India’s relationship with museums is changing. We’re no longer content with glass cases, dusty artefacts and tiny labels that mean nothing. Close to a dozen new museums and galleries (they’re all either set to open this year or about a year old) tell a different story of how we want to view our past. Some are music-experience spaces, others have Sikh-history galleries with motorised puppets. Here are our top picks.
The gun that made Bhagat Singh a legend
- The Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh museum in Khatker Kalan, Punjab.
In 1928, Bhagat Singh used this gun to shoot a 21-year-old British police officer named John Saunders. Singh was tried and hanged for his crime, and became a folk hero. But his pistol was missing for years. It had been moved in 1969 to the Border Security Force’s Small Arms Museum in Indore. And then coated in black paint to protect it from rust. Last year, BSF inspector general Pankaj Goomar matched the historic gun’s serial number to this semi-automatic .32-bore Colt pistol, solving the mystery of the ‘missing’ gun.
The gloves Sachin Tendulkar was wearing when he scored his 100th century
- The Boria Majumdar Fanattic Museum in Kolkata, which opened in January.
For fans, the record marked a year of waiting. For the cricketer, it brought relief.Sports writer Boria Majumdar recalls meeting an exhausted Sachin Tendulkar at the end of the historic day. “I thanked God to start with, and said to myself that the wait was finally over... I am glad it is done finally,” Tendulkar said. Majumdar persuaded the cricketing legend to part with the gloves he was wearing, so they could be turned into a museum exhibit. For those who don’t remember it, Tendulkar scored his 100th international century at a Bangladesh stadium in March 2012, a first for any batsman ever.
A kurta fastener from 100 years ago
- The Amrapali Museum in Jaipur, expected to open in June.
This intricate silver kurta fastener from Himachal Pradesh is being preserved for posterity because jewellers Rajiv Arora and Rajesh Ajmera are worried that the techniques used to create it are disappearing. They’ve been collecting pieces like this for over 40 years; some of them are 500 years old. The artefacts will soon be on display at a 6,500-sq-ft museum attached to their Amrapali Jewels HQ. In it will be spittoons, rosewater sprinklers and shoe covers; a turban pin shaped like a bird and studded with jewels; a silver, gold and glass waistband; and perhaps the most extravagant of all - a chariot covered in silver!
A refugee card from 1947
- The Partition Museum in Amritsar, which opened late last year.
Cards like this one were pretty much the only way to record the millions fleeing across the new border between India and Pakistan, after Partition. A relief officer would meet the incoming and record in detail the number of men, women, and children in each family, so they could get the right food and clothing rations. This card states that Chuni Lal Bhatia’s family of seven moved from West Punjab to Dehradun and then to Kanpur, in 1949. It was donated to the museum by Bhatia’s grandson.
A tribute to celluloid stars, at last
- The Museum of Indian Cinema is slated to open in Mumbai in the second half of 2017.
Before Raj met Simran and before Alia found the real student of the year, celluloid couples were making Indian hearts beat faster. This display is one of many that charts more than 100 years of Indian cinema. Also on display at the soon-to-open Museum of Indian Cinema in Mumbai are old cameras, projectors and recordings, iconic costumes, photos and posters - including the original hand-painted poster for the iconic 1957 film, Mother India.
An ornamental coat for a Parsi navjote
- Textiles Gallery, which opened at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum a year ago.
This coat tells a story of a world well-connected long before globalisation. The material is velvet, a fabric that originated in Baghdad, but the jacket has a Western collar. The bird-and-vine filled pattern is evocative of Kashmiri embroidery; the zardosi and sequins are typical of Surat; the crescents at the edges are auspicious symbols for Zoroastrians. It’s a small garment, meant for a seven-year-old boy’s Navjote or initiatation ceremony into the Zoroastrian faith.
A Yakshi who still glows 1,500 years on
- The roomy new Bihar Museum, in the Historical Art Gallery slated to open this September.
For a one-armed woman with a chipped nose, this Yakshi sure is popular. It helps that the rest of her 5-ft-2-inch frame is beautiful, smiling and stooping slightly in a posture of humility. Yakshis are the mythical attendees of Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth, and this statue dates from the 1st or 2nd century BC. The Yakshi, used to be the star attraction at the Patna Museum, famous for her Chunar sandstone body, delicately detailed and finished to an incredible mirror-like polish. She’s travelled abroad, showing the world what constituted craftsmanship and feminine beauty in ancient India.
Bismillah Khan’s iconic cap and shehnai
- Bangalore’s Centre for Indian Music Experience (IME), which opens in July.
It’s difficult to picture the master musician without these objects. When the maestro died in 2006, his instrument fell silent. But the Centre of Indian Music Experience is making sure it doesn’t disappear altogether. The objects forms part of an exhibit on memorabilia from India’s music Bharat Ratnas – alongside Bhimsen Joshi’s shawl and paan box, Ravi Shankar’s sitar and MS Subbulakshmi’s blue Kanjeevaram sari. The rest of the museum is more about hearing than seeing. You can sit in an autorickshaw and hear music blasting through headphones, rub or tap a hunk of black granite to hear it sound, or walk through the sound garden, where installations recreate music.
A 300-year-old magic dagger from Tibet
- The Himalayan Art Gallery, which opened at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum a year ago.
These bronze phurpas or ritual daggers don’t kill. But in Himalayan cultures, they are believed to help destroy obstacles. Also called a magic dagger, this tantric object is used in rituals to conquer evil spirits. This 18th-century one has three blades that signify the three virtues (charity, chastity and patience) that can destroy the three vices (hatred, lust and sloth). The gallery also exhibits rare thangka paintings, 16th-century bronze sculptures, a 17th-century bone apron worn by the lamas or spiritual leaders, and other works from Nepal and Tibet.
The court of Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh
- The Viraat-E-Khalsa Museum in Anandpur Sahib, Punjab, which has added 13 new galleries last year.
The sprawling Viraat-E-Khalsa museum of Sikh history uses realistic motorised puppets, gigantic murals, film projections and 3D paintings to tell its stories. This double panorama depicts the coronation of Ranjit Singh in 1801, a move that unified local clans and helped forge Sikh identity under what came to be called the Sikh Empire (1799-1849). Records of the time describe Singh’s court as lavish. The museum display is similarly breath-taking. The illuminated backdrop creates a film-set effect, while the panorama walls act as a screen – a horse moving on one wall disappears to seamlessly emerge on the other.
Art that doubles as a postcard
- Ahmedabad’s Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, which displays the personal collection of the Lalbhai industrialist family, and includes paintings, Tibetan thangkas, sculptures and rare artworks, opened in January.
When the painter Mukul Dey dropped his Bengal Art School teacher, Gaganendranath Tagore, a postcard in April 1915, he wasn’t scribbling the usual ‘Wish you were here’. The student was honouring the school’s unusual tradition of keeping in touch with an instructor who had become a friend.
He was also nodding to the future as much as the past. The following year, Dey would accompany Rabindranath Tagore on his first trip to Japan, learning printmaking from Japanese artists. Dey would later travel to America to learn to etch, a style he eventually preferred over what he learned in Japan. This postcard is from a collection of about 40 sent by various Bengal School students from 1913 to 1940. Others depict scenes from daily life across India. They’re precious peeks into the early works of artists as they reconciled what they viewed with their academic training.