The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, May 6, 2001
Time Off

Treasures in princely museums
By Manohar Malgonkar

MUSEUMS are surely the bread and butter of package-tour operators. All that they have to do is to run comfortable coach services to the bigger cities which possess one or more museums. The slogan of the profession is, ‘If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rome’. For their clients, who are people like ourselves, Tuesdays are days when they’ll be shepherded past the ruins of the forum, offered a glimpse of the colossus, and then let off for a leg-stretch on the steps of Villa Borghese.

The A-to-Z guide to London lists as many as 20 museums. New York has 23. Most of these institutions are housed in palaces built by the most eminent architects of their time. As you trudge through their numbing twists and turns, nervous about whether you’ll be able to find your way out again, you’re grateful to see the reassuring notices displayed at frequent intervals: You are here!

So, don’t panic. You’ll find your way out — so that your tour-operator can whisk you off to some other museum. For if it’s Wednesday, its Madrid — and Prado.

Every single one of these world-famous museums contains literally thousands of rare exhibits and some of them are priceless. But life is short, and no one can live long enough to make a close study of all exhibits even in one museum. To rush past them at a trot, just to be able to say, "I’ve seen ‘The Dance’ by Henri Matisse — oh, fabulous!" is stupid. Even well-known works of art leave you cold. I have seen the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I remember nothing of it; I, who dote on a copy of one of Van Gogh’s landscapes — copy done from a print — by an artist friend. It hangs in the entrance hall of my house.

Battle honours for staying power
April 29, 2001
Errors of precision
April 15, 2001
Hats off to the sahibs
April 1, 2001
The fate of trees
February 4, 2001
Indelible memories
January 21, 2001
Small men too can make history
January 14, 2001
Of officers & gentlemen
November 19, 2000
Officers and gentlemen
October 15,2000
Villains and heroes
October 7, 2000
Among the immortals
October 1, 2000
The sad story of unquiet graves
August 20, 2000

Rare manuscripts
August 13, 2000

Letters for sale
July 30, 2000

Retreat from Naulakha
July 16, 2000
The land of goats
July 2, 2000
What a tangled web !
June 25, 2000

I must have ‘seen’ 50 or so museums, including some world-famous all a million or so museum pieces, shall we say? Alas, I can only count on my fingers the things that made a profound impression on me. And all but one or two are from our own museums.

In India, perhaps the richest museums are the ones in the capitals of princely states. After all, it was our Maharajas who, for a couple of centuries, were patrons of our arts: Painters, singers, dancers flourished in their courts. They were also passionate hunters.

In the museum at Udaipur, which houses some of the possessions of its maharajas, there is an unbelievably large pair of wild-boar tushes. I remember them because I was once a big-game hunter, and wild-boar tushes are hunting trophies. I didn’t even know that these tusk-like ‘teeth’ that wild pigs use as tools to dig up the earth for roots could be longer than a man’s finger span. The pair in the Udaipur museum must be 30-cm-long and as thick as a man’s wrist.

Ujjain, which was part of Gwalior state, also has a museum. It possesses the skull of an ancient elephant which had lain buried in the bed of the Narmada river for centuries. Judging by that skull, that elephant must have been simply enormous. Is that how big elephants were in the days of the Mahabharata? —- or even in the fourth century BC, when Alexander the Great came to India? There is a reference in the Oxford History that the horses of Alexander’s army were frightened when they first saw our elephants ranged against them. They should be, too, if those elephants were as large as the one whose skull is to be seen in Ujjain.

One item that made a profound impression on my mind was displayed in a glass case in a room that, so far as I could see, was unguarded. It is a Persian translation of the Ramayana, made at the behest of one of the lesser Mughal emperors. It is of modest size and its pages are the colours

of teak wood. But it positively glows with the illuminations which must have been etched in primary colours that were laced with powdered gems. My initial reaction was one of surprise that so precious an object should have been kept in open view in a glass case among a jumble of other exhibits. To get at it, you merely had to tip open the lid.

In another of these museums in the old princely states, that of Gwalior, I saw, maybe 30 or so exquisite Rajput paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries, systematically vandalised by those who, in post-princely times, were placed in charge of them. In the lower part of each picture, there is a typed declaration that it is the property of the museum, complete with the signature of the curator and the stamp of his office in violet ink. Those once-priceless paintings are now rendered valueless by bureaucratic thoughtlessness. They have been transformed into documents.

This is ‘babuism’ at its best. To make sure that paintings in his charge are not stolen, their custodian puts his own seal and signature on them. It is possible that he had heard of what happened to some of the Rajput miniatures in the Jaipur museum. Some smart thief stole them by substituting copies in their places. The theft was not even discovered for years.

But then this sort of loss by pilfering, somehow seems understandable in a museum such as this one; for Jaipur’s Old Palace Museum is like an

Alladin’s cave, crammed to the ceiling with covetable objects. So, if a few of its Rajput paintings had gone, why, they had plenty more in their storage sheds to put up in their places. The fact is that they have not been able to put on display some of their most precious possessions because of lack of wall space. As it is, their exhibits lack breathing space. The old palace was not designed to serve as a museum. They’ve had to do the best they could; find room for a bewildering variety of treasures, from thumb-sized miniatures which are meant to be worn as pendants, to elephant howdas and then find room for a Persian carpet of the early 18th century which is large enough to cover half a tennis court.

The last lot of our maharajas were sportsmen or playboys. But, they seem to have gone on adding to their possessions nevertheless. It was one of the last maharajas of Mysore who put together his collection of bronzes and Ravi Varma paintings. Sayajirao of Baroda acquired his library of ancient manuscripts, as also paintings by some of Europe’s best known artists: Bonifezzio, Durer, Titian — they must be worth millions today.

As princely museums go, the one in Kolhapur is quite modest. Its special attraction is a hall which contains its late rulers’ hunting trophies. At one end, against a background of a jungle setting, is a tableau of half a dozen tigers drinking at a pool. It is so lifelike that visitors tend to talk in whispers for fear that, if they talked loudly, the tigers would vanish into the jungle.

The pride of the Kolhapur museum is its collection of weapons of hand-to-hand warfare: swords, spears, daggers, and the like. Some of the swords, worked with gold in their blades or with jewels encrusted into their handles, are said to be valuable. But of course, swords mean little to ordinary people, and not many people linger in the hall with the swords.

But I do, whenever I visit Kolhapur; because a corner in this room is set aside for the memorabilia of the late maharaja’s deep interest in historical research. His History Circle was a discussion group of fellow history buffs, and I was a founder member of this circle. Among the 50 or so books kept in a shelf in this corner are two written by me, and I also figure in a group photograph of The Circle prominently displayed on top of the shelf.

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