Treasure trove of artefacts

Treasure trove of artefacts

Rare collection

Kejriwal entered. A sprightly octogenarian with a childlike smile and infectious enthusiasm, he ushered us inside. And walked us, very energetically, through his awesome home. Sculptures, paintings, coins, porcelainware, manuscripts, scrolls, carpets, metalware and also stuccos dating back to the 3rd century BC, and very rare specimens… the house was a stunning private museum. Many of the exquisite objets d’art took our breath away. Three hours into our visit and we had barely managed brief glimpses of this amazing private art collection — such was the vast quantity and variety on display.  

The collection was built by him from 1948 onwards — the love for art instilled by his father Ramkishore Kejriwal, a well-known art promoter of then Calcutta. Visitors to their home included some best known artists of that time — Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, etc. And Kejriwal’s education at Hindu School — the hotbed of culture — and association with the Tagore family, and other cultural stalwarts and art patrons further reinforced this passion. 

Right beside the front door were earthen stuccos excavated in Bengal dating back to 3rd century BC when Alexander invaded India. The adjacent room had walls filled with framed letters from stalwarts like Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore (including his last letter), Subhash Chandra Bose, etc.

Walking further into the home, we encountered more gems. Every shelf, wall and tabletop held treasures. A metal knife from the Harappan civilisation, a handwritten Quran from 13th century AD; European candelabras from the time of Louis the 15th; a sixth century AD Shiva Linga and bust; a Buddha from the Mauryan period; 12th century Jain Kalpasutras; a richly detailed 15th century wooden panel from Tamil Nadu depicting Girija Kalyanam (Shiva-Parvathi’s marriage); figures in  bricks from the 18th century Bishnupur terracotta temples; and gorgeous Tibetan tankhas, and rare Persian jamavars and carpets... “Some carpets have 3,500 knots per square inch. The one with the Jahangir figure in wool and silk is from 1612 AD,” he revealed.

The corners of the drawing rooms in all his flats and their entrances had large statues mounted on pedestals. In the rooms, magnificent statues of Vishnu, Chola bronzes, and seated and standing Buddhas (from Burma and Indonesia) jostled for space beside Kangra and Mughal era paintings and the more modern ones by Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Svetoslav Roerich, etc.

Every object evoked a memory — either associated with its acquisition or about the artist himself. Kejriwal regaled us with those stories. And some recalled poetry — a stunning Mughal era carpet had him breaking into Mirza Ghalib’s poetry; European sculptures had him quoting John Keats and Robert Browning; Jamini Roy paintings made him recall Tagore’s poems...

And all objects were aesthetically displayed. But then, Kejriwal has visited some of the world’s best art galleries and in India, he is vice-president of Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat; trustee, Birla Academy of Art and Culture, etc.

He has donated a substantial part of his collection of art and artefacts to Karnataka Chitrakala Parishat where they are displayed in several galleries. He gave away about 350 paintings and drawings, and 250 sculptures from India as well as artworks by the great masters of Europe. It was a magnificent gesture. Very few Indian collectors have done this. In the West, however, many art collectors donate their collections readily to museums.

We paused for a drink of water at the dining table. Above, there was another eye-catcher — a 12th-century dancing Ganesha flanked by 17th century Rajasthani paintings depicting Krishna Leela. Alongside was a shelf dotted with more priceless objects — mostly busts — found in excavations in Andhra Pradesh, including a metal Saraswati from the 19th century. And, on either side of this (and other dining tables) were shelves lined with exquisite porcelain-ware — crockery, flower vases, lamps, figurines, etc. They were made in factories in Germany, France, and England; sport famous brand names; and many date back to 17th and 18th centuries.  

The collection grew over decades and from many sources. Many items were bought from dealers and brokers who brought the items to him or were purchased directly from shops. “As an art collector I instantly recognised a precious piece,” he revealed.
With this unerring eye for the perfect antique, he picked up invaluable objects including fabulous stone statues of Shiva and Parvathi from Tamil Nadu (12th century) and a magnificent 9th century Vishnu statue from Mysore. “Some objects were bought from families who wanted to sell off their artefacts. A few items were bought from old palaces.”
He pointed to ornate gilded mirrors made in France. “These, for example, were bought from Cooch Behar Palace. The Tagore letters were gifted to me by his daughter-in-law Pratima Thakur.” But Kejriwal was wise enough to insist that Pratima also hand over a letter saying they were gifted to him by her. “Above all, the collection grew because I felt a love and respect for our heritage and a great desire to preserve it for posterity,” he says.

From young art students to Nobel laureates, the director of the British Museum, London, and of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, business barons, legendary Indian artistes and famous art connoisseurs, they have all visited this art-rich home and left with glowing praise, much of it recorded in the visitors’ books.

Our visit had us requesting, at the end, another walk-through at another time. Actually, several more, we corrected ourselves. It is a home whose treasures need weeks to explore and understand, we said. Kejriwal, who is as modest about his collection as he is fond of it, smiled: “I understand. Even as someone living with this collection, I am  discovering new facets about it everyday!”