As the cycle-rickshaw driver pedalled his way through the dusty red soil of Bishnupur, he suddenly stopped at a saree shop, claiming it to be the museum. I was disappointed. I exclaimed that I had asked him to go to the museum, not to a saree shop! A few local people came to my rescue and informed that with time the museum was now almost forgotten and footfall had reduced remarkably, and since the saree shop next to the museum was popularly known, people used it as a landmark to identify the museum. They explained to me that the confusion was legitimate. This essay is on the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Purakriti Bhavan museum, which was started by the local people of Bishnupur. The thrust is going to be on the collection, design, display and finally its significance in the lives of the people.
Located in the Bankura district of West Bengal, Bishnupur is synonymous with its famous terracotta temples. These terracotta temples with roofs like that of an elephant’s back are found mostly in the eastern part of India. Odisha is another state where temples of similar style are found in large numbers. This raises the question of why terracotta temples are limited to the eastern part of the country. Pika Ghosh states:
From the late 16th to the 17th century, architects experimented with the region’s traditional curvilinear-towered temple form, which belongs within mainstream north Indian Nagara temple construction. These experiments culminated in the development of a new temple-type that stands apart from the pre-existing tradition. Features of mosques and local thatched huts combined to form a double-storied temple-type that served newly developing religious traditions. (Ghosh 2005:2)
As the areas around Bishnupur were being excavated, a large number of artefacts were unearthed. These were mostly sculptures and terracotta vessels belonging to the Malla Dynasty. As more and more of these objects were discovered, people were not sure what could be done with them. Those in neighboring localities felt that giving away objects with such an astounding past to a museum located in Kolkata about 200 km away would be a great loss to Bishnupur. Placing objects found in Bishnupur so far away would limit access to these objects by the local people. Thus the town decided to make their own museum, which would house objects related not only to the historical but also to the cultural past of Bishnupur.
Birth of the museum
The Bankura District Museum or the Acharya Jagadish Chandra Purakriti Bhavan was inaugurated in 1951 and is now under the control of the Directorate of Archaeology and Museums, Ministry of Information and Culture, Government of West Bengal. It is important to mention at the outset that this museum differs from the contemporary understanding of museums. The museum was started by a group of people with limited knowledge of museum practices. Nevertheless it is to be seen as a significant attempt to preserve and archive the history and cultural heritage of Bishnupur and its surrounding areas.
This museum preserves the traditions of terracotta and other indigenous art forms in Bankura. It is a double-storied, yellow building with three main galleries: on sculpture, music and terracotta. The first two galleries are spread over a large area on the ground floor while the terracotta gallery is on the first floor. In addition, as part of the terracotta gallery is a gallery showcasing rare photographs of Sree Sarada Devi, wife of Sri Rama Krishna Paramhansa who was born in this district. A proposed anthropology gallery would make the fifth gallery. A decorative terracotta boat replica welcomes all visitors to the museum and also reminds one of how Bishnupur is synonymous with this art form. The museum is encircled by a small but well-manicured garden which further aestheticizes it.
Undoubtedly this museum is a great initiative by the people of Bishnupur. The fact that as early as 1955, realizing the necessity to preserve the art traditions of the place, they formed a group and started a museum needs to be appreciated. It is to be mentioned that around the same time museums all over the country were undergoing significant changes. Especially after the British rule, the desire to establish a museum to display one’s own heritage and culture was gaining prominence. It became the rage. The present secretary of the museum, who also actively participated in its establishment, mentioned in an interview that Acharya Prafull Chandra Ray always wanted to have a museum in the Bankura district. Mr Manik Chakraborty mentioned that Ray expressed his desire to build a museum in Bishnupur in an international journal. He strongly believed that the remarkable terracotta artefacts and temples with which Bishnupur is replete need to be preserved. A museum that not only displayed these fantastic objects from Bishnupur but also brought to light the history and culture of south-western Bengal was for him an immediate necessity. Unfortunately, due to some unknown constraints he was unable to build the museum.
With Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray’s vision, a few people from Bishnupur namely Satyakinkar Sahana, Dr Kalipada Banerjee, Ramesh Ghosh, Hemendra Palit Gangagovind Roy and others got together to start a museum. Unfortunately, today many of them are no more. I was, however, lucky enough to meet Mr. Manik Chakraborty, a retired schoolteacher who is now ailing. Despite his health, he spoke at length about how the objects in the museum were collected. He was of the view that a museum is all about its collection. Back in the 1950’s, under the able guidance of Manik Chakrabarty, the process of collection began. Initially a list was made of several objects that the museum would like to collect. But the task of collecting was not easy. The founding members of the museum traveled all over Bankura and its neighboring villages to collect old and discarded manuscripts, pattachitra, sculptures and several such objects that would best define the historical and cultural heritage of Bengal, especially Bishnupur. It took them almost five years to collect all the objects that the museum presently possesses. Mr. Chakraborty informs us that initially the local people were not particularly happy with the idea of a museum. Most of them had never been to one. Thus, they did not understand the value or importance of a museum. The collectors faced many challenges but were eventually able to explain to them the importance of a museum in a society. The next issue of concern was storage. In the absence of a dedicated museum space they initially used a classroom of Bishnupur High School to store the collection. But the collection started growing so massively that a space had to be acquired for proper storage of the artefacts. It was much later, around 1970, that the museum was inaugurated and opened to the public.
A large body of scholars and experts from the University of Calcutta served on the advisory body to the museum. They also helped in identifying and labeling various artefacts in the collection. This museum echoes the notion of collective curating. People from different walks of life were involved, each bringing their own experience to enrich the museum.
Galleries in the museum
The main building of the museum houses a number of sculptures, manuscripts and patachitras. Behind each object in the museum is a fascinating story about its discovery and its place in the museum. Most of these objects are ‘chance findings’ by local people, while a few have been donated from personal collections. The museum now attracts a lot of international tourists and researchers. Interest in the early history and material culture of Bengal draws a large number of students from cities as well as small towns. All objects displayed in the museum carry bi-lingual labels identifying them as well as giving their provenance and dating. When enquired about the accession numbers of the artefacts, the present curator regretfully conveyed that they still do not have a catalogue of the collection. However, they have a 'museum book' in Bangla which is no longer printed. This book discusses the birth of the museum and the role of several eminent personalities who set it up.
The first object that one encounters in the sculpture gallery is a large white marble Ganesha. The sculpture gallery displays objects both from the past and present. The arrangement of the objects does not follow any specific scheme. They are arranged neither region-wise nor chronologically. This often confuses the visitors. The museum has a large collection of Jain Tirthankara images. Most of them were discovered in southern Bengal and belong to the medieval period. They are mostly carved in black stone and are intricate works of art. They are displayed on wooden pillars that are placed against the walls. Amongst the objects displayed one can also see large blocks of laterite stone or grey granite inscribed in either Pali or Sanskrit. English and Bangla translations of the inscription are provided alongside the artefact. There are also a number of terracotta and stucco figurines. Unfortunately, the manner in which they are displayed raises concerns. Only placed on wooden makeshift pillars, one cannot rule out the possibility of their getting damaged with time. Two separate stairways will lead to the floor above. The artefacts here are arranged chronologically. The display here consists of tools and weapons from the Mallya period, pots excavated from the region, Krishna idols and others. It is to be noted that a number of pots were excavated from this region. The large number of Krishna idols in the collection speak of the popularity of the deity in the region. Krishna standing cross-legged playing a flute is the standard depiction of the deity to be seen here. Most of the icons are made of black stone.
There is also a textile section on this floor. There are two large wooden cases that display numerous Baluchari sarees. A few of them are more than 100 years old. Baluchari is a local silk. The design on the pallu (or the loose end of the saree) is usually a scene from the ancient epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The borders of the sarees also repeat the same pattern.
