“A glass pitcher, a wicker basket, a tunic of coarse cloth. Their beauty is inseparable from their function. Handicrafts belong to a world existing before the separation of the useful and the beautiful.”
~ Octavio Paz, Mexican poet
I love this quote by Octavio Paz for it captures the sheer ethos of handicrafts.
Whilst art is pure expression, craft on the other hand is purely utilitarian. Shape, proportion, and colour—all serve a purpose. To be useful.
But just because it is useful, it does not mean it needs to be ugly or even plain. The craftsperson, since time immemorial, has imbued craft with a sense of aesthetics, following a deep-seated human instinct to create beauty.
In a country like India with 28 states and 8 union territories, where each is characterized by its own unique personality, the range of handicrafts produced is, as expected, mind-boggling. Seeing it all through physical travel almost impossible.
Which is where the National Crafts Museum in New Delhi comes in with its 33,000 objects collected over 60 years. The country’s finest handicrafts, made by its most talented craftspeople have been carefully collated and put on display in its galleries. As one wanders from one exhibit to another, one has the luxury of traversing miles and time, peeping into the minds and hearts of the people who have made these artifacts with their own bare hands.
Established in 1956, the museum is the brainchild of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay [1903 – 1988]. Kamaladevi was many things—a writer, social reformer, freedom fighter, feminist, politician, actor, and most significantly, the driving force behind the revival of Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and theatre in independent India.
A collection of such geographical and creative breadth which touched the very roots of India needed a building which reflected that earthiness. Charles Correa was the obvious choice and what we have is a series of buildings in his signature style.
Doubling up as a residency program for craftspeople with live dance performances and craft demonstrations, there is lots happening in the museum campus.
The National Crafts Museum is outside the regular tourist circuit so you would have the galleries mostly to yourself. Have 90 minutes? Then these are my favourites. Completely doable in an hour and a half. ❤
Aiyanaar Shrine [Tamil Nadu, Terracotta]. The first exhibit one encounters is the fantastical Aiyanaar shrine with its herd of terracotta horses. Seated amidst them is Aiyanaar, a guardian folk deity in Tamil Nadu, with his two wives and attendants. His temples are found on village outskirts. Come night-time, he sets off to protect the village armed with his bow and arrow, galloping through the lanes on the terracotta horses gifted to him by his grateful devotees. [Outdoor area; audio tour stop no. 2]
Wall Paintings [Clockwise from top]: Warli Painting from Maharashtra, Muriya Painting from Bastar, Chhattisgarh, and Patachitra Painting from Odisha. These paintings depict details from daily life to the seasons and the cycle of life itself. I loved the two right above. On the left is one of the purported 64 life skills required, namely, the art of gambling, if you please. The right image shows a tribal man dancing to the rhythmic beats of his music, oblivious to the world. [Outdoor area; audio tour stop no. 3]
Entrance Door [Early-19th Century, Odisha, Wood and Metal]. The entrance to the galleries is guarded by a carved door which once upon a time must have stood at a temple entrance. Its panels are intricately carved with the ten incarnations of Vishnu: Fish, Tortoise, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashuram, Rama, Balram, Krishna, and the yet to appear Kalki. The image above contains the Varaha [left] and Narasimha [right] panels. [Outdoor area; audio tour stop no. 4]
Kathakali Dolls [Kerala, Wood]. One of the eight classical Indian dance forms, Kathakali is indigenous to Kerala, both originating and practiced solely in the South Indian coastal State. Distinguished from other forms by its elaborate makeup, costumes and masks, along with martial art movements, it is centred around the Hindu epics and performed by male dancers. The fully developed style we see today traces itself back to the 17th Century. These dolls capture the essence of this dance style perfectly, don’t you agree? [Folk and Tribal Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 5]
Phad of Pabuji [Rajasthan, Painted Cotton]. Pabuji is a 13th Century hero from Marwar in Rajasthani folklore who died during battle for his subjects. Bhopas, professional singers of Pabuji’s legends, narrate his life story accompanied with large earthen pots and a painted scroll [phad] as they travel through the Thar Desert, entertaining villagers en-route. Stringent rules guide the scroll’s creation and ultimate disposal. The image above depicts Pabuji with the signatures of the artists and the Bhopas who commissioned it. [Folk and Tribal Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 9]
Grain Storage [Chhattisgarh, Clay with Wood and Bamboo]. Women of the Rajwar community in Chhattisgarh decorate the Dodki or grain storage bins in their homes with motifs of gods, human figures, and animals made of unfired clay. Dodki or grain storage bins are an integral part of a Rajwar household. The container comprises of two levels connected with a cylinder—grain is poured into it through the top lid and removed, when required, through the hole in the lower section. [Folk and Tribal Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 10]
Puppets [Rajasthan]. Puppet shows have been popular in the Indian subcontinent for many centuries. In Rajasthan and South India, they are performed with the help of strings; in Bengal it is with rods.
