The Sundarban Anchalik Sangrahashala (SSA) (‘Sundarbans Regional Museum’) in South 24-Parganas district of West Bengal has been the pioneer of the regional museum culture of West Bengal. Its network of local history museums, largely housed in homes of local patrons and historians, holds archives vital to the cultural and social history of Lower Bengal. There are significant repositories of archival material housed in these private family collections. Many of these repositories consist of manuscripts, spanning over centuries, that have been passed down through generations in colonial and pre-colonial Bengal through the Brahminical written tradition.
Birth of Sundarbans Regional Museum
The museum was established in an abandoned part of Jadunath Nandi Hospital, a charitable dispensary of Baruipur Municipality near Rabindra Bhavan, in November 1979 by Hemen Majumdar. Now it is housed in a building in Baruipur’s Masterpara area.
In his childhood Hemen Majumdar used to visit the Museum of Government Art College, Kolkata with his father, who was the personal assistant to the then principle of the college. This interested him in the history and archaeology of the Sundarban region.
When he was staying in Aatghara, he heard that two sculptures of Vishnu, one in black stone and the other in sandstone, were excavated during the digging of a pond in his colony. He collected these sculptures and kept them at home. To take this initiative forward, he met Kalidas Dutta, a noted scholar on the history of the Sundarbans. He had successfully pioneered the museum movement in South 24-Parganas. Dutta encouraged him to start collecting and documenting artefacts from South 24 Parganas to propagate the study of local history.
Dutta was the landlord of Majilpur village near Joynagar in South 24 Parganas. He also devoted time to research the archaeological sites in the Sundarbans. The first regional museum was established in his own house at Majilpur. The first conference on history in South 24 Parganas was also organised at his home in January 1958.
This conference had played an important role in the museum movement of South 24-Parganas. Interested museum lovers of the Sundarbans area had started collecting art objects of different historical period found during digging of ponds, farming, construction of buildings, etc, from different parts of South 24-Parganas. Besides that, people also collected a large number of antiquities exposed due to flood, soil erosion and earthquake in Lower Bengal.
Hemen Majumdar had also started collecting artefacts from different places of North and South 24-Parganas. He had donated these artefacts to Paresh Chandra Dasgupta, the then Director of Archaeology, West Bengal, and Asutosh Museum, Kolkata, because of a paucity of space at his own house. Dasgupta suggested that he should establish a regional museum at Baruipur to preserve and highlight the cultural heritage of the district.
Thus the SSA was established in November 1979 with two stone sculptures of Vishnu from the Pala period, collected from Aatghara village. Today the total number of collections in this museum is more than 14,000. It includes rare manuscripts (Bengali chronicles), metal, wooden and stone sculptures, terracotta potteries, folk art objects, art of needle works, coins, rare books, preserved biological specimens, fossils and geological objects.
Stone statues from the museum (bengalarchaeology.org)
Collection at the museum
The first archaeological digging at Aatghara village of Baruipur was started in January 1989 at the initiative of Hemen Majumdar. The second exploratory digging was started 10 years after that at Baishhata village of Joynagar under the supervision of Sudhin Dey, the then state director of archaeology.
Four stone sculptures of Vishnu, copper coins, terracotta potteries, seals, etc. found from the excavated site of Aatghara are preserved in Sundarban Anchalik Sangrahashala. The most prestigious collection of this museum is the Panchachura Jakhini, a terracotta sculpture of the Mauryan period found from Aatghara. This sculpture is now the logo of this museum.
Another important collection in this museum is the sandstone sculpture of an elephant of the Mauryan period, which was found in Chandraketugarh, Berachanpa, North 24 Parganas. There are also some terracotta potteries of the Mauryan period found from exploratory digging at Chandraketugarh, Berachanpa, North 24 Parganas.
Other interesting and notable collections of this museum are sculptures of Tara of 10th century AD, Maheswari (Jomi), head of Vishnu and Vishnu’s sahachari from the Pala period, six headed Karthika of 18th century AD, metal (brass) sculptures of Krishna and Radha of 16th century AD, etc. These sculptures have been collected from exploratory digging at Kankandighi, Baishhata, Hotar, Bhangar, Sitakundu, Dosha-Tilpi, Ramnagar of South 24 Parganas. A large number of masks, puppets, decorated needle work objects, terracotta toys and dolls – part of the folk tradition of the district – have also been preserved in this museum.
Vishnu from the Pala period (epw.in)
Statue of Unnoti Devi
Another important collection of this museum is a fibre-cast statue of Unnoti Devi (goddess of prosperity). The concept of Unnoti Devi was first brought to light at Chaitra Mela (a fair held in the summer) of Baruipur in 1870. This mela was organised not for the purpose of worshipping Hindu gods and goddesses but to unite all Indians against British imperialism in India. The statue of Unnoti Devi resembles that of the Hindu goddess Durga. The idol holds 10 different weapons in her 10 hands, just like Durga. However the weapons in the hands of Unnoti Devi are not at all similar to that of Durga.
The first hand of Unnoti Devi holds farming, second hand holds horticulture, third business, fourth industry, fifth exercise, sixth literature, seventh competition, eighth social reform, ninth self-independence and the tenth hand holds unity. She is standing on the back of a lion named Uddam (enthusiasm). She is piercing the chest of the giant named Parabashhata (dependence), using the unity weapon. By highlighting this type of collection the museum has played an important role in reflecting the colonial past and nationalist movement that appropriated Hindu gods and goddesses.
Unnoti Devi (epw.in)
Collection of manuscripts
The museum also has a rich collection of manuscripts from the medieval period, numbering 190. Most of the manuscripts are written on hand-made paper using black ink, and some on palm leaf and machine-made paper. The period of manuscript collections ranges from the early 17th to the 20th centuries. The language is either Sanskrit or Bengali, though the script of all the manuscripts is Bengali.
The subject matter of most of the manuscript collections is Hindu philosophy of the Sakta and Vaishnava traditions. Besides, manuscripts on religious matter, mythology, folktales and folklores can also be seen. The manuscripts share a commonality of philosophy and religion, of culture and practices, which have embodied the traditions of the people living in the Sundarbans mangrove forests. It also provides a perspective on the active trade and commerce, which is evident from the archaeological artefacts discovered in the deltaic region.
These manuscripts have been collected from different places of South 24-Parganas. Such rich cultural tools of folklores, mythologies and folktales become invaluable resources for understanding the significance of human habitation and their adaptation and resilience to the harsh environment in which they exist.
Some important manuscript collections of this museum are the Vishnu Purana, Bramha Purana, Markandeo Purana, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Vedas, Satyapirer Panchali, Manasa Mangal and Meghdut Kavya.
Besides, this museum also has a library that has 400 books that includes a notable collection of rare books such as the Upanishads, Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita and Rigveda.
Some of these manuscripts have been digitised by the British Museum in order to preserve them, and that of the rest of the manuscripts would be taken up in due time.
A page from the manuscript of Mahabharata (britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk)
Another outstanding contribution of the SSA was the starting of painting classes called Sundaram for the children of Baruipur in 1991. These classes continued till 2013. The museum has also been successful in generating interest and consciousness among the local populations about the history and culture of South 24-Parganas not only through preserving its valuable collection but also organising numerous cultural and academic conventions.
This museum has regularly published many souvenirs on different topics such as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhaya, James Long, Centenary of Dwaraka Nath Thakur, centenary of Chitra Mela of Baruipur, etc. One catalogue on libraries of Baruipur has also been published by the museum. Besides, one of the important publications of this museum is a two-volume book titled Dakshin Chabbish Parganar Atit (‘The Past of South 24-Parganas’) that includes invaluable articles by Kalidas Dutta and other museum enthusiasts.
Now there are more than 40 museums in South 24-Parganas. Most of these are central to different libraries, schools, temples and monasteries. Collections of these museums mostly comprise artefacts found from exploratory digging at different places in the district. Some of these private museums have rich collection of archival materials, including manuscripts. These are not only a part of visual culture and stylistic attributes of the art work, but also elucidate routes of influence and transmission and determine the relationships between cultures. Many illustrations in manuscripts depict aspects of the culture and society of the day, through the filter of what was considered appropriate.
The SSA has been the central institution of the museum movement in South 24-Parganas. Therefore it can play a vital role in the care, management and conservation of cultural heritage of Lower Bengal.
Based on the article, ‘Spearheading Museums in Lower Bengal’ in the August 15, 2015 edition of Economic & Political Weekly, and other sources
Lead image: Stone statues from the museum (bengalarchaeology.org)