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International Museum Day

How did the Indian Museum in Kolkata commemorate International Museum Day?

Print edition : Jun 24, 2022 T+T-

How did the Indian Museum in Kolkata commemorate International Museum Day?

The emerald wine cup of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reign 1628-1658) was the biggest draw in the exhibition.

The emerald wine cup of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reign 1628-1658) was the biggest draw in the exhibition. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

The Indian Museum takes visitors on a journey through history with its rare public exhibition of never-before-displayed artefacts.

Shah Jahan’s emerald wine cup, inscriptions and relics over 2,000 years old, and other priceless artefacts stored in the vaults of the Indian Museum in Kolkata were brought out for a rare display that also provided the public a fascinating insight into various periods of Indian history and the lives of the people of the land at different times. The exhibition, titled ‘Rare Treasures from the Collection of Indian Museum’, was held from May 18 to 29 in celebration of International Museum Day (May 18).

It was the first time that the oldest museum in the Asia Pacific held an exhibition of rare artefacts on such a large-scale, and it may well herald a long-awaited new phase in its history. The three main sections of the exhibition were archaeology, art, and anthropology.

Archaeology

Among the 50 artefacts on display, the emerald wine cup of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reign 1628-1658) was the biggest draw. The goblet, made out of one of the largest emeralds in the world that probably came from Siberia, is adorned with gold and rubies. A close observation reveals a lotus image near the base of the cup, which gives the illusion of a flower inside the goblet.

Relic casket in steatite, 3rd century BCE-2nd century CE, Piprahwa, Uttar Pradesh.
Relic casket in steatite, 3rd century BCE-2nd century CE, Piprahwa, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Interestingly, the size of the goblet is just 12.7 cm X 3.5 cm. Other wine cups of that period—including one owned by Shah Jahan and made of white nephrite jade, displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—and also those depicted in medieval paintings, too, are small in size.

A gold coin issued by Shah Jahan’s father, Nur-ud-Din Muhammad Salim, better known as Jahangir, shows an enthroned Jahangir holding a small goblet. According to some scholars, it may have been because some of the varieties of wine available in those days were particularly strong and meant to be sipped slowly, explaining the small size of the cup. Unlike his father, who was believed to be particularly fond of alcohol, Shah Jahan was known to be a moderate drinker.

Bow ring, an emerald artefact belonging to Shah Jahan, 17th century CE. 
Bow ring, an emerald artefact belonging to Shah Jahan, 17th century CE.  | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Also on display was another emerald artefact belonging to Shah Jahan—a bow ring used for drawing the string of a bow. This 5.6 cm X 4.3 cm artefact bears a Persian inscription which states that the ring was chosen from the treasures of Delhi for Nadir Shah after his invasion of India in 1739. According to historical records, Nadir Shah took with him these two emerald artefacts and the Kohinoor diamond. After his assassination in 1747, all three treasures fell into the possession of Ahmad Shah Durrani, his successor.

A hundred years later, all three landed up in the collection of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and were later purchased by Lord Dalhousie, who served as the Governor General of India from 1848 to 1856. In 1921, the emerald wine cup and bow string were handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India.

Saibana Inscription 18th century CE, Saibana village, Bengal.  It talks of the travails of a certain Chudamani Duta, who had to leave his ancestral home in Pakuria (present-day Barasat) and shift to Calcutta (now Kolkata) due to repeated invasions on his land by a Jaffar Khan.
Saibana Inscription 18th century CE, Saibana village, Bengal. It talks of the travails of a certain Chudamani Duta, who had to leave his ancestral home in Pakuria (present-day Barasat) and shift to Calcutta (now Kolkata) due to repeated invasions on his land by a Jaffar Khan. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Among the other Mughal artefacts on display for the first time was a gold coin issued by Akbar in 1565. On one side of the coin is the Kalima (the Islamic affirmation of faith) and on the other is Akbar’s name with the title ‘Sultan’.

Life and times

The archaeology section had exhibits dating from the third century BCE to the 18th century, providing invaluable information about the life and times of people in different periods. The Mahasthangarh Plaque Inscription, for instance, described the hardships people suffered in ancient times because of natural calamities and the steps the administration took to provide relief. The small inscription on limestone written in the Mauryan Brahmi script, dating back to the third century BCE, cites an order issued by an official in the Mauryan administration to supply people with foodgrains and coins. The order further states that the kothagala (storehouses) must be stocked properly in times of distress and that when the time of prosperity and excess yield returns people must replenish the treasury with coins and the granaries with paddy. The inscription, excavated by the legendary archaeologist Kashinath Narayan Dixit between 1929 and 1931, was among the earliest pieces of epigraphical evidence found in Bengal.