Rajasthan’s puppets are usually made of mango wood by the Bhat, a semi-nomadic community, who go from village to village in the dry season to perform puppet shows. A senior member of the family known as Sutradhar is the string puller and carves out the figures from wood. The women paint the puppets and sew their costumes. [Folk and Tribal Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 11]
Kondha Bronzes [Odisha, Bronze]. Though not part of the audio guide, I truly feel this exhibit merits a stop and some love. Who would have thought that mere betel nut crackers could be transformed into something so delightful! The 12 pieces have been cast in the solid, and depict mythical creatures, ordinary beings, and geometric patterns, all created with the same attention to detail. [Folk and Tribal Craft Gallery; not included in the audio tour]
Bhuta Gallery [Karnataka, Wood]. These massive wooden statues [some are 15 feet high] are carved out of jackfruit trees and were originally painted in bright colours. The National Crafts Museum’s bhuta collection is one of the largest in the world.
Part of a prehistoric cult, they represent the fluid spirits of dead benevolent ancestors [bhuta meaning ghost] who have become demi-gods after death and are in a state of flux between human and animistic forms. In Southern Karnataka, almost every village still has a Bhutsthana or Bhuta temple where the statues are worshipped for protection through staged rituals. [Bhuta Sculpture Gallery; audio tour stop no. 12]
Madhubani Painting [Bihar, Wall Painting]. Though typically gentle and sweet, Madhubani paintings can also be ferocious as the above exhibits illustrate. The top painting is a wall painting called kohbarchitra. It is painted in the room where the newly-wed couple goes to worship the family deity. Fertility motifs such as peacocks, lotus, and fish abound in the composition to ensure procreation. [Folk and Tribal Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 13]
The two paintings on paper, outside the room, are Tantric, and reflect the influence of neighbouring Tibet. On the left is Shmashan Chandi wearing a garland of skulls and holding a dagger in her right hand, whilst seated on a dead body. To the right is the four-headed Saraswati mounted on a swan.
Tibetan Statue [Ladakh, Painted Wood]. All the way from Leh, in Ladakh, is this magnificent sculpture of Avalokiteshwara, the 1,000-eyed, 11-headed compassionate bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings in Buddhism who chose to forego nirvana so as to help earthly beings. Look carefully and you’ll notice each of his thousand hands is painted with an eye, symbolizing his ever-seeing, ever-giving nature. [Cultic Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 14]
Cauldron [17th Century, Kerala, Bronze]. Musari metal-casters in Kerala have perfected the complex process of casting large utensils [and I assure you, this one is large] in one single piece using the lost wax technique. Known locally as Charakku, the cauldron is used for cooking Payasam, a ritual meal. It is a lovely blend of stark earthen simplicity, with smooth spatial contours which give a seriousness to the size and utility, broken with sophisticated trimmings. [Cultic Craft Gallery; not included in the audio tour]
Painting of Paradise and Hell [19th Century, Rajasthani copy of an Iranian painting]. Centred around Islamic concepts of paradise and hell, the upper portion [not in this image] depicts the pleasures of paradise. The section on hell, which forms the bottom part of this huge painting, shows punishments rendered to infidels in the company of dragons, snakes, scorpions, and flames. At its centre is the punishment meted out to Phiraun by Zahak, a popular tale in Persian mythology. [Cultic Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 17]
Haveli [Late-18th Century, Gujarat]. I must confess this one took me by surprise! The last thing I expected amongst the artifacts was a full blown reassembled life-size haveli in an inside gallery. But when one considers the role of artisans in crafting a haveli’s detailing, its inclusion is but natural.
This haveli belonged to a family from the Sunni Vohra community in Patan, Northern Gujarat. Richly carved and furnished with ornate niches and cupboards, it includes a mezzanine floor called Sojala used by the womenfolk. What’s interesting is that havelis owned by Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat were identical in decoration and difficult to tell apart. [Court Craft Gallery; audio tour stop no. 18]
Left: Chariot [18th Century, Maharashtra, Wood and Metal]; Right: Pigeon House [Late-19th Century, Gujarat, Wood]. As one wanders through the galleries, across courtyards, one comes across two marvellous works in carved wood. The first is a chariot, which was used for Ram Ratha temple processions. It is designed to look like a temple, with deities carved on its spire. The second is a pigeon house from Ahmedabad. In Gujarat, all important squares tend to include a place for feeding birds where people can offer grains to our winged friends.
