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Delhi Museum - Preserving A Rare Gift

Well-known for its display of tribal and rural art, the museum continues to be a major draw for art lovers and scholars

The creation of the museum, aimed at housing objects of antiquity is of western origin. Indians themselves did not have a tradition of setting up museums of fragmented sculptures, rusted swords and out-of-context paintings. Broken images were immersed in holy rivers and worn out objects were left to decay and merge with the very earth from which they were created. As India adopted the readymade western archaeological museum concept in the nineteenth century, it missed out on the fact that, unlike the west, the ‘past’ and ‘present’ were not so severely divided and it therefore failed to give adequate importance to its museums. It is this overlooked dimension of Indian culture which is emphasised in the concept of the Crafts Museum in Delhi.

Soon after the Independence of India, various projects and schemes for preservation and development of handicrafts were envisaged in the First and Second Five Year Plans. In the 1950s and ’60s it was decided to establish a crafts museum to serve as reference material for the craftsmen whose hereditary traditions were fading in the face of modern industrialisation.

The low-lying museum building, most appropriate for displaying India’s rural and tribal arts is designed by renowned architect Charles Correa to act as metaphor for an Indian village street - affable, accommodative and active. A walk across the museum building is through open and semi-open passages covered with sloping, tiled roofs and lined with old carved wooden jharokhas, doors, copper utensils, storage jars and perforated iron screens. The courtyards have domed pigeon houses adorned with arches and lattice-work panels, terracotta shrines and tulsi plants. Massive temple chariots and vermilion-covered aniconic wayside shrines, provide a peep into vast the museum galleries. The scales and proportions of the building are based on traditional Indian villages.

The Collection

The museum’s collection of about 22,000 objects, comprises bronze images; lamps and incense burners; ritual accessories; utensils and other items of everyday use; wood and stone carvings; papier mache; ivory dolls; toys; puppets; masks and jewellery; decorative metalware including bidri work; paintings; printed wall hangings; saris employing techniques of brocade, ikat, jamdani and tie and dye embroideries.

Moreover, there is a reference collection comprising about 15000 objects which can be used by scholars, designers, craftsmen and interested public for study and research. While brief captions provide basic information about the displayed objects, for further information the museum’s catalogue could prove informative.

The Village Complex

The museum’s village complex set up in 1972 is a remnant of a temporary exhibition on the theme of rural India. Spread over an area of about four acres, the village complex comprises 15 structures representing village dwellings, courtyards and shrines from Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

All the huts, courtyards and shrines are built in facsimile with regional construction material by the village masons, artisans, thatchers and carpenters. The huts and courtyard display items of day-to-day life.

Some of the walls of the museum provide a magnificent canvas for visiting tribal and rural painters. The visitors can leave their mark on the canvas by drawing or painting. This is a distinct feature of the museum.

Craftspersons at Work

By an informal estimate, there are more than 30 million weavers, craftspersons and folk artists living in India who possess inherited skills and use them for earning their livelihood. In this programme, the museum invites about 50 craftspersons from all over India to be in residence, providing them an opportunity to demonstrate their craft and find new market opportunities. The programme has proved to be extremely popular with school children, art students, artists, designers, the craft trade and the art-loving public from all over the world.

The Crafts Museum Shop

The museum has a full-fledged shop selling a range of exquisite contemporary handicrafts, art books and decorative stationery. Run by the Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India Ltd., on behalf of the museum, the Crafts Museum Shop has brought to the public objects of tribal and rural arts of unique quality. The objective of the shop is to sell original creations of the finest Indian craftspersons and not to market mechanically replicated ‘souvenirs’.

The author is the director of the Crafts Museum and an authority on Indian handicrafts.

A Tribute to a Rich Tradition

Kutch, forming the western-most tip of India is the jewel of the Thar Desert. This district of the Indian state of Gujarat has suffered heavy losses in the earthquake of 2001 that rocked the entire region. To bring into focus the rich talent and skills of the brave people of Kutch, the Crafts Museum, Pragati Maidan, Delhi, is putting up a special exhibition on the arts and crafts of the region for display during the month of October. Some of the finest examples of embroidery, tie and dye work, roghan-painted fabrics, dhurries, shawls, camel caparisons, silver work, wood carvings, lathe-turnery, bead-work and leather objects from the collection of Crafts Museum form a part of this exhibition meant to be a tribute to the glorious traditions of Kutch craftsmanship. The desert extends through northwest India and south Pakistan. Spread over an area of about 255,000 square kilometres, the desert encompasses a unique cultural complex, inclusive of Sindh in Pakistan, Barmer and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, and the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. In spite of the changing political boundaries, the area is marked by a firm cultural unity, partly due to the common physical environment and partly because of the collective ethnic fabric of the area. Some of the most important communities of this cultural complex, the Jats, the Sammas, the Sumras, the Baluchs, the Numarias, the Makranis, and the Meghvals are found in Sindh, as well as in northwestern Rajasthan and Kutch. Several cultural features of these communities are rooted in a common past, leading to a homogeneity of the social and cultural ethos. The designs and materials used in the construction of their dwellings, the styles of embroidery and dress and the shapes and adornments of the terracotta vessels bear great resemblance to one another. The exhibition is the first of its kind after the earthquake disaster of January, 2001 and will be on from October 1 to October 31, 2001.

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