As far as the collection of ancient manuscripts is concerned, only the illustrated covers are extant. The remaining portion of the manuscripts no longer survive. The illustration on the manuscript covers have stylistic resemblances with Chaurapanchasika paintings. The manuscripts are mostly on palm leaves or thick coarse cloth and are painted with vegetable colours. The paintings mainly explore the theme of Krishna lila.
Next to the sculpture gallery is the music gallery. Bishnupur is also known for its contribution to Hindustani classical music. What is known as Bishnupur gharana today has been popular from the times of the Malla kings. Ustad Bahadur Khan, Pandit Gadadhar Chakrabarti, Pandit Ramshankar Bhattacharya, Pandit Jadu Bhatta and several others are exponents of this gharana. The music gallery displays photographs of these maestros with a brief introduction. Sitars of various kinds along with many other string instruments are also on display. However, Bishnupur being home to several tribes, like the Santhals, it would have been ideal to have tribal musical instruments also in the display. Folk elements are thus missing from the museum display.
The stairs on the way out lead one to the terracotta gallery located on the second floor. In the terracotta gallery one also finds a large number of dhokra objects made through the lost-wax process of casting iron. The tradition of making objects in terracotta and dhokra is widely practised in West Bengal and Odhisha. This gallery aims to trace this tradition in southern West Bengal, especially in Bishnupur. Along with a few Malla-period artefacts like bells and highly sophisticated niches from religious shrines, there are also several contemporary terracotta objects, mostly decorative, like stylized horses or lamps. There are a couple of utilitarian objects like dish ware and storage containers. One intriguing observation is the presence of horses as motifs in the designs on the decorative objects from Bishnupur. Interestingly, one also finds highly ornamental horses in the architectural scheme of the terracotta temple premises. While one does not have a definite explanation for the use of this motif, it has become synonymous with the art and craft of Bishnupur. It has also made its way to textile designs in the region. Small terracotta horses standing in a row in local shrines are also a sight difficult to miss. They seem to have been used as ritual objects. The conspicuous presence of this motif in the art of this region is a fascinating phenomenon and needs to be studied.
The terracotta gallery also houses the photo gallery of the museum. The photo gallery is further divided in two sections, one with photographs of the various terracotta temples around Bishnupur and the other with those of Sarada Devi who was born in this district. These photographs give us a glimpse of the notions of gender and religion current at the time. In the case of photographs of temples, apart from a few early photos, most of them have been taken after their restoration. The temples were built during the 17th and 18th centuries when the Malla dynasty was in power. The Malla kings gave patronage to several temple-building activities. Built in locally available laterite stones, the structure of these temples is derived from the typical mud huts with thatched roofs commonly seen in rural areas of eastern India. It does not fit in either Dravida or Nagara style of temple architecture, an interesting instance of how regional developments give birth to an alternative style.
The terracotta temples were long forgotten. They were discovered in the recent past. Ever since the Archaeological Survey of India intervened, conservation of these temples has been taken up more seriously. At the entrance to each of these temples is a bilingual noticeboard introducing the visitor to the temple. The photo gallery of the museum displays images not only of the temples but also detailed views of decorative panels otherwise unclear to the naked eye when at the site.
The other section of the photo gallery commemorates Sarada Devi who was born in 1853 in Jayrambati, Bishnupur. At the young age of five, she was married to Ramakrishna Paramhansa, the 19th-century mystic of Bengal. She became a prominent woman saint of the 19th century inspiring women of the future generation to take up monasticism. Today Sarada Devi is venerated as a divine figure. Though the images in this section are not arranged chronologically, they try to trace the journey of Sarada Devi as a religious figure. There are a couple of interesting photographs of Sarada Devi with Sister Nivedita. These photographs reflect the social conditions in the region at that time. There are photographs of young woman with children in a rural setting. These are rich photographic evidences of the social milieu during that time.
The manner in which the photographs are framed and displayed is unsatisfactory. The museum overall calls for renovations at the earliest. While one portion has damp and flaky walls, another is exposed to excess sunlight. Layers of dust have gathered on the artefacts. It is important that all artefacts be kept in a temperature-controlled space as they are already in a delicate state and need care. The curator of the museum held insufficient funds responsible for the present state of the museum.
