Museum Treasure: Rati and Kamadeva

In one of the galleries on the ground floor of the Government Museum, Bengaluru, there is a cordoned off area in the centre which holds a large wooden piece of furniture with delicate inlay work. From the cordon and the placement one would assume that this is an important exhibit and also be a little puzzled by the lack of any information about it. Except for a piece of paper taped on the surface which says “Dressing Table”. That’s it.

It is almost as if the Museum was telling the visitor that now that you know what it is, you can admire it and move on. Or you can attempt to interpret it.

I chose the second option once I saw the details and the theme of the inlay work on the dressing table, which has two distinct parts — the lower simple table with minimal inlay work, and the ornate upper part. The upper part of the dressing table has an elaborate depiction of the Hindu god of love and desire, Kamadeva and his consort, Rati. Both are depicted with bows made from sugarcane stalks and flower tipped arrows. Kamadeva or Manmatha as he is also known as, sports a mustache and is heavily bejewelled. Rati, who is also the goddess of sexual desire and pleasure strikes a bewitching pose. Both are framed in separate panels with very delicate arabesque design on them.

Bangalore Government Museum, Rati and Kamadeva, Museum Treasure, Dressing Table
The dressing table with inlay work depicting Rati on the left and Kamadeva or Mathana on the right. They are flanked by two women on either side.
Bangalore Government Museum, Kamadeva, Museum Treasure, Dressing Table
Kamadeva / Manmatha
Bangalore Government Museum, Rati, Museum Treasure, Dressing Table

I’m no expert on wood, so can’t say what kind of wood this dressing table is made from — probably teakwood or rosewood? The wood grain is lovely and my hands reach out automatically to touch it and I withdraw it just in time. Also, I’m not sure if the inlay is ivory or camel bone or some other material.

You might wonder that if this is indeed a dressing table, then where is the mirror? I did too and from the brown packing tape stuck in the centre, between the Rati and Kamadeva panels, one can safely presume that this part probably opens out to reveal a mirror or mirrors. Maybe there are several compartments behind the doors to store perfumes, oils, jewellery, etc.

Absence of any information about this exhibit is the perfect excuse for my imagination to run riot and questions to ponder over. Who did this belong to? Was this a gift from a husband to his wife? Was the woman who used it particular about dressing up? Did she take a long time to do her shringaar? What did she think of when she did her shringaar every day?

Bangalore Government Museum, Rati, Museum Treasure, Dressing Table, Kamadeva

However, the questions I keep coming back to is why is there a lack of information on this exhibit? And why has packing tape been used to keep the doors shut?

The cordon keeps the most curious of visitors at bay and keeps the exhibit safe from them. But what will it take to keep the exhibits safe from the custodians of museum exhibits, the museum authorities themselves?

PS: The Government Museum, Bangalore, is housed in a grand buildings and has a great collection. But the display and information about the exhibits leave much to be desired. The Museum Treasure that I have shared in this post is just one example; there are many more at the Museum. From wrong labels to no labels to labels placed at a height making it difficult to read… I could just go on.

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

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