Ahmedabad couple's 'houseum' hosts captivating antiquities

Doctor couple Namita and Hiren’s Ahmedabad house has a unique Lock Museum that is now open to visitors 
Namita and Hiren Shah and their lock museum
Namita and Hiren Shah and their lock museum

In a typical Ahmedabad residential society, one house stands out with its intricately-carved antique doors, wooden brackets and ornate peacock figures. On one of the sections is the signage—Houseum. It is where owners, Namita and Hiren Shah, keep their collection of over 10,000 exhibits, from doors and windows to caskets, clocks, curios, furniture and artworks. 

But, the most noteworthy section is the Lock Museum, where the doctor couple—Hiren is a paediatrician and Namita, a gynaecologist—showcase about 2,000 locks, including around 500 trick locks. This is among the largest collections of its kind in the world, and is now open to the public, subject to prior appointment. “It all started in the early 1990s when we were renovating our house and went looking for antique furniture,” says Hiren. It was during these trips that he chanced upon trick locks.  

He credits his passion to his love for solving puzzles, “In Mumbai, during my student days, I used to go around places like Fort, where people would peddle puzzles on the street. Gradually, I became known, among the vendors, as someone proficient in problem-solving. Later, in a Saurashtra village in 1997, I met someone selling old furniture. A trick lock caught my attention. The shopkeeper said if I could open it, it was mine. My love for puzzles was piqued and I quickly found the concealed key. The man kept his word and threw in the antique lock free with our purchase.”

Soon, the couple—now in their 60s—was exploring antique markets and used-goods stores in search of more such locks. “They fascinated me. Some puzzle locks are multi-stage, so you have to keep looking and feeling for concealed mechanisms before you can open them,” he says. During his search, he found beautifully crafted locks that speak of history, culture and art forms of a particular period or region. “Needless to say, I added it all to my collection,” he smiles.

At the entrance to the museum are specially commissioned paintings of locksmiths who still use hand-held tools in Ahmedabad. A cupboard is dedicated to locks made during India’s freedom struggle, inscribed with ‘Jai Bharat’, ‘Jay Hind’ or other patriotic slogans. “You find so much history in these pieces. For example, in my collection of German-made locks from the period of the Holocaust, you find the letter J missing,” says Hiren, who has a collection of padlocks called “smokehouse locks” because people commonly used them to keep the meat in their smokehouses secure from poachers.

A red-letter day for Hiren was a visit from Hanns Schell, owner of the Schell Collection, a unique museum of locks, keys, coffers, ornamental boxes and ornate cast iron in Austria. “I was invited to the European Lock Collectors’ meet, where I spoke about Indian locks and their relation to Hindu philosophy. I was then invited to The Schell Collection, which is perhaps the biggest specialist museum of its kind in the world and possibly the largest lock collection. That is how my wife and I got be a guest of Schell himself in Graz, Austria,” he recalls.

This visit in 2003 inspired the couple to convert part of their home into the ‘Houseum’ for private visitors. “Such places are mediums to educate visitors about our heritage and the need to preserve the arts and crafts. It is like an ‘indoor heritage walk’ as we have exhibits that tell stories about the art, architecture and intangible culture of Ahmedabad,” says Hiren as he gets ready to welcome guests to his museum.

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The New Indian Express