Cutting edge(d) weapons to get a new home

Preparations to set up National Museum’s new Arms & Armour Gallery at a Red Fort barrack by December are in full-swing

Published: 01st November 2021 07:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 06th November 2021 09:15 PM   |  A+A-

Security scanners, exhibit vitrines and the larger-than-life elephant for the Arms & Armour Gallery are already in place at the CMP barrack | ornel

Express News Service

Come December end, a collection of approximately 600 arms & armour from the National Museum will be shifted to the Red Fort complex. The artefacts and antiquity collection, to be housed in a 25,000 sqft colonial army style barrack, will trace the evolution of weaponry in India, officials in the National Museum told TMS. 

The new space, being setup at the cost of Rs 15 crore, is divided into six galleries: evolution of prehistoric stone tools; five selected masterpieces; swords & weapons; human & animal armour; ornamented arms; as well as a special section on Northeast India (indigenous weapons, war rituals, attire, and the natives’ participation in the British uprisings). Another novelty is the 270-degree white cube-ish projection hall for documentary screenings. 

“This will be the country’s largest museum to trace the advancement of Indian arms & armour from prehistory to 20th-century. Apart from displaying our vast range of weapons, the main idea is to showcase the evolution chart of each weapon category,” informed Assistant General Director of National Museum, Subrata Nath. For instance, the progress in firearms’ technologies is depicted through four models — from the matchlock gun to the spring-loaded flintlock gun, followed by the cap-lock percussion gun, all the way to the breech-loading rifle, and ending with the snider guns that were in use till the start of the 20th century.

Arunesh Singh, Project Manager,
Pan Intellecom Ltd

An example of remarkable diversity is the sword collection. There are double-etched curved blades; partly etched, partly blunt blades; double-edged tops. Some blades are engraved in Arabic, Persian and even verses from the Ramayana. There are hilts from Delhi, Rajasthan, Jaipur and Udaipur with sheaths made from ivory, wood, encrusted with shells and gemstones.

Stitching together this vast display under Nath are Vise Kiso, Assistant Curator (Exhibitions) in-charge of Arms & Armour museum, Red Fort, and Abira Bhattacharya, Assistant Curator (Anthropology) in-charge of Untold Stories of Tribal Warfare in Northeast Communities, Red Fort. 

In February 2019, the National Museum received a Memorandum of Understanding from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to develop three colonial-era barracks at Red Fort. Soon after, the museum chose to dismantle its own Arms & Armour Gallery. The limited space could only showcase some 300 objects from the 15th-19th century, mainly by the Mughals and Rajputanas. A majority of these old exhibits are being readied for transfer to Lal Quila. This includes the five selected highlights/masterpieces — Ruler Tipu Sultan’s sword, Maharana Sangram Singh II’s shield; Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s silver bow & arrow; five-shot matchlock gun and camel saddle base gun. 

On the other hand, the Northeast Gallery titled Tribal Lifestyle of Northeast India at the Janpath building, reorganised its collection to prevent themes from clashing and collection highlights being shifted to the Red Fort. “We have taken photographs of the NE gallery in the National Museum collection and will upload these to the digital panels in the new space,” said Bhattacharya.

She added that the Northeast people valued utility over prestige. They use the same weapon to kill, hunt, harvest, have no animal armour as they don’t train animals in combat, but use animal parts like the Mithun horn to adorn door posts as a sign of heroic deeds by a Naga chieftain. “There is a bit of hierarchy as chief head hunters will wear different shawl, dao (staff), waist band or headdress, but nothing illustrious as a one-of-a-kind Tipu Sultan sword,” she said.   

Along with the above observations, one section is dedicated to the Northeast India series of British Uprisings. “While the collection has photographs of early Konyak hunters holding Western guns, the locals later realised they were being exploited by the British. We have chosen 6-7 events to represent the uprising from different Northeast and their vital role in WWI & II. As museum professionals, we want to change the impression that Northeast India only has tribals, and want to connect the historicity of the region with pre-independence and contemporary times,” informed Bhattacharya.

Despite being a vast exhibition, the collection timeline has gaping holes as the curators had to make do with objects from the National Museum collections sold/donated by collectors Dr Verrier and Leela Edwin, Luthra, BS Guha, A Mitra, among others. “Our stone tools are from the Palaeolithic Age, after which there is a lacuna of 1,000 years. Somehow, we managed to fill that with storytelling on the advancement of weapon categories,” informed Kiso. Then, not all Northeast tribes are present in the collection, so thematic display was not possible. “We have more Konyak and Angami objects, and less Mizo. But we will juxtapose objects. Like a silver bow & arrow used in Miso dances with a bamboo version used by hunters that allows visitors to draw comparisons between beauty and utility.” 

Behind every weapon of war, edged or projectile, are extraordinary tales of valour, conquests, trickery, vengeance or defeat. While the new collection lists provenance, dates, material, rituals, and at times, even the name of the historic figure who possessed... one wishes there was scope to look for such thrilling back stories. 

