Showcase of Bengal past

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  • Published 8.07.07

The height of summer and the monsoon are bad times for the arts. Private galleries have reservations about opening new exhibitions at this time of the year as they attract few visitors and even fewer buyers, who prefer to move to cooler climes, wherever.

So last week there was little on the arts scene that one could write about. Suddenly I remembered waterlogged Behala and decided to make a trip, come rain, come shine.

While it is true that both the Indian Museum and the Victoria Memorial Hall attract hordes of rubbernecks from all over the country, most Calcuttans are unaware of the existence of other museums in the city — and there are several spread all over the city, many of them victims of neglect, others waiting to be discovered.

The sprawling State Archaeological Museum next to the Behala tram depot belongs to the latter category. The original museum was housed in a huge old-fashioned building bequeathed by the Roy family of Behala in 1980. With its wooden staircase and airy rooms it provided the perfect setting for the pre-historic and proto-historic and other ancient artefacts displayed there. But it lacked the infrastructure of a modern museum.

Apart from the old building, the Roys had also gifted a plot of land adjacent to the house. The first two storeys of a four-storey museum have already come up here, complete with brand new galleries to showcase the cultural evolution of Bengal from times beyond recorded history. According to Gautam Sengupta, state director of archaeology and museums, the project began with seed money of Rs 5 crore.

Of the galleries that are ready, the first introduces visitors to the major archaeological finds and monuments in the state through black-and-white photographs. Displayed in the room is an ivory chess set from Murshidabad along with painted tiles from Gaud, a Chinese porcelain bowl from the same site and an imitation Greek urn of 19th Century. Galleries showcasing the paintings, sculptures and early historic period of Bengal follow.

A gallery is dedicated to the excavations at Jagjivanpur, a hamlet in Malda district, where the chance discovery of a copper plate charter revealed the name of Mahendrapala, a scion of the imperial Pala dynasty. A monastery was found here and an excellent model of the site has been recreated in this gallery. Even more exciting, is the terracotta frieze from this Buddhist vihara running from one wall to the other with plaques depicting wild animals, lions, zodiac signs, serpents, rutting rams, whirling dancers in skirts and Shiva.

Sengupta said the third floor will house a photographic archive and a collection of archaeological drawings. A smaller building is planned next to the museum — the groundfloor for seminars and the first floor for temporary exhibitions.

This museum always had a rich collection of artefacts but what really makes a difference now is the professionalism with which each item has been displayed with the right kind of lighting and setting in these air-conditioned galleries.

The painting gallery demonstrates the evolution of paatas and canvas painting. It includes the “magical” chakshudaan paata, meant to save a soul from perdition through the gift of sight, a series of Ragmala paintings from Murshidabad and a depiction of an ecstatic Chaitanyadeb in the same style.

The museum has a valuable collection from Chandraketugarh, and all the mother goddesses and yakshas, toycarts with ram heads are present in all their glory. There is an exquisite Varahi, the feminine equivalent of Vishnu, discovered at Panna in West Midnapore.

All doubts about ancient Bengal’s ability to create sculpture of a superior quality will be laid to rest when one sees the graceful Vishnus, sun god, Chamunda, Ganga and Yamuna and a Buddhist devi. Parvati performs penance with her eyes like a lotus bud. The biggest challenge before the museum now will be attracting visitors. Perhaps a promotional drive will do the trick.