Miniature paintings and modern day bards: A feast for the eyes

New Delhi Travel Blog

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The National Museum

Indian breakfast this morning on the patio:  two “pancakes” made from savory batter with diced potatoes inside them, spicy tamarind pickle, yoghurt, cooked puffed rice with turmeric and vegetables, and a pot of strong tea.  Then I left the guesthouse intent on getting to the National Museum.


At the end of the lane where it met the main street I hailed an auto rickshaw and explained to the driver where I wanted to go.  Thus started the negotiations that I’m beginning to get a feel for…sort of.

Cold coffee at Cafe Barista
  He wanted 100 rupees, I gave a look of astonishment and offered 40.  He refused.  I offered a little more (45) and again he shook his head.  I started walking away down the road, intending to try the metro, and he followed me, put-putting along slowly and trying to catch my attention.  He offered to take me for 50 rupees, and the deal was done!  (Tip to fellow travelers: before trying to catch an autorickshaw or taxi I’ve started asking someone nearby what they think a reasonable price would be to get to my destination.  I then have a ballpark figure in mind to work with.  Inevitably I end up paying a little more than what they say, but not a huge amount more.)


The National Museum is set alongside a beautiful showcase park/boulevard called the Rajpath, at one end of which is the India Gate (a memorial arch that looks like the Arc du Triomphe) and at the other end of which is the huge residence for the Indian president.

Story scroll about 9/11
  In the time before Indian Independence it used to be the residence of the British viceroy. 


The museum itself has a nice exterior and inside is shaped like a circle, with a circular courtyard at the center, and large picture windows allowing you to look out into the courtyard.  (You can’t go into it, though.)  Inside the museum you have to pass through a rickety plywood metal detector, have your bag cursorily examined by bored security guards, and have a token pat-down by another, equally bored, security official.  (Female guards pat down women visitors, and male guards pat down the men.)  The same process applies on the way out         .

Story scroll about contemporary politics. The man sitting at the table in the upper panel is George Bush.
  I’ve experienced this at other places as well, including the Delhi metro.  In the case of the museum, I think it might be to prevent people from making off with the displays, many of which are simply hanging on the walls with nothing to stop you from casually lifting them off and stuffing them under your tunic!


One thing that struck me was how casually pieces seemed bunged into the dusty display cases, sometimes haphazardly arranged, or crookedly placed, or topped with the odd long-deceased insect.  It might be an issue of money, which I doubt the museum had in plenty – parts of the building looked like they hadn’t seen a lick of paint in the last 50 years.  By contrast, other parts of the museum were highly polished and well-maintained.

Singing a story from the Ramayana.
  The circular breezeway that led into the galleries, for example, left me with an impression of sparkling granite and beautiful carved wooden doorways with brass handles, carefully cleaned and polished.  Note:  on the walls signs in English instructed patrons that eating, drinking, spitting and chewing betel were not permitted.


There were lots of interesting things to see in the museum, and I spent a good 3 hours there, going slowly from room to room on each of the three levels.  What really sucked me in, though, was the amazing collection of miniature paintings.  I had a small taste of these earlier this week in the small museum at the Red Fort, but at the National Museum you can greedily feast your eyes on a veritable treasure trove of them, each of them lovelier than the next.

Contemporary miniature paintings for sale at Dilli Haat.
  The ones I especially liked were painted during the Mughal era, and featured not only scenes of gods and goddesses, but also portraits of kings, queens, and dancing girls; processions and hunting parties; festivals like Holi; garden ponds filled with water lilies; garden landscapes filled with birds and animals; and (my favorite) romantic scenes of lovers and their trials – lovers gazing deeply into one another’s eyes, or waiting impatiently for one another, or pining for one another.  These gorgeous paintings are done with very fine brushes (just one or two hairs thick) with the result that the lines are so small, so fine and so detailed that they look as if they’ve been executed by fairy hands, not human ones.


There were so many good ones, but I made a note of some of my absolute favorites:

  • “Vasakasajja Nayika who decorates her bed with flowers, impatiently awaits the arrival of her lover,” Rajasthan c. 1700.  Depicts a woman dressed in a beautiful sari seated on a bed in a bower, with delicate long-necked birds in the foreground, as well as some deer.  Above her, in the dark blue night sky, two herons fly away.  Peacocks and monkeys sit in the trees above her, and garlands hang in the bower that shields her from the surrounding forest.
  • “Lovesick heroine,” Rajasthan 1770.  Depicts a half naked young woman dressed in pink pantaloons who has thrown herself backwards on a canopy bed placed in a lovely courtyard/garden, above which a full moon rises.  One female attendant rubs her feet, another raises and flaps a pretty fan, and a third (an older woman) gestures placatingly.   The despairing maiden has her head thrown back and one hand clutches her breast in misery.  Two birds sit on the platform looking on, beside them lie fruit, vegetables, flowers, and unguents.
  • “Rani Budhawati hunting tigers,” Rajasthan 1760.  From a covered platform the rani looks through the barrel of a rifle, aiming at two wild tigers under a tree, whose tails curl up in the air.  Two female attendants hold additional weapons such as a long sword, arrows, and an additional rifle, while a third female attendant looks on.
  • Not to mention these ones:  “Radha and Krishna in the boat of love;” “Krishna imploring Radha for love;” “Princesses playing polo with their companions;” “Krishna peeping through the trees at bathing Radha;” “Hero removing thorn from foot of heroine;” “Delighted heroine waiting for her beloved;” “Guler Rani out hawking with her companions;” “Gopis demanding their clothes from Krishna,” and so on.


After the museum I took an auto rickshaw to another district to do an interview.  (Note to travelers:  drivers will try to persuade you to stop off at a great little shop they know where you can buy X, Y, and Z at a really great price.  Say NO!)  After that I went to Dilli Haat for a social meeting with a contact I met online.


Dilli Haat is an outdoor craft market where you can buy handicrafts directly from the people who make them.  Had I been by myself it wouldn’t have been anything out-of-the-ordinary, but because I was with a Hindi-speaking companion I was able to learn and experience something very touching.  At one of the stalls at the back there was a couple selling long scrolls with brightly painted folk pictures.  They struck up a conversation with my companion, and we ended up staying and chatting with them for nearly an hour.  Their craft, which the woman inherited from her mother, was painting these long story scrolls, panel by panel, on paper, then gluing them to cheap fabric to make them more durable.  The scrolls depicted ancient stories like those from the Ramayana, but also new stories that she created herself (like one about a fish couple’s wedding banquet, which one angry, spurned fish crashes) and even contemporary news-type stories, like that of 9/11, and subsequent war in Iraq.  The woman composes songs to accompany each story, and she and her husband go from village to village, where a crowd will gather and she will sing the stories, gesturing to each scene as the scroll unfurls.  Truly they are bards, communicating key works as well as news to people in a manner that goes back thousands and thousands of years.  I found their work very moving – but I never would have learned about it if I hadn’t been there with that Hindi-speaking friend.

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The National Museum
The National Museum
Cold coffee at Cafe Barista
Cold coffee at Cafe Barista
Story scroll about 9/11
Story scroll about 9/11
Story scroll about contemporary po…
Story scroll about contemporary p…
Singing a story from the Ramayana.
Singing a story from the Ramayana.
Contemporary miniature paintings f…
Contemporary miniature paintings …
New Delhi
photo by: peeyushmalhotra