Historic barracks
After the ‘Persian Napolean’ Emperor Nadir Shah looted the coveted Peacock Throne embedded with the contentious Kohinoor from Red Fort, the Mughal, Jat and Maratha invaders continued ravaging the fort before the British seized it after crushing the 1857 uprising. The East India Company razed 80 per cent of the fort, and from the demolished rubble, they constructed barracks to house their army cantonments.  “They vacated the site in 1946, and the fort complex remained a military cantonment till 2003 when the then Tourism Minister Jagmohanji made the army hand over the complex for opening it to the public as a world heritage site. In 2017, the government decided to convert the barracks into museums,” said Kapil Kumar, Chief Historian for four Red Fort museums. 

Work is in full-swing at the CMP barrack under technology partner, Pan Intellecom Ltd. The space encompasses 11 rooms for evolution, documentary screening, five masterpieces, swords & guns, arms & armour, daggers and the Northeast gallery. The CISF security check has stationed the excess baggage scanners. A total of 38 55-inch and six 65-inch TV panels accompany glass vitrines, both wall-mounted and tabletop, throughout the five galleries; the TVs will act as virtual explanatory panels for the antiquities housed in these vitrines. A ceiling to floor glass vacuum is in place at the swords & dagger gallery, in-between which a clutch wire mechanism will be used to hang guns.

Larger-than-life size models of an elephant and a horse occupy centre posts at the first-floor armour gallery, waiting to be bedecked in cavalry gear and howdah (mahout seat). A long solemn corridor with tall ceiling lamps opens to five rooms along its right side; each fitted with graphic panels. Almost all rooms have overhead rectangle track lights and projectors are already angled to face desired walls.

Walls put through intense sandblasting sessions expose a well-planned mosaic brick and stonework. Onto walls masquerading as video screens, additional panels of WPC (wooden plastic composites) has been fitted and painted on for smooth viewing sessions. Toughened glass panels held by stainless steel frameworks latch themselves to the original wooden railings of the grand staircase that connect the first-floor galleries to prevent the stampede of fingerprints and resultant deterioration.    

Arunesh Singh, Project Manager, Pan Intellecom Ltd, remembers the barrack was in a deplorable state and required four months of intense repair work. “Loose staircase railings, missing windowpanes, cracked false ceilings, bad seepage, and the dodgy mobile network which has made it difficult to communicate with our suppliers on the way to delivering material, ” said Singh. Structural damage aside, the restoration process threw up interesting tidbits. A sign for ‘Dining Hall’ became pronounced while sandblasting a wall at the checkpoint. “Then, there are rumours that CBI used this barrack as an investigation cell,” Singh chuckled. Meanwhile, another agency is restoring the exterior façade with white wash, glass panel, UPVC air vents, bottom window railings, etc.

Brickbats & Bouquets
Meanwhile, naysayers find it impractical to open an Arms & Armour Gallery at the Lal Quila. A National Museum staffer said that the Arms & Armour gallery used to be a major museum attraction, garnering big crowds, and lamented over this Kohinoor-esque loss: “Why are we moving our ‘attraction’ to Lal Quila that is already a curiosity palace, with its own weapons gallery and other Mughal-era captures? On the other hand, the museum spent crores to open the new Central Asian Antiquities gallery and virtual augmented reality space for Ajanta caves on its premises, when in two years, the collections from National Museum will be relocated as per the Central Vista project.”

Even the security measures are under scrutiny. In November 2012, an ivory-hilt Mughal-era dagger disappeared from a glass vitrine at the Indian War Memorial Museum, which, and according to The Sunday Standard article dated April 23, 2013, the ASI had not yet approached the police. “We will feel assured only when the National Museum opens an office space at the barrack, and deputes one of its own curators there,” said the NM staffer. On enquiring whether the museum has recruited new staff, Nath, said: “there are no plans yet, but we will definitely have an office space, for our existing staff and curators.”

However, Bhattacharya felt blessed for the bigger display area. “Our collection is vast and mostly in the reserve. Many people were not aware of our older Northeast gallery. We could display only 250 objects in the National Museum. With Red Fort giving us a bigger space, we can reduce the content in our reserve by increasing the display. And so, it’s better to distribute our objects.” 

Swapna Liddle, historian, INTACH consultant & author of Chandni Chowk: Mughal City of Old Delhi, welcomes the move. “Switching / moving / adding antiquities in a collection is a common museum practice. Reusing the barracks as museum spaces is a good decision because these were quite under-utilised. It is just a matter of retro-fitting the antiquities into the right museum design. That said, I hope the new display has more Mughal artefacts because this is primarily a Mughal space. Even better, if there are artefacts whose histories connect to the Red Fort.”

Kumar hopes that authorities earmark maintenance costs and contracts while planning the new space to avoid the infrastructure and design setbacks that the current Red Fort museums are battling. “The maintenance contracts have not been renewed for two years now, many walls have been left empty, and some of the short films have become non-functional.” That said, he believes history should not be “caged”. “Earlier, the National Museum wanted to shift its collection of ancient idols to Red Fort. We had that idea shelved as the theme has no correlation to the site. The theme of arms & armour is integral to the Red Fort history, and better suited here than the Janpath edifice. The National Museum and the Red Fort are both manned by CISF personnel, so there should not be any security concern. Letting go of monopoly is the actual issue here,” said Kumar.


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