Delhi’s cultural landmarks constitute parts of the city that are utterly forgotten. The national capital is home to numerous galleries and museums offering a mix of international and indigenous art — venues that would have done any other city proud. But over here, such world-class venues are a picture of neglect. Take, for instance, the National Handicrafts and Handlooms Museum, also known as the National Crafts Museum, near Pragati Maidan.
This facility was set up during the ’50s and ’60s with a view to showcasing an “overlooked dimension of Indian culture”, as the museum’s official website puts it — a dimension that’s embodied in the great artisanal tradition of handicrafts and handlooms. Now, the National Crafts Museum is right up there on the list of cultural venues that Delhi-ites not only try their best to avoid visiting — most of us aren’t even aware that it exists.
Yet, when you buck the trend and make an unplanned visit to the Crafts Museum on an idle weekday, it becomes a visit worth remembering. The building itself, designed by veteran architect, the late Charles Correa, is legendary. It’s a massive complex, with separate segments marked out for exhibitions and other activities like workshops and performances. All this month, the venue is hosting the Folk Craft Festival, featuring special performances by trained craftsmen and artisans from Gujarat.
Visitors can get to learn a lot about the history of handicraft in India at the museum. There are special demonstrations and workshops organised on this subject routinely. Besides, there are the fabulous, ancient and rare exhibits scattered throughout the gallery space. The elephant sculptures belonging to the Bhuta cult of coastal Karnataka are, we’re told, made entirely from the wood of the jackfruit tree.
Then there are the hundreds of display pieces categorised under tribal and folk art, “ritual” and “courtly” craft, as well as under separate state banners including West Bengal, Odisha and Assam among others. A whole section is devoted specifically to the promotion of the crafts of the Kutch in Gujarat, which is known for its expert craftsmen and embroidery artists.
The area of the museum labeled as the “Pigeon House”, is like a storage space overflowing with intricately designed vessels, utensils and brocades from the past. Here, we caught up with Shweta, a student of the Delhi College of Arts, who makes it a point to visit the Crafts Museum as frequently as she can, sometimes choosing to work on her own artworks on these premises. “It’s the atmosphere and the natural beauty that surrounds this place and several things from the past that fascinate me, as well as my friends, enough to come and practice our skills here,” she says. “The natural beauty and serenity of this place is simply welcoming and fresh.”
And when Shweta is not occupied with her own drawings and sketches, she spends time scanning the exhibits in the main gallery space. Here we have things ranging from antique wood pieces to toys and leather puppets from Varanasi and Hyderabad. There are also specimens of stone crafts of Uttar Pradesh and clay work of Krishnanagar, Bengal. The range of the exhibits here —everything from ancient salt-and-pepper shakers to large, life-size Madhubani paintings — is enough to boggle the mind of an average visitor. But Delhi-wallahs don’t seem very keen on paying the museum a visit.