Whether you decide to wear a skullcap, a Gandhi cap, a baseball cap or a hat, your headgear defines your personal, religious, social or political standing. Be it a turban, flowers or jewellery, the colour, quality and the way in which they grace your head are signs of who you are.
A recent exhibition at the Indian Museum called Shirobhushan had a fine selection from the museum’s collections of head adornments down the ages. The exhibition was part of the museum’s 199th anniversary celebrations and included a wide variety — from terracotta finds from Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, a bejewelled ancient gold crown from Nepal showing Vishnu seated on Garuda to the Chhatudi rain cap of bamboo and dried leaves still in use in rural Odisha.
On display was the terracotta yakshi figure from Chandraketugarh (2nd century BC), with hairpins shaped like 10 weapons including sword, battle axe, arrow, trident and so on. The eminent archaeologist, Gautam Sengupta, had argued that this was a proto-Durga figure. Two other idols from 2nd-century BC Allahabad were perhaps harvest goddesses, their hair braided with sprays of grain. Men of the Gandhara era in stone and stucco, with exquisitely carved flowing locks held in place by bands or tied in top knots, caught the eye. A handful of gold and silver coins showed the Greek ruler, Antiochus, with a head-dress of elephant skull to project his control over the East, and the Kushana ruler, Huvishka, wearing a pointed helmet studded with precious stones in the style of rulers from Central Asia. Samudragupta, however, wears a more traditional turban. There were inscribed metal helmets from Pakistan; a helmet of leather from China; a cane helmet with animal fur, boar’s tusk and hornbill’s beak from the Adi community of Arunachal Pradesh; a brass-copper crown from the Lamas.
To showcase headgears in miniature paintings, the museum reproduced close-ups of uniform size. One got to see elaborate Persian head-dresses — Krishna’s crowns of gold embellished with peacock feather, Radha’s beautiful turban from a painting of the Pahari school, Rama’s Bhil crown of leaves, the white turban of a court musician and the ornamented brocade turbans of kings. However, it would perhaps have been better if the original paintings had been displayed alongside the details or had at least been mentioned.
The museum rarely completes its duties. So, although a booklet priced Rs 100 and a folder were printed for the show, neither was available at the venue. The uninitiated but the curious had nowhere to go, as a result.
A guide to explain the significance of each exhibit, more detailed labels, a film on other headgears from all over the world and, maybe, workshops for school students would have made all the difference.