry of Textiles of Government of India, and supported by Lakmé Fashion Week.
Prior to my visit, I had seen tantalising pictures of the exhibits on social media and then came across this newspaper report, which got me all intrigued about the exhibition. Since I knew next to nothing about weaves from Benares / Varanasi, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get acquainted with them.
So, it was with great excitement that I arrived at the Museum, and my very first view of the exhibits justified that excitement.
However, when I left the Museum after viewing the exhibition, my mood was very different — puzzled, disappointed and a little angry as well.
Let me elaborate.
The exhibition, which was spread over both floors of the Museum, was dazzling. Benarasi weaves in jewel, pastel and earth colours, with bird, animal, floral, tree and leaf designs, and on sarees, lehengas, dresses, jackets…were all around me. It took a while for the sensory delight to settle down before I realised that something was missing in the exhibition. Something very important.
Every exhibit had the name of its designer — Ritu Kumar, Anita Dongre, Ritu Beri, Gaurav Gupta, Varun Bahl, Rina Dhaka, etc. But there was no information on who the weaver was and what the weave was all about, its history, its uniqueness, symbolism… nothing.
There was also nothing like an overarching information board or pamphlet that wove the exhibition together.
My first thought was that I had missed seeing the information on the exhibition. So I checked all the exhibits on both the floors of the Museum and even on the walls. But there was nothing. I then checked with a member of the Museum’s staff, only to be told that there was no information available !
My original plan was to spend the entire morning at the exhibition, but I left after 45 minutes. For no matter how beautiful the weaves, without a context or a history or a story they were quite soulless. Have a look at them.
Presenting 35 photographs of some of the exhibits at the “Woven Wonders of Varanasi”. The shots are a mix and will enable you to see the display as well as the details. Clicking on any picture will start a slide show, but I recommend that you start from the first one. Do remember to come back and read the rest of the post once you’re done with the photographs. 🙂
The visit to the exhibition also raised a lot of questions in my mind on the roles and responsibilities of museums in general, and curators in particular. Is the curator’s job only to select and conceptualise the idea for an exhibition? What about the information that goes with it? Isn’t that the curator’s responsibility as well? What is the role of museums in this? Isn’t it their responsibility to see that an exhibition is as informative as possible?
In the days since my visit to the exhibition, I have neither been able to stop thinking about the exhibition, nor get over my disappointment at the way it was presented. The “Wonder Weaves of Varanasi” would have been more at home in a mall than at a museum. The casual display and designer credit would have been just perfect for a mall.
This would have been an excellent opportunity to showcase how traditional weaves are being used in contemporary fashion, and how heritage is being given a new lease of life. Sadly, the exhibition turned to be a frivolous display.
Unfortunately, the losers here are viewers like me. 😦