When it opened in 1921, the museum showcased artefacts from across nearly 300 years. Over the next 100 years, it has quietly added to its collection and now houses 34,000 paintings, manuscripts and antiques. (Shutterstock)
When it opened in 1921, the museum showcased artefacts from across nearly 300 years. Over the next 100 years, it has quietly added to its collection and now houses 34,000 paintings, manuscripts and antiques. (Shutterstock)

Treasure island: Take a tour of the Victoria Memorial museum as it turns 100

10 hidden gems, from art and poetry to the golden dagger of Tipu Sultan, picked by the secretary and curator of the Kolkata institution.
By Riddhi Doshi
UPDATED ON FEB 05, 2021 04:23 PM IST

In January 1901, Queen Victoria died and Lord Curzon, then viceroy of India, decided to build a grand marble monument in her memory, in the then colonial capital of Calcutta. The Victoria Memorial Hall took a decade-and-half to build. When it opened in 1921, the museum showcased artefacts from across nearly 300 years.

The Victoria Memorial turns 100 this year, and it’s quietly added to its collection over the decades. It now houses 34,000 paintings, manuscripts and antiques. In this collection are nearly 500 oil paintings by British and European painters from the 1700s and 1800s, documenting the life and topography of India in a time before the camera. “These are the most important visual tools for any scholar or researcher as they help reconstruct the India of the time,” says Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial Hall. “There are also 5,000 water colours from the Bengal School, by a range of artists including Abanindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath Tagore, who introduced modernism into Indian art.” Take a tour of the collection through Sengupta picks of 10 representative artefacts.

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GOING TO THE FRONT

Oil on canvas by Walter Charles Horsley, 1878

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

Soldiers, both Indian and British, board a train to Peshawar, on their way to Afghanistan, where the Second Anglo-Afghan War was underway when this art work was created. Notice how the textures of the saddlepacks, horses’ manes and uniforms vary. And if it’s the looming steam engine that catches your eye first, that’s no accident. The railways were vital to British interests on the subcontinent and featured in a number of art works of the time.

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THE MARRIAGE OF NUR-AL-DIN

Watercolour on paper by Abanindranath Tagore, 1930

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

Part of the famous Arabian Nights series by Abanindranath Tagore, this painting is an exquisite example of the artist’s adaptation of the Mughal miniature technique. Nur-al-din is a character in the collection of Middle-Eastern folk tales known as the Arabian Nights. Notice how different the bottom half of this painting looks from the top, with its depiction of abare, dark kitchen manned by the working-class. “These are the characters that Tagore transports into the painting from the Chitpur area in Kolkata, where he lived,” Sengupta says. “This artistic intervention makes the painting interesting.”

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A DURGA IDOL IN PROCESSION EN ROUTE TO THE GANGA

Photograph, 1890

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

The Victoria Memorial has a historic collection of early photographs by Calcutta-based studios Bourne and Shepherd and Johnston and Hoffmann. This silver albumen print is remarkably clear for its time, and also unusual is its subject matter. Photographs were expensive, both to take and to print, and so most pictures depicted grand monuments or monumental events. This one captures the energy and vibrancy of a crowd in the midst of enjoying the city’s most beloved festival. “If you look carefully, you can also see boats and steamers in the busy Ganga,” says Sengupta.

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TIPU SULTAN’S GILDED DAGGER, 1780s

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

It’s a dagger fit for a warrior king, and it belonged to one. The then ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan (1750-1799), owned this ornamental weapon, with a handle studded with precious stones — mainly rubies and pearls.

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DESK BELONGING TO BANKIM CHANDRA CHATTERJEE, c 1870

A simple wooden writing desk preserved at the museum is perhaps where the famous writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote his novel Anandamath in 1882. It is in that work that the poem Vande Mataram first appeared. It would later be picked up by the Congress party and sung across the country as part of the freedom movement. It continues to be sung today and is the national song.

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PIANO BELONGING TO QUEEN VICTORIA, c 1829

Several pieces of furniture from Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle were moved into the Victoria Memorial collection when it was built. The grand piano that stands here today was originally ordered for the 10-year-old Victoria by her uncle, King William IV, in 1829. “The piano hasn’t been tuned for a long time, but its keys are still intact and it can be played,” Sengupta says. Incidentally, William IV died with no living legitimate heirs, leaving Victoria to be crowned queen upon his death, in 1837. She was 18.

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LORD CORNWALLIS

Statue in marble by John Bacon, 1786-93

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

Statues of notable Britons were generally designed to impress, nay intimidate, in the colonies. Queen Victoria loomed over a crossroads in Mumbai. Here, an 8-ft statue of Cornwallis, the second Governor General of Bengal, stands on a pedestal, dwarfing the landscape around it. Brought to Calcutta in 1803, it was the first colonial statue in Calcutta, Sengupta says.

Created in the neoclassical style, it shows the portly Cornwallis in a Roman toga, his left hand grasping a sheathed sword, his right extending an olive branch. The female figures seated below him on the stepped pedestal represent fortitude and prudence. The symbolism is interesting, says Sengupta, because “the British thought of themselves as the power that inherited the mantle of global empire from the Romans.”

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AN ILLUSTRATED PAGE FROM THE MANUSCRIPT OF NAL DAMAN, c 1580

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

Nal Daman is the Persian translation of the Indian myth Nala Damayanti — the tale of a flawed king, a smitten princess and a magical swan, told within the Mahabharata. This manuscript is a representation of how interested Muslim rulers in medieval and early modern India were in Hindu epics and legends. “Everyone is interested in a good story, regardless of religion,” Sengupta says. Commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who had a whole department of translation and translated many Hindu epics into Persian, this work was translated by the poet and scholar Faizi.

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MANUSCRIPT OF A RABINDRANATH TAGORE POEM, 1926

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

Preserved at the Victoria Memorial are quite a few of the poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s handwritten verses, as well as some letters. These include Geetāshtak, (Eight Songs), written by Tagore during a trip to Germany. Among these is a little gem — the original version of the poem Amar Mukti Ganer Sure Ei Akashe (My Liberation Is in the Tunes of Songs, Within this Sky) which Tagore later changed to his immortal Amar Mukti Aloy Aloy Ei Akashe (My Liberation is Among the Light, Within this Sky).

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CANNONBALL USED IN THE BATTLE OF PLASSEY, 1757

(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)
(Image courtesy Victoria Memorial Hall)

This piece of weaponry was found during excavation of the Murshidabad branch of the Eastern Bengal State Railway, circa 1880. The battle of Plassey was a turning point for the British in India. It’s the battle in which East India Company forces defeated the wealthy and until-then-powerful Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, laying the first stone in the foundation of British rule. “The conquest of Bengal, a rich territory, paved way for British to acquire the rest of India,” Sengupta says.

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