Treasures of the Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur and Museums of Rajasthan.
Museum activity in the erstwhile Rajputana (Rajasthan) dates from the 19th century when the more modern and progressive princely states of the region took the lead in establishing museums. Jaipur under the rule of Maharaja Sawai Ram Singh II (r, 1835-80) was one of the first states to have an ajaib ghar or a "house of wonders", as museums were then popularly called. The museum opened to the public after Ram Singh's death on August 21, 1881 and increased its scope and scale with a second round of acquisitions from the Jaipur exhibition of 1883, representing the more important industrial arts of the time. This considerably bolstered the museum's role as an educational centre. In 1886, during the reign of Ram Singh's successor Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh (r. 1880-1922), the collection moved to its current premises, the purpose-built Albert Hall. This stone and marble structure was specially designed to hold the museum's collection, not something that many 19th-century museums could boast of. The new museum building was located in the Ram Niwas Bagh.
Similar stories abound across the state of Rajasthan as successive museums came up in Ajmer, Alwar, Bharatpur, Bikaner, Chittorgarh, Dungarpur, Jaisalmer, Jhalawar, Jodhpur, Kota, Mandor, Mount Abu, Pali, Sikar, Ahar, and Udaipur. The Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur and the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Rajasthan, in association with Mapin Publishing, Ahmedabad, have produced two volumes on some of the greatest treasures that can be seen in government museums across the diverse and culturally rich landscape of the state of Rajasthan.
Treasures of the Albert Hall Museum, Jaipur, edited by the noted art historian Chandramani Singh, has short, lucid essays by several experts who write on the magnificent collections housed at Albert Hall. The book opens with a well-articulated and precise foreword by Indrajit Singh Masuda, who traces the history of the museum before its contemporary resurrection in 2008. The renovation and revival were made keeping in mind the original vision of its first curator Colonel Thomas Holbein Hendley, in creating an industrial arts museum, and that fundamental premise of a 19th-century museum was strictly adhered to.
The introduction by Chandramani Singh explains from a historical perspective how the 19th-century term "industrial arts" has been assimilated into our contemporary lexicon as applied, decorative, and sometimes minor arts. She explains the ideas prevailing in the 19th century that led to the creation of museums in India, and what it meant to be a museum then. This essential outlining of" the context of the museum gives readers a clear understanding of the reasons behind the creation of the Albert Hall Museum and why it houses the kind of collection that it does.
Dipti Khera's essay on the ornamental metal objects in the collection talks of the centrality of the metal room in the Albert Hall Museum and its strategic positioning to showcase the industrial arts of Jaipur in the 19th century. The essay provides succinct details of how Jaipur craftspeople drew upon the fine arts, iconography, and history of the region in order to create a new regional style of metalware. An illuminating explanation is given of the most widely viewed object in this section - the 5-foot-tall Ramayana shield. Key episodes from the Ramayana are depicted on this shield in metal chasing and repousse. These vivid visual narratives are based on a 16th-century painted Ramayana manuscript illustrated in the Mughal style.
Navina Haider Haykel's essay titled "Imagined Realms" focuses on the vast collection of paintings and drawings in the Albert Hall Museum. With over 1,000 works on paper, of which 200 are on display across three galleries, the museum is rich in its holding of paintings. These include late 16th-to 19th-century paintings of Indian schools, and colonial-period watercolours depicting natural and anthropological subjects. A major category on display is of examples from major Rajput schools of painting. Predictably well represented are paintings from Jaipur and some rare sketches and drawings from Kota. Haykel goes on to explain how a large and substantial group of Mewar paintings came into the collection in 2007 as the result of an agreement between the Albert Hall Museum and the Udaipur Government Museum. Other paintings in the collection are mainly from regional north Indian traditions of the late 17th to early 18th century.
A short essay by Chandramani Singh tells the story behind the acquisition of the important collection of Persian, Mughal, and Indian carpets at the Albert Hall, and provides for the first time clear views of the spectacular carpets in the collection, the most resplendent being the Persian Garden carpet. Singh explains the carpet's four labels in the Persian and Nagari scripts which include a mention of its purchase at Lahore in 1632 and its eventual use at the Amber Fort's Sukhmahal in November 1652. Several other concise and lucid essays that focus on various aspects of the collection are peppered throughout the book. An interesting and relatively unknown section of the museum on the material culture of Sambhar and Rairh (two major archeological sites in Rajasthan) is the focus of a chapter by Rajendra Yadav. Other chapters cover key segments from the museum's collection - musical instruments, decorative arts, medieval and modern arms, variegated textiles, costumes, and stone sculptures.
The book's large format in hardcover might be a deterrent for tourists wanting to purchase it as a guide to carry around. However its reasonable price and the simple page layout with large and small colour illustrations make it easy to use and an attractive gift. The sensible sequencing of chapters and the crisp and jargon-free language will appeal to the expert and the lay tourist equally. The text successfully articulates the ideas behind the creation of the museum, its 19th-century pedigree, and its successful resurrection in the 21st-century. Treasures of the Albert Hall Museum is a tribute to Jaipur's glorious tradition as a centre of excellence in the arts and crafts, a reputation it continues to enjoy even today.
