Our Favourite Stories from DAG Museums

While we’re shut in our homes these past few months (and possibly next few too), art galleries and museums are finding creative new ways to deliver art to us. Whether through online competitions or via storytelling sessions, art and culture are reaching us from all corners of the world.

In this regard, DAG Museums has especially caught our attention! Last winter, DAG and NGMA inaugurated the Ghare Baire Exhibition in Kolkata. It features some of Bengal’s best art, ranging from Kalighat paintings and works of Shantiniketan artists, to Company Period art.

Even though we may not be able to visit the gallery in person, DAG has ensured we stay hooked! There are beautiful virtual viewing rooms to explore the paintings; their Facebook Live sessions with Heritage Walk Calcutta were an absolute delight – they talked about selected paintings and shared anecdotes from the lives of some of Bengal’s best artists. Every week, we look forward to their ‘Museum Stories’ on Instagram where they share the ‘mysteries, tragedies, comedies and love stories of the past‘ through their collection. 

Here are our favourites stories from DAG Museums!

DAG Story #1 : Curious Case of the Disappearing Monument

The monument referred to here, is the ‘Black Hole or the ‘Holwell’ Monument and it has a very controversial past. In 1757, the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah laid siege to the city of Calcutta. His soldiers imprisoned the British officers in a small prison known as the ‘Black Hole’. According to the account of John Zephaniah Holwell (a survivor of the Black Hole) around 120 British officers are believed to have died here.

Holwell erected a tablet on the site of the ‘Black Hole’ in memoriam of the dead. But at some point it mysteriously vanished! Was it stolen as an act of defiance against the British? Or did it, like the memory of the Black Hole, fade away with time? In the very first episode of their Instagram series ‘Museum Stories’, DAG traces the monument’s fascinating history through paintings, postcards and and photographs.

daniells painting holwell monument writers building
The Writers Building, Calcutta by Thomas Daniell | British Library

DAG Story #2 : Looking West – a museum walk online!

The Ghare Baire exhibit focuses on a connection between the home (Bengal) and the rest of the world. In a span of 4 Walkthroughs DAG covered 3 centuries of Bengal art, tracing influences of different regions on the artists of Bengal.

The first of these walkthroughs, Ghare Baire Virtual Walkthrough 1: Looking West covered Western artists like James Bailley Fraser, Charles D’Oyly and Olinto Ghilardi who were inspired by their time in India. Even more interesting was the reflection of Western styles in Indian Art.

This painting by an unknown Indian artist shows the blend of Indian and Western styles.

Rath Yatra painting Bengal DAG Ghare Baire
Untitled (Rath Yatra) artwork, Bengal | Ghare Baire

One can tell from the sophistication in the shading of the human form that the painter tried to experiment with perspective and depth. There are some bizarre features in this painting! While the other figures have realistic postures, the woman lying at the bottom is rigid.

One can also see themes and visual motifs borrowed from other schools of painting, and from the new and upcoming schools of architecture. One such borrowed motif is the building in the background. Since the painting is clearly of a religious theme, it could’ve been situated anywhere. Yet the artist chose to place insert a background with European buildings. Even the trees are portrayed realistically in the European style of painting. Perhaps this was done to create a painting that not only depicted a religious theme but was also at the same time, familiar to the European patron who commissioned the artwork.

European building in the background
Western style building

There is a third influence that is visible in the painting! Take a look at the picture below and see if you can guess it!

close up of painting. transparent veil, Persian rock
Influence of miniature style

Were you able to guess it correctly? Find out by watching the walkthrough!

DAG Story #3 : Prince, Patron and Patriot

In another Instagram Museum Story, DAG tells us of various incidents from a Maharaja’s life. Like other Maharaja’s of his time, Sayaji Rao III of Baroda too was surrounded by glamour and glitz. So what made him special? DAG tells us different anecdotes from his life, from his patronage of Raja Ravi Varma to his antics at the Delhi Durbar of 1911.

At the coronation of George V as King-Emperor of India, the Rajas and Nawabs dressed up in resplendent clothes and fine jewellery. Even Sayaji Rao arrived at the amphitheatre all dressed up wearing the historic Baroda jewels but then he removed them all just before meeting the king!

On reaching the shamiana, he bowed before the king, stepped backwards and then in a blatant disregard for royal etiquette, wheeled around, turning his back on the royal couple and walked away nonchalantly twirling his walking stick and laughing disrespectfully!

Head to Episode 5 of DAG’s Museum Stories to hear more such eccentricities from the Maharaja’s life.

Maharaja Sayyaji Rao III of Baroda | Wikimedia Commons
Newspaper clip maharaja Sayaji Rao walking away from George V
Source: Rare Book Society of India

These were just 3 of the many stories that DAG had shared with us.

In a situation where our days have become repetitive and largely uneventful, art can play an important role in lifting spirits and invoking creativity. With DAG’s Museum Stories, you can “wander through artworks featuring some of Kolkata’s favourite creatures” or accompany three Gopis as they take us through paintings which they themselves have inspired.

You’ll find these stories on their IGTV channel. Don’t miss the one featuring our participation: The Winsome Women in Waiting! You can also catch their old Facebook Live Chats where they look at the Ghaire Baire exhibit through different perspectives. While streaming these, you can also navigate through the virtual galleries created especially for the Museum Walkthroughs.

virtual museum walkthrough screenshot of gallery
Screenshot from Ghare Baire – Looking Beyond the City

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Chitralekha is a museum professional based in London. She holds an MA in History of Art from SOAS. Her areas of interests include Indian miniature paintings, decoloniality in museums, and open access in the cultural space.

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