Indian history on canvas

Mid Day, 8th August, 2013

On July 20, the Tibet hall at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Indian History was opened at the hands of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The GUIDE visits this treasure trove of Indian history recreated in the form of paintings showcases various historic figures and chapters

A visit to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Indian History in Lohegaon is another reminder of Pune’s sobriquet of being the state’s cultural capital. The museum comprises of five tents as well as a temple of the female Hindu deity, Bhavani Mata, which is a replica of the original temple. We decided to drop by to meet the museum’s founder Frenchman Francois Gautier who set it up in 2009. “I started the museum as I realised that the history of India has mostly been written by British journalists and experts with the intent to downgrade and postdate it. I felt that with such a museum people could relate to India’s real history,” says Gautier. With 30 to 35 paintings in each hall, some even dating back to scenes from the 16th century, this is a treasure trove for the art and history buff.

Above: Artwork at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Indian History

Showcase for Tibet

The Dalai Lama recently opened the Tibet Hall section at the museum, and so we were keen to have a dekko. Gautier admits to his admiration for the spiritual leader: “I have interviewed him on seven occasions, I feel for Tibet, which has been abandoned by the world as everybody wants to do business with the Chinese and the genocide of Tibetans and Tibetan culture fits in the line of my museum, which deals a lot with human rights.” We noticed how the newly opened hall was turning out to be a telling canvas to portray the history as well as the current condition of the Tibetans and their struggle. These were all depicted in the paintings and flexes.

Back at the entrance, we spotted a beautiful statute of the goddess who is depicted giving a sword to the Maratha king, Shivaji Maharaj. The Shivaji Hall greets visitors first up; it measures approximately 38x38 feet, where you will spot paintings and scripts of Shivaji Maharaj capturing the time of his birth until his death. Below each painting, description in Hindi, English, and a few in Marathi make it very helpful to the visitor.

Behind the scenes

Giving us an insight into how the exhibits at the museum took shape, Gautier informed us about the team behind it. “Two historians, Professor VS Bhatnagar, retired head of the University of Rajasthan (History department) and Prof KS Gupta of the University of Udaipur (History department) were at the forefront of the research,” he said. This apart from the two teams of painters — a Jaipur based painter who specialises in the Mughal miniature style and the other, a painter who pracitises the Udaipur / Mewar style were briefed by the two historians about historically recorded scenes. Since these were never painted before, the painters did black-and-white sketches that were approved by the historians and later, by Gautier. Finally, each painting would return to the artist for the final colouring

Above: Various halls at the museum acting as exhibiting spaces for different kinds of cultural histories

The second hall is the Aurangzeb Hall where paintings and scripts about the life of Aurangzeb come to life. There’s also a statue with the soothing face of Buddha in one of the rooms if visitors prefer to pray or mediate in its calming environs. The third hall is named after Maharana Pratap. Some of the paintings are printed on flex. Past this is the Dara Shukoh Hall dedicated to Aurangzeb’s elder brother. Very less has been written about him in history.

Gautier adds that Shukoh was a lover of all religions. One painting that showed him interacting with heads of different religions particularly fascinated us.

As of now, the museum has a guide-cum-caretaker, Raosaheb Shivram Patil and manager Shidhardh Premsagar Nanga to guide people around the space. It is open all days of the week. We noticed a lot of natural light seeping in these tents, the roof is made from fibre; the natural air circulation is also good in all the halls.

Challenges galore

After getting a sense of the place, we were keen to know about how this project has managed to sustain, “I raise the funds, as I am well-known as a journalist among NRIs and also many Indian citizens. My wife manages the museum under a no-profit trust, which is registered, has income tax and FCRA (which is also a type of tax). Believe me, raising funds for this museum is extremely difficult.” While talking about the future plans, Gautier said they needed at least R15 crores for the main museum, which would be along the lines of a modern museum in the US, with amphitheatre, libraries, cafeteria, quarters, offices and gardens for people to relax.

As of now a cafeteria is planned to come up soon. Also there are plans to set up a hall dedicated to Ahilyabai Holkar.

Tracing Tibet

Above: The ruins of Shide Samtenling Monastery

The Indian Express, 30th July, 2013

Kelsang Dolma stands in a white canopied pavilion and looks up at the bright coloured Tibetan prayer flags. Her gaze moves downwards, towards the posters lining the pavilion's walls. These are posters with pictures of people fleeing and of monasteries in ruins. To her, the posters are a reminder of the ordeal her own family had to endure. "I was just one-and-a-half years old when we came to India. Tibetan children like me were not allowed to learn our indigenous language or about our culture. My father, a Tibetan language teacher, was not allowed to teach. When he saw that he couldn't even teach his own children their history and language, he arranged for us to leave Tibet," she says.

Dolma is at an exhibition about Tibetan history and culture and Buddhism at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Indian History, Lohegaon. And though she is reminded of all that her family left behind — both the roots and the ruins of their culture — she is happy that Tibet's story is reaching out to more people.

The exhibition was inaugurated on Sunday by the Dalai Lama during his visit to the city. The exhibition covers the origin of Buddhism in India and its spread in Tibet along with the rest of the country. There is a twin exhibition that features photographs of Tibet, the exodus of Tibetans across the border and the destruction of monasteries. There are pictures of refugees escaping from Tibet and making their way towards the border, passing through some of the world's highest mountain passes.

The material and the information in the exhibition was curated and displayed by The Tibet Museum of Dharamshala, where it is a part of their permanent collection and display. The curators sent over the information to Francois Gautier and his wife, Namrata, the organisers of the exhibition and founders of the museum. "India has given refuge to many Tibetans, but many Indians don't know about Tibet itself or about what happened there," says Gautier. Namrata shares how they encountered ignorance even among the authorities. "When we visited the local police officers to tell them about the exhibition, the SP thought Tibet was an Indian state in the Northeast."

To ensure that locals understood the story of Tibet well, the couple made it an English-Marathi exhibition. "Most of the locals around the campus here speak only Marathi. That's why we've arranged to have the information displayed in Marathi as well. This is the first Marathi exhibition about Tibetan Buddhism," says Gautier.