Kolkata's crown

museum visit

Kolkata's crown

For someone visiting Kolkata for the first time, the sight of the majestic Victoria Memorial ensconced in a sprawling garden can be startling. “It looks like Taj Mahal!” one may exclaim.

Though not exactly true, the beautiful white building made of Makrana marbles, bearing Mughal architectural influence,  can indeed evoke some association with the world-famous structure on the bank of River Yamuna in Agra.

Taj Mahal is an architectural ode to love by a Mughal emperor in memory of his wife; Victoria Memorial is a symbol of power of the British-Indian empire. Though detractors would observe that the building is nothing but a representation of the colonial stranglehold on India, the fact remains that it is an iconic symbol of Kolkata, once the capital of British India for more than a century.

Cultural facelift

As Jayanta Sengupta, Director, Victoria Memorial, says, “It has transcended the image of subjugation of the Indian people. Today, it’s seen more as a hub of cultural activities and a house of museums where, along with British personalities, Indian heroes of the freedom struggle find place in the galleries.”  He mentions the recent survey by an international tourism website that found the Memorial was the “most visited museum” in India. “Annually, around 35 lakh people visit it.”

The museum was conceived as a commemorative memorial to Queen Victoria, who died in 1901 after a long term as the empress of a vast swath of land across the globe. It was the peak period of the British empire in India, the country a star in its crown. Lord Curzon was the viceroy at the  time. He wanted the building in a classical style. The design was put on board by Sir William Emerson, the president of the British Institute of Architects, who blended the best of British and Mughal architecture.

The Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone on his visit to the country in 1906. It was completed after 15 years and inaugurated in 1921. By that time, however, the capital was shifted to Delhi (1911), to the disappointment of many.

Few can dispute that Victoria Memorial is the finest example of the fusion of colonial and home-grown architectural styles in India. At the top of it is a 16-foot-tall bronze statue, the ‘Angel of Victory’, mounted on ball bearings that rotate with the wind.

Interestingly, Victoria Memorial was built without British government funds. The money — amounting to more than one crore and five lakh rupees at that time — came from contributions from British-Indian states, and individuals who, critics say, wanted to be in the good books of the British government. That apart, the Victoria Memorial Hall (VMH) is regarded as one of the finest repositories of colonial-era artefacts and paintings — a collection of more then 28,000 displayed across nine galleries — which capture the history of the nation extending over three centuries, beginning in 1650 AD.

Entering the premises through paths carved through a garden of over 64 acres,  and enhanced by a pond that reflects the beautiful edifice, one is greeted by a central chamber. Raj-era paintings adorn the walls. The famous Daniell paintings offer a rare glimpse of Kolkata of the 18th century. Thomas Daniell and his nephew William arrived in Kolkata in 1786 via China looking for wealthy patrons, and also to explore the mysterious country.

Literary trove

The collection of 12 paintings called Views of Calcutta portray Kolkata’s new Palladian buildings, roads and river ghats, temple and churches, and forms of transportation, and serve as valuable reference points to the city’s history. The Portrait Gallery, among its invaluable manuscripts, has a copy of Ain-i-Akbari by Abul Fazal, a historian in Akbar’s court, as well as a Persian translation of Nala Damayanti by him; a note book of Tipu Sultan in his own handwriting, as also many letters.

The library has rare books dating back to 1870s. A collection of beautifully-illustrated plays by William Shakespeare, a treasure trove for costume designers, Rubaiyat’s Omar Khayyam and The Arabian Nights are some of them.

Among other collections are arms and armours, postage stamps, sculptures, Mughal miniatures etc.  After Independence, the government gave a mandate for the opening of a gallery of national leaders. The VMH is under the umbrella of the government’s Ministry of Culture.

Though VMH is iconic and popular, it has to keep up with the times and retain its premier position as a museum. Well-known museums of the world plan activities to involve visitors and be visible in the cultural map of the city. “That’s what we are striving for,” asserts Sengupta. For the last couple of years, the Memorial grounds have been the venue of the Kolkata Literary Meet in January, which attracts national and international authors of repute. In fact, the grandeur of the venue and the quality of participants are said to rival old hands like the Jaipur Literary Festival. Regular special exhibits are held here, as also debates and discussions.

The Ministry of Culture has sanctioned a fund of Rs 60 crore for three years — 2014-2017 — for the first phase of upgrading the structure, Sengupta informs. Accordingly, the edifice has been cleaned, as marble tends to absorb polluting agents. All the offices within the premises of VMH are shifting to annexes to make space for new galleries. As in all major museums in the world, in VMH also only a fraction of the collection is displayed. “We plan to hold rotating special-focus exhibitions so that the public can view them. We’ll take the help of digital technology for artefacts’ conservation, and also make the galleries more interactive for visitors,” says the director.

The second phase of revamping will start from 2017 and go on till 2021, Victoria Memorial’s centenary year.

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