The second book, Museums of Rajasthan, also edited by Chandramani Singh, is a compendium of the art treasures of 18 government museums spread across the length and breadth of the state. The book helpfully begins with a map of Rajasthan demarcating the districts of the state and showing the locations of the museums covered in the book.
This publication is a welcome beginning for museum professionals in the country unused to easy access to cultural policy, museum archives, or any other information relevant to a study of material culture in government institutions. The preface lists the year of establishment of the various state museums across Rajasthan, both pre- and post-Independence. Significantly we are now told that the collections of objects across these museums have finally been catalogued following contemporary standards, and the book is a direct result of this exercise.
The introduction explains the ideas behind the beginning of the museum movement in erstwhile Rajputana and details the role of key individuals, both Indian and European, who substantially contributed to the museum movement in the region. The pioneering role of Dr Gaurishankar Hirachand Ojha who created the Victoria Hall Museum in Udaipur and subsequently the Rajputana Museum at Ajmer is perhaps for the first time made known in the larger public domain. The significant contributions of others like Munshi Devi Prasad or Bisheshwar Nath Reu are also finally acknowledged.
The introduction goes on to specify the various phases in the creation of museums in Rajasthan. A lack of clarity in dates, however, is an irritant. A section heading states that 1887-1949 was the first phase in the establishment of museums. The very next sentence however begins by stating that the Jaipur ajaib ghar was opened to the public on August 21, 1881 and that the collection as it expanded moved to the newly constructed Albert Hall Museum in September 1886, clearly a year ahead of the first phase of museum building. The author also goes on to claim that the Nizam of Hyderabad visited Albert Hall in the late 19th century and presented a carpet to the museum. No footnote or explanation to this rather mysterious visit is given. As far as one knows the Nizam only travelled to Delhi for the Durbar in 1903, and a visit to Jaipur has never been mentioned before.
The second phase in the development of museums in Rajasthan took place after India's Independence in 1947. A Department of Archaeology and Museums was established in 1950 integrating the archaeological departments and museums of the erstwhile princely states. A significant addition to understanding India's past came with the establishment of new government museums in important historical and cultural centres around the state. The role of Indian scholars like R.C. Agrawala, Dr H.D. Sankalia, and Dr Sampurnanand in creating museums at Ahar, Mount Abu, etc. are a clear indication of a continuation in the museum movement of the region.
The rest of the text consists of 18 one-page descriptions of how the Rajputana Museum at Ajmer, City Palace Museum at Alwar, Lohagarh Fort Museum at Bharatpur, Ganga Golden Jubilee Museum at Bikaner, Fateh Prakash Palace Museum at Chittorgarh, Rajmata Devendra Kumari Museum at Dungarpur, Albert Hall Museum at Jaipur, Sawai Man Singh Town Hall Museum at Jaipur, Government Museum at Jaisalmer, Government Museum at Jhalawar, Sardar Museum at Jodhpur, Braj Vilas Palace Museum at Kota, Zanana Bagh Museum at Mandor, Government Museum at Raj Bhavan Mount Abu, Bangar Museum at Pali, Rajkumar Hardyal Singh Museum at Sikar, Ahar Site Museum at Udaipur, and Government Museum at Udaipur were founded. In each case this brief explanation is followed by a few illustrated examples of major holdings in the museum. Large and beautifully reproduced colour illustrations are accompanied by detailed descriptive captions. The art works illustrated are from museums across the region, and in a variety of media ranging from ivory, stone, wood, and metal to terracotta, textiles, and paper - indicative of the rich holdings of these museums.
The useful appendix provided at the end of the book has details of the 18 government museums across the state with their hours of opening and officers in charge. The layout of this section with images of the museum exterior is not ideal, as images from nine museums are reproduced and the spaces for the rest are left glaringly empty. Other inconsistencies are found in the way people's names are spelt, for example Gaurishankar Hirachand Ojha is spelt as is on page 14 and as Gauri Shankar Hira Chand Ojha on page 33.
The wisdom of printing a hardbound large-format book along with a softcover small-format version is to be commended. The smaller format publication is helpfully positioned towards travellers and tourists and is also affordable enough for students.
An active publication programme has long been the established norm amongst leading museums and cultural sites around the world. These publications reach out to newer audiences, perhaps even in distant locations who may be excited enough to embark on trips to visit the museums. In India unfortunately museum catalogues still look and feel like textbooks that take a pedantic approach in explaining art and culture. These two books are a first step in creating a more easily accessible format of presenting culture to people. They allow for greater exposure to the cultural riches of Rajasthan and may perhaps help to shift the current focus from the region's tourist trade and direct much deserved attention to its material culture.