Colonial.

8/1

Sundays are days off, days to do touristy things. After church (rain), coffee (rain), and a stop at a bookstore, we walked to the Indian Museum (in the rain). I love museums. I grew up going to the Field Museum, the Art Institute, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I’m accustomed to big city, big budget museums.

The Indian Museum, the largest museum in this country that a billion people call home, is not a big city, big budget museum. The place itself is an exhibit. The Indian Museum sits in a grand old building that was constructed in the early 1800s. It looks really promising from the outside. Once I paid my 150rs “foreign national” entry fee, I knew that the museum was going to be unlike any museum I’d visited before.

The very first gallery we visited was a room full of fossils. Cool, right? Definitely. But the way that the fossils (and, as we later discovered, nearly every other specimen in the museum’s collection) were displayed made our visit start to feel a little weird. As we entered the gallery, we saw a sign on the ground that read, “Animals That Lived Millions Of Years Ago”. That’s it. Not sure what kind of animals, not sure exactly how many millions of years ago they lived. But there you go. Browsing the fossils was quite a task because the samples were stored on the shelves of massive wooden cabinets with glass-paned doors. To view a particular fossil, you’d have to smush your face against the glass and stare into the shadowy corners of the unlit cabinets. Some fossils were labeled with business cards reading Hindi/Bengali/English. Other fossils sat unidentified and dusty.

We moved on to the cultural anthropology wing, which had life-sized mannequin models depicting all the native tribal groups of India (true “Indians”, I suppose…can’t very well try to be politically correct and call them “Native Americans” here!). This exhibit was mildly interesting, but it was amusing more than anything else. The descriptions of the tribal groups used population data from the 1961 census–that’s nearly 50 years ago! Who knows if the tribes even exist today. Some of the language in the descriptions was pretty funny, too–“The so-and-so tribe claims 240,000 souls.”

We rambled about the museum for a few hours and saw a hall full of moth-eaten, beat-up stuffed tigers and elephants and monkeys. The art wing was small, but it looked to be the most well-tended area of the museum. The only thing that bugged me there was the inconsistency in labeling. Some of the art was dated using AD, some was dated in a weird Persian scale, and some wasn’t dated at all. Bizarre. We also stumbled into a massive exhibit on Indian plants. The hall was probably a quarter of a mile long and it was packed with tall brown cabinets containing apothecary jars filled with mysterious liquids and colorful samles. Cases of leaves and glass-topped barrels of natural fibers sat in damp alcoves where the ceiling leaked. We had the large room to ourselves, and we marveled at the dated, colonial feel of the place. We felt like we should have been wearing high-necked lacy dresses, or carring parasols and drinking tea.

The museum’s central courtyard is a lovely English-style garden. The building is really very pretty, but it could use a fresh coat of paint. The outside hallways had display cases with 1st and 2nd century Indian stonecarvings, but nothing had any sort of temperature/humidity regulation. I guess the thinking was, “If these can survive for 2000 years, a little rain won’t do any harm.”

Liz and I visited the Victorial Memorial on Sunday afternoon as well. Kolkata’s main landmark, the VM is a remnant of the days when Kolkata was Calcutta, the seat of the British Raj. The memorial was built in the early 20th Century in honor of Queen Victoria, who was Empress of India during her reign. Inside the memorial, there are a few exhibits of photographs and paintings which depict the construction of VM and the state of India in the 1800s and 1900s.

My favorite exhibit was a collection of work from Western (mainly English) artists depicting various facets of Indian life. It made me think of all of the “who writes the history”, revisioning discussions that my American Studies professors have pounded into my head. The paintings depicted tiger hunts on elephant-back through the Bengal forests, great trading ships in stormy seas, and turban-clad men holding the leashes of pet leopards. About how many Indians do you think lived like that when India was controlled by the British? Really now.

Funnily enough, as we left VM, we noticed an enormous hot air balloon sitting at the edge of the gardens. It was shaped like a tiger. We wandered over to see what all the fuss was about and found ourselves in the midst of the Queen’s Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games, which begin in Delhi on October 3. Every cop, photographer, and schoolchild in Kolkata was present for the quasi-torch race ceremony. The Commonwealth Games hubbub seemed to be an appropriate way to cap off our colonial day.

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