The design and display of objects in the museum
While discussing the design and display of objects in the museum, it is a must to remember the circumstances in which the museum was formed. It was not set up keeping international museum standards in mind. Lack of funds and expertise can be held accountable for that. In fact a literal translation of the museum name ‘Acharya Jagadish Chandra Purakriti Bhavan’ would read something like ‘Acharya Jagadish Chandra House of Antiquities and Artefacts’.
However, there are several issues with the way the museum is designed and the artefacts are displayed. First of all, the artefacts are neither region-wise nor chronologically arranged (except in one instance). Following one of these schemes would help viewers trace the journey of the artefacts in terms of style, choice of material or process of making. On the other hand, a random display of artefacts confuses the viewer. Secondly, even after more than five decades of its establishment, the museum continues to adopt the old manner of displaying artefacts. Objects in the sculpture gallery are placed on small wooden pillars without so much as a glass covering. The labels are either in English or in both Bangla and English. They are printed in white on red fibreglass sheets and propped up against the sculptures. These labels identify the artefacts by name and mention the approximate date and provenance. Preferably the labels should have been stuck on the wooden pillar instead of being placed on the object.
Another major shortcoming is the manner in which several broken decorative panels from the temples have been plastered to small wooden pillars which can be very damaging to the artefact. When questioned, the curator was of the view that detaching them from the pillars might cause damage, so they have been left the way they are.
The present curator, an anthropologist, has been appointed by the government. Showing us around the museum, he informed us that there were talks of opening an anthropology section in the museum. The museum does not have a library yet. When asked about a catalogue of the collection, I was given a photocopy of an old catalogue in Bangla. He also informed that the museum allowed photography to researchers only, not to the general public.
This museum throws light on the condition of museums in our country. It must be credited for its contribution in preserving the history and cultural heritage of the terracotta temples in the region. The role of a museum is to produce and disseminate knowledge (Guha-Thakurta 2007). With the establishment of the first museum in colonial India, Indian Museum, Kolkata, the idea of collecting and displaying came to practice. The emergence of local museums shows the realization of the importance of museums in our society. In that light the Archarya Jagadish Chandra Purakriti Bhavan, despite all its shortcomings, will always hold a special place in the history of museums in India.
Ghosh, Pika. 2005. Temple to Love: Architecture and Devotion in Seventeenth-century Bengal. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. 2004. Monuments, Objects, Histories Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-Colonial India. Delhi: Permanent Black.
 Terracotta is a kind of pottery where objects are made with clay and sun-dried after which they are either baked or fired in an oven. This is an ancient technique and is also found in the Indus valley civilization.
 The Malla dynasty is said to have been founded in the late seventh and early eighth century by Adi Malla. According to Pika Ghosh (2005) the Mallas were originally Bagdis. They tried to disassociate themselves from this origin, as it was not acceptable that the rulers come from the lower strata of society, yet there is considerable folklore emphasizing how the Bagdi people came to power.
 Gathered from an interview with Chitaranjan Dasgupta, a retired schoolteacher who was one of the local people involved in building the museum. He wrote a book on the terracotta temples of Bishnupur titled, Bharater Silpasanskritr Patabhukaye Bishnupur Mandir-Terracotta.
 Sri Rama Krishna Paramhansa was a leading religious reformer of 19th-century Bengal. He was influenced by several religious traditions like the Vaishnavism, Tantra and Advaita Vedanta. Swami Vivekananda was his chief disciple.
 For the importance of building a museum in a post-colonial country, see Guha-Thakurta 2007.
 Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray (19th-20th century) was a Bengali chemist, known for his remarkable contribution not only in the field of science but also literature and social service.
 Born as Margaret Elizabeth Noble (1867–1911), she was given the name of Sister Nivedita when Swami Vivekananda initiated her. She was a Scottish-Irish social worker, who lived and worked in India as a social reformer and believed in the emancipation of women through education. She also participated in India’s nationalist movement.