Victoria Memorial Hall continues to be a favourite of visitors

Victoria Memorial Hall continues to be a favourite of visitors

A popular question in any quiz on Kolkata is to name the one street in the city that houses just one building.

 The answer is simple, yet probably unknown to a lot of people, even from the city. The illustrious address is 1, Queen’s Way and the only building on the stretch of the road is the Victoria Memorial Hall.

The building could easily remind an onlooker of a sprawling estate in the country side of Britain-- a piece of British history nestled amid a sprawling, lush green garden. The gravel path leads to the white mansion built in white marble. A tribute to almost two centuries of British presence in India, the hall is more than just another mansion; it is also a museum and an art gallery. 

Boasting of an enviable collection of paintings, sculptures, arms and armours, rare books and various other object d’art, which have been used by noted historical figures of both India and Britain at some point in time, the Victoria Memorial Hall stands tall and majestic in the heart of the city. It also claims ownership of a garden that is a regular haunt of Kolkatans and visitors alike, looking for greenery amid the hustle bustle of the urban landscape.  

A combination of these factors makes Victoria Memorial Hall the most visited museum in the country, pointed out director and curator Jayanta Sengupta. “Last year, we had 35 lakh visitors to the museum and the garden. Our closest competitor in this regard is Salar Jung Museum of Hyderabad, which had 12 lakh visitors. We are proud to boast of such a landmark that brings together the culture of Britain and India close to each other,” he said.

The director said that the campus has two kinds of tickets--one priced at Rs 4, which will allows visitors to take a stroll through the garden, sit on the wrought iron benches and have a quiet time and the other at Rs 10 allows one entry to the museum between 10 am and 5 pm and walk through the many galleries and soak in all the history. “Of the 35 lakh who visited us, over 21 lakh were for the museum and around 13.5 lakh for the garden,” he said. 

Sengupta, who took over as the director in June, said that despite being in the middle of the city since 1921, people still manage to find newness in its antique pieces. Built at a cost of Rs 1.05 crore, collected through voluntary subscription, after being commissioned in 1905, the building was designed by W Emerson. In a bid to excite visitors to come back for more, the museum authorities have started featuring one particular artifact as the “Object of the Month”.

While in September-October, the “Object of the Month” showcased two paintings by internationallyacclaimed Spanish master-painter Salvador Dali, soon to be highlighted is a turban used by Maharaja Nandakumar, an Indian who in some ways changed the Indo-British relationship in the 18th century.

By virtue of being a Dewan of the East India Company, Nandakumar was a collector of taxes. He was appointed collector of Burdwan in 1764 in place of Warren Hastings — the first Governor General of Bengal — which resulted in a long-standing antagonism between the two and led to the Indian’s hanging on charges of forgery. 

According to history books, Nandakumar brought accusations of corruption against Hastings, which received a favourable hearing by members of the British governing council in India. 

Hastings, with help from close associate and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, brought charges of forgery against Nandakumar and had him hanged on August 5, 1775. Later, however, both Hastings and Impey were impeached and Lord Macaulay, another British Governor General, called Nandakumar’s death “judicial murder”.

“Maharaja Nandakumar’s death changed Indo-British relationship for ages and is considered a black spot on the famed British sense of judicial impartiality. Although Nandakumar had several other turbans, this particular one in our collection will refresh a certain chapter of history and remind people of a bygone era,” Sengupta said.
 The turban was acq­uired from Gouri Shankar Roy of Murshi­dabad in 1984 for Rs 10,000, he said.

Besides the brocade turban of Maharaja Nandakumar, the other attractions as “Object of the Month” include a Quran personally used by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, the table on which Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote Vande Mataram, a dagger used by Mysore king Tipu Sultan, a sword belonging to Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh and intricately designed brocade achkan or long coat, worn by Sepoy Mutiny hero, Tantia Tope. Among various other object d’art what also holds the place of a centre-piece is a piano on which a teenage Queen Victoria practised music. 

Made of polished wood by renowned musical instrument makers Sebastian & Pierre Erard of London in 1829, it was commissioned by King William IV for his niece and successor.
 The museum is also the keeper of the original treaty signed between East India Company and Mir Zafar, who became a puppet Nawab after the defeat of Siraj-ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey of 1757 and established the British as a supreme force in the subcontinent. 

It is not a wonder that the Victoria Memorial Hall finds a place among the “Editor’s Choice” column in the tour guide of both Lonely Planet and Fodor’s. With millions of foreign and domestic tourists flocking in to check out the many galleries and the gaze-worthy collection, the museum has also been awarded a “Certificate of Excellence” by Trip Advisor, the largest online tour guiding and operating service. 

As the museum’s director pointed out, it still has a lot in its store. With the museum being spruced up, more people may enjoy its collection of historical artefacts.

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