Updated: October 12, 2021 8:38:40 am
A 10,000 square-ft space across three halls at the National Museum has been dedicated to displaying priceless Central Asian antiquities, which were part of its repository for a decade but never really got a moment under the limelight. “With this, it becomes the fourth museum in the world to display such a collection, after museums in the UK, German and Russia,” says Subrata Nath, Additional Director General of the museum.
From 12,000 works dating between the 3rd and 12th centuries – discovered by noted archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein during his Central Asian expeditions in 1900-1916 and brought to India – as many as 170 masterpieces have been carefully selected for the display.
The Central Asian Antiquities gallery now showcases large Bezeklik wall paintings, silk paintings and banners from the library cave of Dunhuang (China) and a large number of burial objects and textiles from Astana graves. As per estimates, Rs 3 crore and three long years have been spent on putting this together as most objects had to be conserved and reframed before they could be put up for display.
But the effort, say sources in the Ministry of Culture under which the museum operates, is not to be seen in isolation. “It is a well-thought-through global outreach plan floated by the government to position India as the Buddhist centre, and perhaps take that tag back from China,” says an official who doesn’t want to be identified. “This makeover is part of the country’s all-round effort to that end, wherein ministries of culture and tourism have been involved to play a big role,” adds the official.
To prove their point, the display has the landmark ‘1,000 Buddhas’ artwork from Dunhuang complex, alongside similar work from the Ajanta Caves. While the Ajanta work is dated to the 5th Century, the Chinese work came up only in 9th Century. “These things prove the primacy of India in terms of Buddhist art,” points out Nath.
Besides the expansive Central Asian Antiquities gallery, the majestic building next door, that functioned as the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) headquarters till 2018, has been turned into a Buddha museum of sorts (or a set of galleries), while an augmented reality-based experiential has been created for the Ajanta Caves at the NM. Together, the three new galleries aim to establish India’s credentials as the birthplace of Buddhism, from where it later spread to other countries, including China.
The entire makeover project is aimed at the G20 meeting scheduled to take place in 2023, when many heads of state and government, and other dignitaries will visit the Capital. The aim is to turn the museum into the country’s cultural showpiece, and showcase our Buddhist heritage to those not aware of it, the official adds.
The Ministry of Tourism has executed the Ajanta experiential inside NM, with help from IIT-Bombay. “We want to establish Ajanta Caves as the origin of Buddhist Art, which was at its peak in the 5th-6th Centuries. All monasteries came up along the Silk Route,” adds the official.
“People can see here minutely what they don’t even notice when they visit Ajanta,” says Nath.
It is perhaps the first example in the world wherein an offsite experience has been created for a World Heritage Site. Each and every nook and corner of the site, be it the interiors of the caves or the facade, has been captured accurately, and a visitor, sitting in a chair in the heart of Delhi, can go back and forth, zoom in and out and spend as much time as he wants. Ajanta experiential took three years of research and documentation and another year for execution by IIT-B, with support from the National Council of Science Museums.
In a reply to the Lok Sabha in August this year, Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy had said: “The museum on Buddha is being developed in a renovated century-old majestic building and spread over an area of about 15,000 square feet, surrounded by a lush green landscape”. He added it was a first-of-its-kind museum on Buddha and would include over 200 objects dating back to the 1st Century.
While the lockdown and restrictions on visitors at monuments were on in the wake of the pandemic, the entire museum project quietly took shape. Former Culture Secretary Raghvendra Singh, during whose tenure the entire makeover project was executed, had told The Indian Express, “It is another first for India – a museum dedicated to Buddha. The objects on display here have been taken from the ASI and from NM collection, and given the shape of a storyline. So nine galleries – dedicated to Buddha’s life, various Buddhist art schools, spread of Buddhism from India, tantric Buddhism, a digital immersive hall – have been created, one of them also showcasing for the first time 22 Tibetan thangka paintings from NM’s collection.”
The Buddha galleries took 18 months for the building to be recalibrated and for curation, at an estimated cost of Rs 7 crore. The entire makeover has been affected by the in-house team, executed with the help of CPWD. The redone National Museum – when it gets formally inaugurated later this month, perhaps by the Prime Minister himself – also has a foyer redesign, the reception area has been changed to become more technology-oriented and visitor friendly, besides overhaul of the auditorium where documentaries would be screened for visitors every evening.
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