Indian Textiles [From various Indian States]. India’s glorious textile heritage spans States, weaving techniques, and material. The textile gallery, with over 200 types of textiles, is an impressive resource bank by any standards. To look out for are the Ikat, Bandhani, and Brocade textiles and Kashmiri shawls.
Ikat or Bandha is a resist dye technique that originated in Odisha. Here the yarn is first tie and dyed according to a preconceived design and then mounted on the loom. Native to Rajasthan, Bandhani from the word ‘Bandh’ meaning to tie, is made by plucking the cloth with the fingernails into many tiny bindings that create a design. Brocades are textiles that are richly figured and use one or more supplementary weft or warp to form the motifs. Finally, the Kashmiri Shawls or Cashmere Shawls made of Pashmina wool are characterized by their warmth, light weight, and paisley patterns. [Textile Gallery; audio tour stops no. 20 – 23]
Village Complex [Recreated huts from various Indian States]. Set amongst towering native banyan trees are recreated huts from several Indian States. The Kulu Hut from Himachal Pradesh, made of stone with a roof of slate tiles, is evocative of pine trees and verdant hills. The colourful Banni Hut from Gujarat, decorated with mirror work [shown in the image] is built of sun-dried bricks and has a thatched roof of local weeds. Its circular shape protects the inhabitants from hot desert winds.
Another interesting structure, not to miss, is the Konyak Morung or Traditional Men’s House from Nagaland, made of wood and bamboo with sloping thatched roofs. It is a dormitory for unmarried Naga men of the head-hunting Konyak tribe, where they learn about their tribe’s customs and traditions. [Village complex; audio tour stop no. 25]
Note: To know more about the Konyak Morung, a slowly dying tradition, click here.
- Address: National Crafts Museum and Hastkala Academy, Bhairon Marg, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi.
- Timing: 9:30 am – 6:00 pm [Closed on Mondays and Public Holidays].
- Ticket: Rs. 20 for Indians; Rs. 300 for foreigners.
- Audio guide: Rs. 100 for Indians; Included in ticket price for foreigners.
- Photography charge: Rs. 500. Videography is not allowed.
- Cafe Lota serves a regional Indian menu. The Museum Shop Lota, run by the Indian Government’s Ministry of Textiles, is highly recommended.
- I visited the museum first on a heritage walk run by Pooja Varma of Mera Shehar – My City Walks. After which, because I liked the museum so much, I went back to explore more.
You may also like to read:
National Museum, New Delhi – 90 minutes at the Museum
Delhi’s National Museum Bronze Gallery: Where bronzes sing tales of god and art
Never met someone who talked about this museum. A true hidden gem for someone who loves art and culture. Thanks for sharing this virtual tour.
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It is indeed an art and heritage afficiando’s delight. The collection is wonderful, with some truly unique pieces. I have no idea why it is not promoted enough or is outside the standard circuit. I am glad I got to visit it though, and that too twice. 🙂
Sometimes, it’s a blessing in disguise. It might sound selfish but looking at how most tourists places are you feel this way. In any case, tourists will never do justice to such places. It is best meant for explorers and art lovers.
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So true. 🙂
Looks like an interesting museum and a great way to try to understand the many different cultures in the country. Maggie
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It is a lovely museum. Also often ignored, visited mainly by those who are interested in craft or belong to Delhi’s arty circles. Which is a pity. Some of its exhibits are not to be found anywhere else.
These are invaluable treasures! Thank you for introducing this museum to us, Rama. I wasn’t aware of it, but now it’s definitely on my list of places to visit when I go to Delhi one day. While the handicrafts look incredible, I’m really impressed that they managed to assemble a haveli inside the museum!
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It is one of Delhi’s secret gems. 🙂 I think every city in the world has a few such which only the locals really know about and hang out at, or the intrepid discover. The haveli definitely took me by surprise. I was like whaaaat!!!
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This post of yours remind me about “Harappan civilization” taught by my favorite teacher. Btw history was one of my most favorite subject besides literature. 🌷🌻🌹
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Thank you for the compliment. 💕 Two of my favourite subjects too.
Same pinch 😁