An old garment tells a short story: “My daughter’s first jeans. I have never given it to anyone and never will.” A large collection of friendship bands belonging to a 13-year-old girl. An HMV radio from 1969 which a government officer, posted in Bastar, would listen to, much to the delight of tribals who had never seen such a contraption before. Three plastic bottles that held holy water from Mecca and Medina after Haj. A silver watch. A yellow stone that says ‘sab maya hai’.
These are some of the 300 displays at the Museum of Ordinary Objects, which will open at Studio Safdar from September 22-30. The objects were sourced by volunteers who visited homes in Shadipur, a working class locality where Studio Safdar is situated, and through online campaigns. The aim was to showcase objects people hold on to because they are tied in emotion. In the museum, the exhibits are familiar, but with strange stories.
The only item you cannot touch is a diary and a set of letters, dating between 1946 and the late 1950s, written by two young people in Lahore. “They started writing before Partition, Independence and migration happened. They moved to different cities, lost touch, somehow got back in touch, resumed writing, married despite parental opposition and, all through this, kept every single letter that they had written to each other,” says Choiti Ghosh, a Mumbai-based theatre-maker with Tram Arts Trust, which has organised the museum with Harkat Studios and Extension Arts. These letters and the diary, wrapped in a newspaper advertising a film and some products of a bygone era, have been donated by the couple’s grandchild.
“Objects are portals through which we look at people, time, societies and communities. In the Museum of Ordinary Objects, everything is familiar and though they have personal stories of the donors, you can find an echo of your own experiences,” adds Ghosh. It subverts the idea of conventional museums that preserve the history of nations. Here, nothing is curated or on a pedestal. “There is no hierarchy in ordinary objects in the museum. If an object is donated, it is displayed. The only curatorial intervention is in designing the space from the point of view of the objects,” says Karan Talwar of Harkat Studios.
The first Museum of Ordinary Objects started in Mumbai in 2016, and this is the first time the group has travelled to another city. “We had brought objects to display, but it is incredible that so many objects came through donations that we don’t have space for what we had brought,” says Ghosh. Items with a red dot are for viewing only but the ones with green dots mean donors can take it away in place of their own. This barter-friendly approach is to ensure the cycle of stories around objects continues.
Donors have shared their stories, some are several sentences long, others are one-liners, and some leave you wondering. A tub of ice-cream comes with a legend, “paani ki bahut dikkat hai (water is a big problem)”, while an empty bottle of body oil, bought in France, has been preserved by the donor because “the oil lasted quite long but the scent lasted longer along with the memory of my aunt”. And, in a hint to demography, a point-and-shoot camera, barely 15 years old, is important because “it is the first camera of our family”. “The Museum of Ordinary Objects encourages you to join the dots,” says Ghosh.