The Egra Copperplate Inscription, C. 600 - 630/7 CE,  Bengal.
The Egra Copperplate Inscription, C. 600 - 630/7 CE, Bengal. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

The Egra copper plate inscription issued by king Sasanka (reign 590-625), and the famous Naihati copper plate inscription of Vallalsena (reign 1160-1179), son of Vijayasena, the founder of the Sena Dynasty, were also on display. The mid-18th century Saibana Stone inscription talks of the travails of a certain Chudamani Duta, who had to leave his ancestral home in Pakuria (present-day Barasat) and shift to Calcutta (now Kolkata) due to repeated invasions on his land by a Jaffar Khan. Chudamani, however, returned home after Nawab Siraj-ud-Daulah captured Calcutta from the British East India Company in June 1756, and renamed the city Alinagar. The inscription also mentions the “Big Storm”, the Great Bengal Cyclone of 1737; and the “Bargi attack”, which was a repeated invasion of Bengal by Maratha Maharajah Raghoji Bhonsle between 1741 and 1751.

The exhibition also featured Buddhist relic caskets from the third century BC, and Buddhist artefacts from the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries.

Art exhibits

One of the key objectives of the exhibition, besides taking the artefacts to the people, was to send across a message of fraternity. Through the art objects, the museum authorities tried to “celebrate and explore” the deep cultural ties that existed between India and Myanmar down the ages. Some of the prominent art exhibits included silverware, and carvings on ivory, jade and wood, mostly from the 18th century.

Ramayana panel in terracotta, 5th century CE, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Ramayana panel in terracotta, 5th century CE, Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

To highlight the similarities in the artistic style and tradition, the exhibition featured Indian paintings, including Deccanese art and Kalighat pata, alongside Burmese artefacts and engravings. “The Deccan and Burma are far apart, and one does not expect similarities in artistic traditions between the two regions, yet we find there were many similar traits of traditionally artistic expressions. We see similarities in the depiction of the ambience in the pictures, and also in the presentation of flora and fauna,” said Arnab Basu, the curator of the art section of Indian Museum.

An elephant tusk depicting Buddha figures, Burmese artefact, 18th century. 
An elephant tusk depicting Buddha figures, Burmese artefact, 18th century.  | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

According to Basu, one of the main aims was to try and break down barriers between people. “Rather than trying to establish how different we are from others, we tried to show how similar we really are to each other. Through the artefacts and paintings displayed we explored the power of the museum in propagating fraternity,” he told Frontline.

Manasa, brass, 12th century CE, northern part of Bengal.
Manasa, brass, 12th century CE, northern part of Bengal. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

There was also an attempt to acquaint the younger generation with the lives and lifestyles of their forefathers. Badal Mandal, the curator of the anthropology wing of the museum, said, “Through our exhibits we showed how people lived in the past and what they had to do to stay alive. We also shed light on how they entertained themselves. These things are no longer available now, and these objects were aimed to enrich the knowledge of the younger generation.”

All the 17 objects displayed in the anthropology section were from different regions—a bark fibre cloth from Kerala, a trumpet made of human bone and leather from Tibet, a necklace with a pendant made of bone, tiger’s teeth, beads from north-east India, and so on.

Vajra Tara, bronze, 11th century CE, Patharghata, Bhagalpur, Bihar.
Vajra Tara, bronze, 11th century CE, Patharghata, Bhagalpur, Bihar. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Public response

The enthusiastic public response to the exhibition was a shot in the arm for Indian Museum, which has for some time been at the receiving end of public criticism for overall stagnation. Shona Chatterjee, a former student of history, was impressed by the whole experience, though she still harboured reservations about the functioning of the museum. “I have been a visitor for a very long time, and I have seen a perceptible decline in the general maintenance of the museum. I hope this will improve. But this special exhibition is wonderful, and the museum should promote more such exhibitions. This will attract students and will make them more interested in history. And the museum as a public institution will also remain relevant,” she said.

The Mahasthangarh  Plaque Inscription on limestone written in the Mauryan Brahmi script, dating back to the third century BCE, cites an order issued by an official in the Mauryan administration to supply people with foodgrains and coins.
The Mahasthangarh Plaque Inscription on limestone written in the Mauryan Brahmi script, dating back to the third century BCE, cites an order issued by an official in the Mauryan administration to supply people with foodgrains and coins.

However, the show also raised questions regarding the prolonged lack of activity in the museum. According to Satykam Sen, the curator of the archaeological wing, one of the main reasons for not holding similar exhibitions earlier was essentially related to security. “The security infrastructure had not developed earlier; but today it is adequate, and so we can hold more such exhibitions,” he said. He pointed out that the museum had already started re-curation work in nine galleries.

This effort is seen as the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Indian Museum. “In the 12 days of the exhibition we witnessed people coming to the museum several times. We have learnt how to go about it in the future, and are looking at how to bring more articles before the public and present them in a better way,” said Sen.