Congealed history

Published : Jan 31, 2003 00:00 IST

The Victoria Memorial, which houses the National Art Gallery. It was built in 1903 and was handed over to the museum in 1951. - M.MOORTHY

The Victoria Memorial, which houses the National Art Gallery. It was built in 1903 and was handed over to the museum in 1951. - M.MOORTHY

The Government Museum in Chennai, which has rich collections and an impressive history, is celebrating its 151st anniversary.

JAWAHARLAL NEHRU had a flair for coining phrases. He displayed it, as usual, when he spoke at the inauguration of the centenary celebrations of the Government Museum, Chennai, way back in 1951.

"I suppose it is some kind of congealed history," he said, talking about the museum, and continued, "some kind of trying to put a bit of the past locked up in your cabinets and placed so that you may have a glimpse of it."

Now, as the museum plans to celebrate its 151st anniversary, there is more congealed history in it, more of the past locked up in its cabinets and put on show for the public to gaze at and be entertained and enlightened. On April 29, 1851, it was not so. An austere note in the Fort St. George Gazette of the day proclaimed its arrival at the College in Nungambakkam "open to all visitors, every day, Sunday excepted, from 6 to 9 a.m. and from 2 to half-past 6 p.m."

The Madras Literary Society, which had been campaigning since 1828 for the setting up of the museum, offered its collection of geological specimens numbering about 1,100. To these were added a few sculptures found on the college grounds itself and the duplicates of exhibits left out from those collected for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London.

Surgeon Edward Balfour, the first Officer-in-Charge, knew that collections mattered. His enthusiasm encouraged the government to issue an appeal for the donation of objects by the people of the Madras Presidency. "Every specimen that may be sent will be acceptable," affirmed the appeal.

The government had definitive views on the scope of the museum: "The Governor-in-Council is of opinion that the Central museum at the Presidency should continue the objects of a museum of Practical or Economic Geology, and a Museum of Natural History..." By 1853, a total of 19,830 specimens had been received. By 1858, there were 38,159 specimens. During the time of Captain Jese Mitchell, the successor of Balfour, 71,000 specimens were in the collection.

In the early decades, the collections were mostly of natural history. The most impressive of them was the skeleton of a whale that had been washed ashore near Mangalore and acquired in 1874 and hung from the ceiling of a long Skeleton Gallery. Even today, it overawes visitors. Colonel Beddome's Herbarium, purchased for the museum in 1873-74, was a notable scientific collection known to botanists all over the world.

Prehistory soon came to the fore with Robert Bruce Foote, considered the Father of Indian Prehistory, discovering the first prehistoric stone tool (a handaxe) in India. He picked it up at Pallavaram in May 1863. The discovery of more prehistoric objects followed, and ultimately Bruce Foote offered his collection to the museum and prepared a detailed catalogue of it.

In 1878, the Treasure Trove Act was passed by the government, and this proved to be a great blessing, for objects found by chance from under the earth were saved for posterity and deposited in the museum as per the rules of the Act. The greatest masterpieces of South Indian art, which adorn the museum, are invariably treasure trove finds - Thiruvelangadu Nataraja, Vadakkapanniyur Rama group, Thiruvengadu Ardhanareeswara, Velankanni Nataraja, Chimakurti Venugopala and the Nagapattinam Buddhas. All of them are seen in the Bronze Gallery or the National Art Gallery and are incredible creations of south Indian stapathis.

Classical bronzes are a delight. The older, non-classical megalithic bronze artefacts made by craftsmen free from textual constraints surprise us with their unusual elegance. A figure of the Mother Goddess among them is a stunning, abstract one.

Nowadays folk objects and even household articles are in fashion among art collectors, but long before such recognition came to these objects, the museum had the prescience to collect them. What is important about these collections of folk art and utensils is that the objects were still unaffected by the winds of change from the West. An example of such a collection is a set of Kondapalli toys depicting the Dasavathara theme - delicate and vibrant.

Similarly there are dioramatic showcases depicting the lives of various tribal groups through their colourful costumes, ornaments, simple weapons of war, striking head dresses - all of a time untouched by the march of civilisation.

AS collections accumulated, more space was required to put them in. There were at least seven phases of expansion of buildings. The first was, in 1875, when a reading room and a lecture hall were added to the long building which was called Pantheon. The second was in 1885, when the buildings of the Connemara Public Library, the front building and the Museum Theatre - each a masterpiece of architecture - were added. The third was in 1903 when the delightful structure of the Victoria Memorial was built for another institution. It was ultimately handed over to the museum in 1951 to house the National Art Gallery. In the fourth phase, in 1939, when the New Extension Building came up with a magnificent sculpture gallery thoughtfully arranged with choice pieces that recount the story of Indian sculpture as one walks down the gallery. In the fifth, in 1963, new blocks were constructed for the Chemical Conservation and Research Laboratory, the Bronze Gallery, the Mammals and Birds Galleries. In the sixth phase came a long-awaited Children's Museum which was opened in a new building, with colourful displays depicting the grand civilisations that had flourished in the past, the costumes of the peoples of the world, and the growth of science and technology. A few operate-it-yourself exhibits are kept to excite in children interest in science. The seventh phase saw the building of a huge three-storied structure to house the Gallery of Contemporary Art.

