Every nook and corner of the Kelkar Museum is a tribute to the talent and beautiful workmanship of Indian artisans.
From the outside, Shukrawar Peth, looks like any other old house or waada that dots Puneís landscape. Reminiscent of the Maratha era, the three-storeyed red stone edifice, with its elaborately carved balconies and wooden arches, seems fascinating.
An 18th century ornate wooden arch from Tamil Nadu, depicting Indra and Agni, welcomes you into the interiors. Gradually, the musty smell and the darkness of the dingy corridors fade away as the exhibits of the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum zoom into focus. Together, they tell you the story of one man and his incredible quest for art.
The man was D.G. Kelkar (1896-1990) alias Kakasaheb, who for 60 years, travelled across the length and breadth of the country, in order to bring home all things crafted and beautiful. What is unique is that his discerning gaze narrowed upon not only intricate silk paintings and majestic ivory statues, but also upon items of daily use such as nut-crackers and vegetable-cutters, kumkum boxes and hand mirrors, locks and utensils, whistles and toys-all gathered from the hearth and homes of humble denizens. Such was this connoisseurís uncanny vision that he could spot the exotic in the ordinary and the magic in the mundane.
From obscure villages to tribal settlements, from grand temples to dilapidated huts, from dusty attics and folk fairs, Kelkar traversed through Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Kashmir. Bit by bit, he put together his collection, and the result is this unique one-man museum, devoted to everyday art.
Spread across 15,000 square feet of land, the museum houses about 20,000 items. A bulk of the collection, which Kelkar began putting together in 1960, dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
As soon as you go past the wooden Indra-Agni arch, an awesome collection of artistically decorated doors, windows and arches, fitted into the walls with their original panels and brackets, greets you. A front door from 19th century Saurashtra, a 18th century one from South India, a 19th century jharokha from Gujarat... all lead you into the life and times of that era. The intricate jaali work and the polished woodwork are a rare sight to behold.
This passage leads you into one of the most exquisite chambers of the museum-the Vanita Kaksha. This section is devoted to women, and its placement at the very outset of this journey of cultural discovery is very significant. It reiterates the tradition of treating women with respect in Indian society. Paying tribute to their body and soul, it has on display a mind-boggling array of artefacts and instruments of daily use. The vajris or foot-scrubbers, the kumkum and kohl containers, and the combs are especially fascinating.
The vajri collection includes some rare finds from the excavations at Mohenjo Daro, Koshanbi, Mathura and Nevasa. Made up of two parts-a pedestal with perforated lattice work and a decorative composition that includes figures of peacocks, lions, horses and elephants, these foot-scrubbers are not too dissimilar from their present-day versions in steel and plastic.
Sindoor and kumkum containers shaped in the form of birds, fishes and the traditional Maharashtrian design of a koyari (mango) make up yet another display. A huge set of combs reminds you that hair styling has always been a womanís passion. Hair-dyeing combs from Kerala, metal combs from Tamil Nadu, zoomorphic combs from Bihar, and ivory and wooden ones from Orissa-the range is wide. Long-toothed, elaborately designed, and adorned with small beads or chains, you can almost picture the women brushing out their long tresses, or using them to hold up their fancy coiffures.
There is also the facade of a typical Gujarati house in this section, which has been recreated with furniture, decorations, wall paintings and those personal knick-knacks that make a house a home. A wood and rope hammock swings gently in the verandah, while a mortar and pestle stands by the doorway. In another corner, a hand charkha sits in silence, while awnings embroidered in bright Gurjari colours and mirrors span the archway. Each of these items has been brought specially from Patan in Gujarat.
The museum houses one more special section called the Mastani Mahal. This revolves around the famous couple Bajirao-Mastani. Peshwa Bajirao-I is revered as the builder of Pune and tales of his fairness and bravery are etched in Maratha history. Mastani was his danseuse and concubine, a woman of legendary beauty. And their love story is a well-known folk tale. In this section of the museum, portions of the original Mastani Mahal at Kothrud, now a bustling residential area in Pune, have been resurrected and the romance has been recaptured. The luxurious setting, colourful paintings, glittering chandeliers, ornately carved ceiling, and numerous musical instruments combine to evoke the grandeur of Peshwa life.
Bringing a visitor back from that majestic era to the grind of daily life is the kitchen utensilsí gallery, with a small but interesting collection of about 500 items. The vegetable-cutters immediately grab your attention. Designed like a bird in flight or a peacock in repose, these brass kitchen items in animal and bird shapes are not just useful, but beautiful.
Coconut scrapers and noodle-pasta makers from 19th century South India also find place here, and these too have been enhanced by the artistic touch, made out in gorgeous forms of lion, elephant, tiger and ewe. An interesting object is the dabado, a huge metal vessel in which Gujarati bride would carry her dowry. Kilns and sigris made from iron and terracotta, and brass and copper Ganga Jamini water and oil vessels also form part of the collection. The museum also recognises the quotidian traditions that assume importance in our life, such as tambool (betel nut and paan).
The Indian fondness and devotion to this tradition is eloquently revealed in the magnificent collection of over 150 betel boxes and lime containers, 400 nut-crackers, spittoons and tobacco pouches. And again, these are not just commonplace boxes with a bit of decoration. Each item is an exquisitely detailed work of art in shapes of bird, animals, leaves, flowers and human figures.
For example, a Dogra tribal paan box dating back to 19th century Orissa depicts an elephant on wheels with a seat on his back and a mahout in position. The mahoutís figure serves as the handle, and the seat opens out to form the box that holds all the tobacco and betel nut inside. Similarly, the figures of a man and woman facing each other serve as the two handles of a nut-cracker.
Just when you thought that things cannot get more beautiful, you enter the section that houses writing implements. About 100-150 inkwells from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan adorn the shelves. Almost all are in forged or cast brass, and have animal or bird forms and figures of the Gods, with Ganesh being given prominence. When not attached to the inkwell, the pen cases are oblong or cylindrical boxes of metal, ivory, wood and papier mache with perforations. This array of workmanship truly leaves you lost for words!
The section on Indian paintings has a remarkable collection of Chitrakatha paintings of Paithan, Maharashtra, that narrate the story of Lord Ramaís victory over evil, glass paintings of the Tanjaur style, pata paintings from Rajasthan, Kalamkari work, Mughal miniatures-all these works on leather, paper, parchment and cloth bear testimony to the diverse artistic talents of India.
The collection does not end here. Five hundred costumes that bear evidence to the richness of Indian textiles, 600 icons of deities, 500 lamps in all shapes, materials and forms, toys and masks made from wood, paper and metal, weapons such as daggers, guns, gunpowder boxes, suits of armour, priceless musical instruments such as the been of Bande Ali Khan, the tamboori of Balgandharva, the flute of Pannalal Ghosh and the tanpura of Sawai Gandharva, playing cards and chess boards in ivory... the list is endless.
Since 1975, this priceless treasure-which Kelkar (who was awarded a Padmashree) amassed in memory of his late son Raja-has been entrusted to the government of Maharashtra. It is now managed by a board of management that has Kelkarís son-in-law, H.G. Ranade, as its honourary director.
As you walk out of the hallowed precincts of this museum, nay, memorial, you cannot help but marvel not just at the collection that is as varied as life itself, but also at the zeal and perseverance of the collector and connoisseur. A man who dedicated himself to the task of highlighting the magnificent work of numerous unknown creators, and getting them and their handiwork the respect and immortality they deserve.