Museum of all things memorable

Museum of all things memorable

SNA Gallery is a treasure trove of the countrys rare musical instruments, puppets and masks

The Sangeet Natak Akademi is commonly known as a government institution promoting classical performing arts in the country.

However, few know that the Akademi building in Mandi House also has a unique gallery of musical instruments, puppets and masks collected from all over India. The interested visitor can also view performances of distinguished dancers, musicians and theatre artistes from 1950 onwards.

The SNA Gallery of Musical Instruments was launched with an exhibition of 400 folk and tribal musical instruments in 1964. It was inaugurated by the distinguished violinist, Yehudi Menuhin.

Since then, the collection has burgeoned through purchases, acquisitions and gifts. It now stands at over 700 musical instruments and 1,000 puppets and masks.

What is even more astonishing is the variety. The collection of musical instruments is neatly divided in four categories on the basis of sangeet shastra: sushira vadya (wind instruments) include flute, turai, singi, nadaswaram and algoza among others; tata vadya (stringed instruments) include sitar, esraj, sarod, dilruba, sarangi etc; avanaddha vadya (percussion instruments) include tabla, mridang, dholak and pakhawaj; and ghana vadya (idiophones) include talam, chitkula, jhanjh and bortal.

The places of their origin – Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan, Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala etc — are listed and some also have illustrations of artistes playing them as well as audio recordings of their sounds.  

Deputy Curator Jayanta Choudhary says: “Some of these musical instruments belong to strange, unheard of traditions. For example, a damru acquired from the North East is made of a human skull and used in tantric rituals. Then there is a trumpet-like instrument recovered from the same region, called kangling, which was customarily made of the thighbone of virgin girls.”

Strings and more

The collection of masks is even more fascinating. Ranging from face-size beauties, there are masks that can cover the whole body. These hail from places like Odisha (Sahi Jatra masks used in theatrical processions to the Jagannath Puri temple), UP (Ramlila masks making use of exquisite Benarasi zari work), Jharkhand (ornate Seraikela Chhau masks) and Kerala (Krishnattam masks using bold and dramatic colours). Jayanta says, “Not just donning and dancing in these masks, but even making them is an art.”

If you want to view their puppetry collection, you need to intimate the gallery authorities beforehand. Exhibiting 1,000 puppets of different kinds at one time is no child’s play. The collection includes string puppets (kathputli) of Rajasthan, rod puppets (kathi kundhei) of Odisha, glove puppets (benir putul) of West Bengal and shadow puppets (tolu bomalatta) of Andhra Pradesh.

Jayanta says, “We are regularly visited by artistes, research scholars, students and members of the public who have an interest in the performing arts. We feel very happy to cater to such cultured persons, especially at a time when these arts are sinking into oblivion. Even in this age of modernisation, the SNA gallery remains an oasis for preserving ancient arts and culture.”

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