The Veiled Rebecca and More: Salarjung Museum

Amongst India’s best-known museums, Hyderabad’s Salarjung has the distinction of being possibly the largest collection of art and artefacts built up by a single man: Mir Yousuf Ali Khan (Salarjung III). The Salarjungs were one of Hyderabad’s most important aristocratic families during the days of the Nizams: they also served as Prime Ministers to the Nizams. Mir Yousuf Ali, the third of the Salarjungs, gave up his post as Prime Minister to the Nizam in 1914 (due to a ‘difference of opinion’, as the museum’s literature describes it) and spent the rest of his life devoting himself to the collection of fine art.

This eventually resulted in what is known today as the Salarjung Museum. Established in 1951, the museum was, a decade later, under an Act of Parliament, converted into a national institution. Today, while the major part of the collection consists of what had been brought together by Salarjung III, more has been added to it, bringing the total number of artefacts to an impressive 14,000, from about 40 countries.

The Salarjung Museum building.

The Salarjung Museum building.

Obviously, seeing 14,000 artefacts—even if some of them are not on display—isn’t exactly possible in the course of a day. Or, worse, three hours, which was the time we had at our disposal before we had to reach the airport for our flight back to Delhi. Fortunately, just inside the main entrance to the museum, there’s a small office where you can hire—for a very reasonable Rs 60 per person, an audio guide (available in English, Hindi and Telugu).

This, besides containing information on all of the museum’s galleries, has a special fast-track tour of the most important galleries and attractions. The young man who handed over our audio guides to us also gave us a page each, with a colour-coded map of the museum. “All the important galleries are marked in green,” he explained. “If you’re in a hurry, you should at least see those.” And they can be covered in three hours, which suited us just fine.

The tour begins with the Founders’ Gallery, a badly-lit section about the Salarjungs. It has family memorabilia: clothing, furniture, personal belongings, some interesting photographs (including a delightful one of a Salarjung posing with his retinue in front of the pyramids at Giza!), but is, on the whole, a none-too-inspiring introduction to the museum.

Next up was the Childrens’ Section, equally uninspiring. This had dull glass cases full of miniature versions of war games: little uniformed soldiers, all standing in ranks; field vehicles, tanks, jeeps, ambulances, guns; aircraft, and more. A much younger me, brought up on a diet of Biggles, might have enjoyed this. An older me, in a hurry and yearning for fine art, found it a little tedious (the poor labelling may have contributed to that).

At the Children's Gallery: toy war transport.

At the Children’s Gallery: toy war transport.

By the time we emerged from this section, it was nearly noon. And on the hour, every hour, is when another of the museum’s attractions—the Musical Clock—becomes the centre of attention. This is a Swiss clock which houses, in a glass inset in its pretty inlaid-wood front, a few figures togged up to look like an Eastern potentate and his minions. Every hour, the figures move around a bit, carrying out little rhythmic motions. If you’ve never seen anything like this before, it can be interesting; if you’ve been to London’s Leicester Square or any of the other many squares in old European cities which have similar clocks, this can be disappointing.

We were, by now, feeling a little let down. So much for the Salarjung Museum, we thought: nothing really fascinating so far. We didn’t realise then that the best was actually yet to come.

It began with the famous Veiled Rebecca, probably the museum’s single most famous possession. This is an 1876 statue of white marble, sculpted by the Italian GB Benzoni, of the Biblical Rebecca. The fascinating bit is the veil: it drapes over Rebecca’s face, so thinly as to look almost like gauze—but is, of course, solid stone. The Veiled Rebecca is the main draw of the tiny gallery in which she stands; other marble statues also decorate this gallery, including allegorical figures of the four seasons.

The Veiled Rebecca, by GB Benzoni.

The Veiled Rebecca, by GB Benzoni.

From there on, the galleries we passed through were a series of almost uniformly impressive ones. These included:

1. European Paintings: Not to mention sculpture. This has a couple of works by some big names—Landseer’s Watchful Sentinel is here, as is a painting by Constable—and several other excellent works by lesser-known artists. My favourite was, not a painting but a wooden sculpture: a double statue of Mephistopheles and his beloved, Margaretta. This amazing statue, when viewed from the front, is of the arrogant Mephistopheles, chest thrust out and looking up sneeringly. Viewed from the back, it’s a statue of a very feminine and meek Margaretta, head bowed.

The double wooden statue of Mephistopheles and Margaretta.

The double wooden statue of Mephistopheles and Margaretta.

2. Ivory Carvings: The environmentalist in me should have sniffed at this gallery and refused to enter it, but the aesthete in me rebelled—and was rewarded with some truly lovely carved ivory. While the carved ivory pieces from Europe, Japan and China (all of which, since they aren’t home to elephants, had to import ivory and then work it) are good, the best pieces of all, with the most intricate work, are the Indian ones. Among the highlights are a set of carved chairs; lots of figurines, boxes, and other bric-a-brac from Mughal India, and a startling mat woven out of very fine, almost thread-thin strips of ivory.

Carved ivory, much of it from the Mughal period.

Carved ivory, much of it from the Mughal period.

3. The Jade Gallery: Like the Ivory Carvings gallery, the Jade Gallery too has carvings from not just India, but also the Orient (including some lovely Chinese carvings). There are, too, a number of interesting Mughal pieces here, ranging from vases and tabletop ornaments to Qu’ran stands and archer’s rings (including one that belonged to Shahjahan, and bears an inscription of his title, Sahib-e-Kiraan-e-Saani).

Jade table ornaments from Mughal India.

Jade table ornaments from Mughal India.

4. Arabic and Persian Manuscripts: What with my interest in medieval Indian history and in books, it’s hardly surprising that a gallery housing Arabic and Persian manuscripts would appeal to me. The Salarjung’s manuscript collection may not be the largest in the world or even in India, but it’s impressive enough. There’s a large display of exhibits—with some exquisite examples of calligraphy—here, ranging in subject matter from philosophy to mathematics, poetry to medicine to astronomy. And, of course, religion. Qu’rans dominate much of the gallery, with the gem of the collection being a breathtaking Qu’ran, written in the Kufic script (the earliest form of calligraphy in Arabic and Persian), dating back to the 14th century CE.

The oldest Qu'ran at Salarjung, a 14th century CE manuscript in Kufic script.

The oldest Qu’ran at Salarjung, a 14th century CE manuscript in Kufic script.

5. Far Eastern Porcelain: A cluster of galleries on the first floor of the Eastern Block at Salarjung is devoted to the Far East: it contains a wide range of arts and crafts, all the way from Japan to Burma, with everything from furniture to paintings, embroidery to porcelain. The porcelain gallery, which is among the largest, has a magnificent collection of very fine pottery: greyish-green celadon (some of it exquisitely patterned with white chrysanthemums or other designs), row upon row of splendid blue-and-white Ming pottery, rich crimson-glazed Kutani ware, dull ochre-and-gold patterned Satsuma ware, and so on. Exquisite.

A display of blue and white Ming porcelain.

A display of blue and white Ming porcelain.

6. Chinese Gallery: Next to the Far Eastern Porcelain Gallery, this one contains more Chinese porcelain—and other items from China, including painted screens, figurines and statuettes, and, my favourite, embroidered panels. A couple of these, in particular, depicting birds and flowers embroidered on gauze, consisted of such fine work that it took quite a leap of faith for me to believe that this was embroidered and not painted.

Detail from an embroidered panel in the Chinese Gallery.

Detail from an embroidered panel in the Chinese Gallery.

7. Japanese Gallery: Also next to the Chinese Gallery, and not really listed on the audio guide pamphlet’s ‘must see’ galleries. My husband and I, however, are so mad about all things Far Eastern, we decided we had to nip into this gallery, if only to have a look at what it contained. Some lovely furniture, as it turned out; paintings, scroll, wood cuts, carved or porcelain figures, and (something we found particularly interesting) netsukes.

Examples of netsukes, in the Japanese Gallery.

Examples of netsukes, in the Japanese Gallery.

8. Far Eastern Wood Carvings and Furniture: On the ground floor of the Eastern Block—and the last gallery which we visited, before having to regretfully leave—is a large double gallery of wood carvings and furniture (primarily furniture) from the Far East. This was a veritable treasure house of very beautifully carved, lacquered and polished woodwork, ranging all the way from a gorgeous gold-painted Burmese home shrine to the writing desk of a Tokugawa Shogun prince, with carved screens, chairs, cupboards, stools and more too.

In the Far Eastern Furniture Gallery, a Burmese home shrine.

In the Far Eastern Furniture Gallery, a Burmese home shrine.

A Tokugawa prince's desk, at Salarjung.

A Tokugawa prince’s desk, at Salarjung.

Also visited, and found interesting, were the Arms and Armoury Gallery (which includes, among other fine weapons, daggers and swords once owned by Mughal royalty, including Aurangzeb); the European Glass Gallery (with a collection of glass from Bohemia, France, and Czechoslovakia—among others, including beautiful wine-coloured glassware, gold-painted glasses, rock crystal, cut glass, and more); and the French Gallery (the highlight of which is the writing desk of Louis XV, although the gallery itself has other fine furniture, figurines, porcelain, etc on display).

The writing table of Louis XV, at the Salarjung Museum.

The writing table of Louis XV, at the Salarjung Museum.

The Salarjung Museum is open daily (except on Fridays and national holidays) from 10 AM to 5 PM. Entry tickets for Indians cost Rs 10 each; a further fee of Rs 50 is charged for a still camera. The museum’s audio guide costs Rs 60 (you have to leave behind some form of identification—a driving license, for example—as a deposit at the office; it’s returned when you return the guide after the tour).

Salarjung Museum
Tel: 040-24576443
http://www.salarjungmuseum.in/

To read about the other sights we visited on our tour of Hyderabad, click these links:

The Deccan’s largest necropolis: the Qutb Shahi Tombs
The fort on ‘Shepherd’s Hill’: Golconda
The mosque with a link to Mecca
Charminar, the four pillars of Hyderabad
Unfairly underrated: the Chowmahalla Palace

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