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R. V. Smith / MAY 29, 2017

The museums of Delhi hold many hair-raising tales

The International Museum Day last week (May 18) had its echo in Delhi, which boasts of some 25 museums. The prominent ones being six National Museums, Nehru Memorial Museum, the two museums in the Red Fort, Rail Museum, Ghalib Museum, Shankar’s Dolls’ Museum, Sulabh Museum of Toilets, Gandhi Smriti Museum, the Police Museum and Philatelic Museum. Far from being just cold repositories of old stereotyped things, some have an awe-inspiring aura about them.

A museum in England used to witness the spectre of a Pathan warlord who came in search of his amputated hand preserved in a glass case. In Paris, a mummy kept in the museum used to make the rounds of the metropolis at night and, according to the writer Pierre Louis, landed up one night at his room just after the theatres had shut their doors for the last time. The mummy was of Calisto, a princess of that name which had been brought from Egypt. In Athens museum was a harp which could spell death for the player if he did not hold it upside down as there was a dagger hidden in it and was used as a subtle ploy by a king whenever he wanted to get rid of a dangerous courtier. The somnambulist daughter of the curator would get up and go to the museum on nights when she got moonstruck and play the harp, defying death because even in her sleep-walking stage she sub-consciously held it upside down.

The Sulabh Museum in Delhi has a toilet seat of the time of King James I of England who was killed by assassins while sitting on it in the 17th Century. In the Albert Hall Museum in Jaipur is the mummy of a young Egyptian priestess who is said to roam about in the adjoining Ram Niwas Garden on moonlight nights. Nearer home, the costumes of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Zeenet Mahal used to get frayed (sic) because it was rumoured that their spectres wore them every Thursday night and led a procession around the Fort. The same museum has the mighty sword of Aurangzeb and the dagger gifted to Humayun by Shah Tahmasp of Persia. The Fort’s custodian Asghar Ali Khan used to claim in the 1960s that sometimes the clash of arms was heard in the museum, housed in Mumtaz Mahal. The nearby World War I Museum has astounding exhibits from that era. These include antique gas-masks, harpoon guns, Afghan Afridi assault rifles and torpedoes. A story of those days says that an Indian corporal, Fateh Khan of Basti Nizamuddin who was an occulist, used to tell the commanding officer every morning which of his men wouldn’t return from battle in the evening, and he was always right. Intrigued by these revelations the Anglo-Indian officer asked him to reveal how he made the predictions. The corporal invited him to his tented quarters one night but warned him not to bring any religious symbol. The officer promised to do so. Just when the corporal was about to reveal the secret there was a sudden storm accompanied by a flash of lightning and the man was blown away, screaming, “Colonel, you have betrayed me”. The officer however escaped unscathed but on reaching his tent he took out his sword and noticed that there was a cross emblazoned on it which had saved him. The fort museum always brings this tale to mind whenever one visits it.

The doll story

The Rail Museum has locomotives which ran all night, braving the hazards of Raj times and sometimes ran over village belles waiting for their lovers at railway crossings. As for Ghalib Museum, an old man who used to stay near it (and earlier at Kala Mahal where Ghalib was born) claimed that he often saw the poet’s spirit after 12 a.m. pouring over his poems and shaking his head in amazement at his own fantastic output which he doubted even in his lifetime, when he became old, with loss of hearing and suffering from poor vision and memory loss. If you want to see snow on a summer’s day, the best place is the Dolls’ Museum for here the seasons are kept captive throughout the year for you to take your pick and admire it. The trick is to keep your eyes open for the right exhibit. On a May Day, it may well be Christmas if you just have a peep at the Scandinavian section. There is snow in abundance and the stars overhead are misty, shining from a wintry sky to drive away the summer blues. Remember the story when at the stroke of midnight all the toys came to life and created a din of their own while the child who owned them slept in the arms of his mother. It is some such feeling that takes possession of you as you watch these life-size dolls and wonder if they also create a din when nobody is around. The teddy bear sitting stiff under a tree, the rosy-cheeked girl standing arm-in-arm with a soldier and the dancers holding hands—what would they not do if they were to come to life? And to cap it all, you can hear the resonant voice of Jawaharlal Nehru delivering his “Tryst with destiny” speech in Teen Murti House or inspect the guns used by notorious dacoits kept in the Police Museum. Who says museums are dead entities even if the Pathan chief no longer come looking for his lost hand and Calisto does not seek the company of some amorous bachelor for a night of love till cock-crow!

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