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.
In India, popular perception in religious art largely spread through calendars, posters and periodicals. These colourful works of art were important in reinforcing images that we instantly recognise today. For instance, if we were to try to imagine Rama’s coronation in Ayodhya, it would be something like this — Rama and Sita seated on the royal throne with Hanuman bowing at their feet. Rama’s brothers, Lakshmana, Bharata and Shatrughna are in attendance, as is the Vanar king Sugreeva. The royal priest, Vashishta, is busy conducting the ceremony.
It is a gloriously celebratory image, but uni dimensional, and oh-so-safe-and-recognisable, if you know what I mean. And frankly, quite boring as the expressions on all the faces are fixed and beatific.
But then, sometimes, one comes across depictions that shakes you out of the boredom and makes you look at the same thing all over again, but with delight this time.
I came across two artifacts/tableaus on Rama’s coronation at at Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Though both were instantly recognisable for what they depicted, they had more than an element of surprise on offer. Here is the first one:
In a fenced enclosure outside the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (formerly known as Victoria & Albert Museum) at the Jijamata Udyaan (formerly known as Victoria Garden) in Mumbai, is an Elephant. Not a flesh and blood elephant, mind you, but a stone elephant with a long and interesting history to share.
Carved in the 6th century from a single piece of rock at one of the many entrances to the island known as Gharpuri, the Elephant saw many a king come and go for over a 1000 years. Then one day, in early 16th century, the Elephant saw the first European colonisers — the Portuguese — to the region. The Portuguese were so awed by him that they promptly named the Gharpuri after him — the Elephanta Island, a name it has been known as since then.
When the Portuguese relinquished their rights over the region to the British 150 years later, the Elephant was witness to this as well. The new colonisers were also impressed and awed with him. In fact, the English were so impressed with the Elephant, that they wanted to take him home to England. But this was no easy task and it took them nearly 200 years to put their wish in action.
On a sunny day in 1864, a crane was brought to the Island to lift the Elephant from his rocky home and transport him to ship that would then take him to a new home at a museum in England. This was no easy task and the local people and the English Officers directing this operation watched with bated breath as the crane huffed and puffed, and finally managed to lift the Elephant.
And as the arm of the crane swung around with its elephantine cargo, disaster struck. The crane snapped sending the Elephant crashing down and breaking him into pieces.
I love museums, and I can spend hours inside them pottering about and looking at their varied collections. And yet strangely, for some inexplicable reason, I have never really explored the museums in my city of Mumbai. Of course, I have visited them as a child but not really visited them, if you know what I mean.
So one rainy day in August last year, I took the afternoon off from work to see the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDLM). This was a museum that I had never visited, but one that I had heard about a lot from Appa. I went without a camera as I automatically assumed that, like most Indian museums, photography was not allowed. Big mistake. Non-flash photography was allowed in the Museum, though they don’t really advertise the fact.
The dazzling 3-hour BDLM visit was a visual treat all the way — right from the stately Museum building to its grand interiors (that reminded me of a ballroom) to its tastefully displayed collection — and one that stayed with me longer than the time I spent there. I knew that I didn’t just want to write about the BDLM’s artefacts in my Museum Treasure series, but write an entire post on the Museum itself. And since I wanted to include photographs, I had to wait for an opportunity to visit the BDLM once again. And last month, I got that chance and when the Museum opened it’s doors that Friday morning, I was the first to enter with a big smile and my camera. 🙂