New for old

Published : Jul 18, 2003 00:00 IST

The renovated Bronze Gallery with fibre optic lighting. - S. THANTHONI

The renovated Bronze Gallery with fibre optic lighting. - S. THANTHONI

A thorough renovation makes the Government Museum in Chennai, which celebrated its 151st anniversary recently, a modern museum.

THE Government Museum in Chennai has undergone an amazing transformation in its 151st year. The priceless bronzes - of Nataraja, the Buddha, Tamil saints and others - in its internationally acclaimed Bronze Gallery are now displayed in float glass showcases with fibre optic lighting, with the piece de resistance, the `Cosmic Nataraja', resting on a rotating platform. A new section, the Rock Art and Cave Art Gallery, has been created as a walk-in through simulated caves. It also has a son et lumiere that can be activated by visitors themselves. Rare coins, pieces of jewellery and mini bronzes can be viewed in three-dimensional splendour in the Holographic Gallery, which is the only one of its kind in the country. Another addition is the Exposition on the Progress of Handicrafts and Industries in Tamil Nadu. It showcases the march of science and technology in the State - from prehistoric times to the present-day nuclear power station at Kalpakkam and from the lost wax technology of the Cholas in making bronzes to the latest investment casting method.

The Amaravati gallery with its invaluable collection of Buddhist, Jain and other sculptures from Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh, has been reorganised. The circular "old English" Museum Theatre with its decrepit shell-roof has been restored to its original magnificence. The original paintings of Raja Ravi Varma and Jamini Roy, which had been displayed in the open, are now inside showcases illumined by fibre optic lighting. The Museum's heritage compound wall, parts of which had sunk into the ground, has been rebuilt with sandstone brought from Sathyavedu in Andhra Pradesh. The sthapathis at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) carved out the intricate floral designs exactly as they existed on the wall more than 100 years ago.

There are visions for the future too. Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, whose government funded the Museum's metamorphosis, announced on June 19 that the State government would renovate at a cost of Rs.6 crores the heritage building that houses the National Art Gallery. This building, with a stunning facade, is built of pink sandstone brought from Sathyavedu and forms part of the Museum campus. It was opened on January 23, 1909, by Sir Arthur Lawley, Governor of Fort St. George, and was then called Victoria Memorial Hall after Queen-Empress Victoria.

On the occasion, Jayalalithaa released several publications and video cassettes brought out by the Museum. Governor P.S. Ramamohan Rao, who received the first copies, praised her government for the initiative it took to refurbish the Museum by reorganising the old galleries, setting up new ones and introducing modern methods of display.

The Government Museum was created by a notification in the Fort St. George Gazette on August 14, 1851. Pantheon Road, on which it is situated, derives its name from The Pantheon - "Public Assembly Rooms" - where the British residents of Madras (now Chennai) gathered for recreation and social activities. It was then called the "Central Museum" of Madras Presidency. It had its beginnings when the Madras Literary Society gifted about 1,100 "economic geology" specimens to the government. Surgeon-General Edward Balfour was its first officer-in-charge. He was a tireless collector of exhibits, and the government made an appeal to the people, which said that "every specimen that may be sent will be acceptable". By 1853, the Museum had received about 19,830 specimens.

More buildings came up at The Pantheon between 1886 and 1890 when Lord Connemara was the Governor of Fort St. George. (Fort St. George is also the seat of the Tamil Nadu government). One of them is the Connemara Public Library, named after him. It was opened in 1896.

Dr. R. Kannan, Commissioner of Agriculture and Museums, pointed out that for a long time after the Museum was founded, the chief medical practitioners of the Presidency headed it. They included Balfour, Captain J. Mitchell, Surgeon G. Bidie, Dr. Edward Thurston, Dr. J.R. Henderson and Dr. F.H. Gravely. The first Indian to become the Superintendent, on December 6, 1940, was Dr. A. Aiyappan. Brilliant men such as Dr. C. Sivaramamurti, Dr. S. Paramasivan and T.N. Ramachandran were also at the Museum's helm.

Dr. Aiyappan said that during the Second World War "a great part of the Museum premises had to be handed over to an Air Raid Precaution (ARP) depot". He added: "The galleries left in our charge had to be used as storerooms for the cases and so on removed from the buildings occupied by the ARP depot." Great care was, however, taken to protect the bronzes, the Amaravati sculptures and so on. Some of the zoological collections were sent to Madras Christian College at Tambaram, a Chennai suburb, for safekeeping. After the war, it took about six months to restore the exhibits to their original places. But no exhibit was damaged.