This Gallery brings under one roof the paintings and sculptures that are distinctly contemporary in concept, and which the Museum had been collecting almost since they appeared on the scene. As far back as 1898-99, a contemporary painting, "The Gong Beaters," by C. Krishna Raja, was acquired by the museum. It is a tribute to the eclectic taste of the Superintendents who never allowed themselves to be swayed by considerations other than aesthetic or antiquity in their quest for objects.

Most important, the museum has consistently striven to spread the awareness of art and natural history among people through lectures, books, exhibitions, competitions, workshops, seminars, short-term courses in zoological techniques and care of museum objects, gallery tours and guide services. A lecture hall was built as early as 1875, and some lectures of those days were on topics that look surprisingly modern, such as "Cooking stoves fed by mineral oil" by Major Herbert and "Articulating Telephones" by G.K. Winter. "The lectures were well appreciated by the public as the room was generally full and sometimes crowded," stated a report of the time.

The museum was a `participant' in several international exhibitions held in Europe in late 19th century and the practice continued down the decades - participation in the Festivals of India held in the 1980s.

CONSCIOUS of the fact that artists of Madras (now Chennai) needed space to put up shows of their works, the museum converted in 1951 the lecture hall into the Centenary Exhibition Hall by providing wooden panelling all round the hall for facilitating the hanging of paintings. The most eminent of artists are said to have availed themselves of this facility.

Similarly the Museum Theatre, one of the finest anywhere, nurtured local theatrical talent by making itself available to amateur theatre groups at nominal rates. The best of theatre eminences have passed through its portals.

A programme called "Panorama Tamil Culture" made waves in the 1980s when the museum invited every month a celebrated personality of performing arts, fine arts or literature to give a lecture-demonstration on his/her work.

The list of the activities of the museum is seemingly endless. It began conducting child art competitions every year long before others got on to it. It has actively cooperated with foreign cultural organisations such as Max Mueller Bhavan, the British Council, the Soviet Cultural Centre and Alliance Francaise in organising exhibitions, seminars, lectures and workshops.

The museum reaches its learned public through its numerous publications. Edgar Thurston's Castes and Tribes of South India is a classic of its kind. It was Thurston who started the "Bulletin of the Madras Museum" series, which carried under its imprint learned and popular publications on the Amarvati sculptures, the Nagapattinam bronzes, South Indian scripts, Venetian coins, bronzes of South India, to mention a few. Most of them have been reprinted and are available.

Four celebrated institutions of the city owe their origin to the museum: the Connemara Public Library, the Zoo, the Aquarium and the Oriental Manuscripts Library. Captain Jesse Mitchell, the second Officer-in-Charge of the Museum, wrote to the government in 1860 for funds to start a library: "A few hundred rupees, judiciously expended every year, would place before the public a library of reference that would in the course of time be an honour to the Government. His words were prophetic. The museum carefully nurtured the library until April 1, 1939 when Dr. F.G. Gravely, the last British Superintendent of the museum, got the Government to make it independent of the museum.

With so much great work done, the museum wears its laurels lightly. It has never been flashy. It does not show off. It has its difficulties. The vast grounds require maintenance. The buildings are in the care of the Public Works Department (PWD) and it has its own contretemps in keeping them up. It is a heritage site in many ways, with old and new buildings - some architectural masterpieces, some of them historically important - dotting it, with sylvan ambience at the back containing rare trees and plants, with its pond once the haunt of beautiful birds, with its high metallic gates of exquisite craftsmanship, with its low artistic compound wall, which the PWD could not help bricking up crudely in places.

The 151st anniversary is an occasion to do up the museum in style - nothing gaudy or expensive, but everything to make it orderly and quiet and a picture of cleanliness and elegance. The whole campus should be done up - not just this building or that. New constructions should be totally avoided.

The PWD, which has an office on the campus, is in the habit of putting up small structures for its use here and there. This should all be undone. The Director of the Museum should really be the head of this heritage site, and nothing should be done on it without his concurrence, including extensions of the CPL.

A similar guideline should be applied in the case of the upkeep of the galleries. Gallery reorganisation must be a continuous process so that the galleries look fresh and up-to-date at every visit.

A visit to the museum is invariably a must for one on his first visit to the city. It would fulfil itself most if it attracts him and the local resident again and again to look at its marvels of nature and masterpieces of art.

N. Harinarayana was formerly Director of Museums, Tamil Nadu.

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