Monday, May 19, 2008

Stepping back in time

At the Museum of Kerala History at Kochi, you see history at close quarters as well as the great art of East and West

By Shevlin Sebastian

Some years ago, a German couple, both professors in their fifties, had come to Kerala and wanted to see the Museum of Kerala History at Kochi. Apparently, one of their friends in Germany had termed it as a ‘must-see’.

They stayed in Fort Kochi, toured Ernakulam, and, one evening, they stopped to have tea at a roadside shop near Vytilla. They asked the show owner and, by coincidence, a Malayalam newspaper had carried an article on the museum on that same day. The shop-owner proudly showed the article to the couple, as he gave directions to the museum.

“Everybody knows about the museum,” says Prasanna Varma, assistant manager at the museum. “In the end, the couple said they had toured the whole of Asia and had not seen a museum like this.”

The Museum of Kerala History, set in granite, sits on 1.3 acres of land, in Edapally besides the National Highway 47. It was set up in 1987 by the late businessman, Madhavan Nayar, who was known as the ‘father of the seafood export industry in India’.

“He said that since society had given him so much, he wanted to give something in return,” says Army Captain V. Karunakaran (retd.), the manager.

The museum is divided into four parts: the museum of Kerala history, a gallery of paintings and sculptures, a Centre for Visual Arts and the Dolls Museum.

In the museum of Kerala History, there is a sound and light show, which shows thirty-seven scenes, highlighting the achievements of 90 historical figures, like Sankara and Swathi Thirunal, who shaped the history of Kerala. The costumes are authentic, and you get the feeling the figures will spring to life at any moment.

The show is an engrossing spectacle, accompanied by traditional music and commentary. Spotlights are switched on and off, falling on different eras, while the rest of the hall is in complete darkness. One moves in a circle to go through 2000 years of history.

“Through this show, I wanted to spark the interest of the visitor in the history of Kerala,” Madhavan Nayar had once said. Indeed, it is a journey back in time, into a forgotten world.

At the gallery of paintings and sculptures, you can see the traditional Kerala mural art, the patachitras from Orissa, where the paintings are done on palm leaves and cloth and the Tanjavur school of painting. This school has wooden boards decorated with gold leaf, semi-precious stones and mirror work.

And, of course, there is the superb ‘Reverie’ by Raja Ravi Varma and paintings by contemporary masters like Nandalal Bose, Jamini Roy, F.N. Souza, K.G. Subramanian and M.F. Hussain.

At the Centre for Visual Arts, there are reproductions of paintings by Paul Cezanne, Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and other masters. “Usually, Madhavan Nayar would travel to museums in India and all over the world to buy prints and reproductions,” says Prasanna. “Sometimes, reproductions were given by foreign embassies and it has been put up for the benefit of the fine arts students.”

One day, an Austrian couple, Erwin Neumayer and Christine Schelberger, who were researching for a biography on Raja Ravi Varma, had come to see the maestro’s painting.

“In the end, they saw the entire museum and appreciated it,” says Prasanna. “They asked why there were no reproductions of the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo and we said that we had tried but could not get it.”

Eventually, the couple left Kochi and went to Paris. From there, by sea mail, they sent the wonderful reproductions of Da Vinci, which hang at the centre today. “For the next three years, they came regularly and were happy to see that the reproductions had been mounted,” says Prasanna.

Just above the Centre of Visual Arts is the Dolls Museum, which has a rare collection of authentic dolls from various parts of the country and from USA, Canada, Germany, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines.

“This section is one of the most attractive of its kind in India,” says Capt. Karunakaran. Another section, which is also very attractive, is the Gallery of Miniatures, which contains reproductions of paintings of the court of the Mughal emperors and the ever-popular Radha-Krishna theme.

Asked about the type of visitors who come, Karunakaran says, “Students arrive from schools and colleges from all over Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. We have regular visitors from the J.J. School of Arts in Mumbai and several other art schools in Kerala. Families visit during the vacations. And foreigners come during the tourist season of August to March.” Incidentally, during the tourist season, the museum gets 15,000 visitors a month.

And the institution is keen to carry on its good work. “We want to acquire more world-class paintings,” says Karunakaran.

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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