Today, it is a multi-disciplinary Museum with galleries on anthropology, archaeology, art, numismatics, botany, zoology, geology, South Indian bronzes, Buddhist sculptures of Amaravati, contemporary paintings, a children's museum and so on. It has a rare collection of prehistoric and proto-historic antiquities, including those found by Robert Bruce Foote. Compared with 1,100 exhibits in 1851, it has more than one lakh exhibits today. It is a pioneer in chemical conservation and restoration of artefacts. It has one of the largest collections of cannons in the world, which includes the cannon used by Tipu Sultan at Srirangapatnam in 1799, a Danish cannon used at Tranquebar in 1845, and yet another taken by Draper at Manila in 1762.

The credit for reorganising the old galleries and building sophisticated ones should go to the team of Museum officials headed by Kannan, Public Works Department (PWD) engineers and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

According to Kannan, the holographic gallery is the "first one to be established in the country". It displays rare jewellery items; Satamana, Chola and Venetian coins; small bronzes of the Buddha; Devi in veerasana; Ganesa, and so on.

The use of fibre optics and dichroic lighting in the display of the bronze icons has invested the Bronze Gallery with "an atmosphere of cosmic surrealism". R. Balasubramanian, Curator (Archaeology) said that while several museums had sections that displayed bronze idols, the Government Museum was the only one that had a gallery dedicated to bronzes. They include the Nataraja of Tiruvelangadu, Ardhanarisvara of Tiruvengadu, Veenadhara Dakshinamurti, the Buddhas of Nagapattinam, and so on. "These are priceless collections," said Balasubramanian. Under "ordinary display" earlier, they are now housed in frameless showcases made of float glass. The showcases are of German design. On the first floor, the atmosphere of a Vaishnavite temple has been recreated, with corbelling, a mantapam and the sanctum sanctorum. Other innovations include a scroller display on the art of making bronzes and an audio-visual presentation.

RESTORATION of the circular Museum Theatre, where hundreds of plays have been staged and conferences held, was no easy task. It was done with the active guidance of K.T. Narasimhan, Superintending Archaeologist, Temple Survey Project, ASI (southern region). The theatre is more than 100 years old and exhibits influences of Indo-Saracenic architecture. It is an excellent specimen of exposed brick architecture, with brick pilasters (pillars) flanking each entrance. Cornices made of stucco ornamentation adorn the pillars. But age, seepage and negligence had exposed the core of the pilasters.

The restoration work involved washing the brick core thoroughly to remove the salt deposits and applying mortar (lime mixed with sand, a little cement and water) on the surface. Hand-ground pure lime was then applied to this surface and the floral designs were reproduced on this, Narasimhan said. To give it a Mughal effect, the surface was rubbed with small pebbles to create a shiny effect. Restoring the fully damaged shell-roof was perhaps the toughest part, as care had to be taken not to damage its architectural members. Cornice projections running all round inside the theatre were restored and the several coats of colour wash that had been given to the exterior wall of the theatre, which obscured the brick architecture, were removed layer by layer. The original brick architecture is there for all to see now.

A GALLERY that was specially set up at the instance of Abdul Kalam for the anniversary celebrations is the Exposition on the Progress of Handicrafts and Industries in Tamil Nadu. "Our theme here is how the handicrafts of yesterday marked the beginning of later-day industry," said K. Lakshminarayanan, Assistant Director of the Museum. The gallery, which was set up within four months, depicts how pre-historic humans used crude tools and domesticated animals; how the invention of the wheel led to the development of pottery; how windpower was harnessed. It ends with exhibits on the generation of nuclear electricity at Kalpakkam and production and use of present-day polymers. "The displays are done in such a way that they have relevance to Tamil Nadu," said Lakshminarayanan.

The Gallery for Rock Art and Cave Art is truly innovative. It has a walk-through diorama, simulating the atmosphere of well-known cave/rock art sites in the country. As a visitor walks through the caves, an interactive commentary on the relevant rock and cave art sites is activated, as is a delectable son et lumiere. These sites represent Perumukkal, Kizhvalai, Alambadi, Mamallapuram and Vellarikombai in Tamil Nadu, and Bhimbetka near Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh. There are three-dimensional models of mantapas. A touch-screen exhibition and slide shows are provided. "Many of these techniques are a first for India," said Kannan.

The gallery housing the Buddhist limestone sculptures from Amaravati has been reorganised. Some of these sculptures, which had deteriorated, have been conserved. Fifteen original paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, including `The Miser', `The Lady with the Mirror' and his masterpiece `Sakuntala', are now displayed in sophisticated showcases that have fibre optic lighting. Huge oil-on-canvas paintings of the Governors of Fort St. George were brought from Rajaji Hall, once a banqueting hall, and done up. A science park for children has been set up by a Chennai-based company.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment