C o m m o n w e a l t h
A s s o c i a t i o n o f
M u s e u m s
CAM Bulletin Number 3 - Oct. 1997
City Museums and Museum City: The Jaipur (India) Paradox
Known as the Pink City world-wide. Jaipur has all the ingredients of a World Heritage Site. This capital city of the western Indian State of Rajasthan was built in the 1720s (though the region was inhabited centuries ago) by the brilliant Astronomer King Jai Singh.
Designed with exacting architectural astuteness, the heavily fortified walled city is divided by very wide tree-lined avenues with seven blocks of neat grid lined buildings. Sprinkled with parks, central squares, fountains, imposing monuments, bazaars and residences, Jaipur offers one of the finest examples of town planning in mediaeval India. The orientation of the main gates of the city is north east facing two temples situated on the surrounding hills honouring the Hindu architectural treatise called the shilpa shastra.
The heart of the city opens out through an incredible fresco studded massive triple arched gateway called Tripolia to a sprawling City Palace complex where the former Maharaja (Brigadier Bhawani Singh) resides. His former public courtroom, Diwane-Am, was converted into a public institution in 1959 called the Sawai Man Singh II Museum. India's largest chandeliers and the world's largest single piece silver urns, weighing some 242.7 kg., are but a few of the countless treasures housed in this museum which also includes Akbar's magnificent illustrated Ramayana and Razmnama.
The city itself is dotted with countless temples, towers, intriguing mansions like the ca.1799 six storey high Palace of the Winds (Hawa Mahal) standing on a twelve-inch foundation. Three massive forts of Amber, Jaigarh (guarded by one of the world's largest cannons - Jaibaan) and Nahargarh adorn the hills surrounding Jaipur.
Colonial influence from the British era is fairly evident from the colour pink (a reddish pink sandstone like shade that dons all buildings) which was adopted as a symbolic welcome for Edward VII, the future Prince of Wales, who visited Jaipur in 1876. To this day all residents of the walled city are required to maintain this colour code, by law! He also laid the foundation stone for the first formal "museum" of the region modeled conceptually on the lines of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
Christened as Albert Hall the museum sits in the middle of a 77 acre park facing the main entrance of the walled city. Designed by a British architect Colonel Sir Swinton Jacob, it is a beautiful study in Indo Saracenic architectural hybridization. Over the next half century, more palaces such as the Rambagh & JaiMahal along with the Scottish castle Moti-Dongri graced the outer walls of the city as it raced towards the end of colonial rule and India's independence in 1947.
Cultural continuity is overwhelmingly noticeable in virtually all spheres of life - from painting, architecture, music, dance, religious and folk-traditions, festivals, social matrix, clothes, cuisine, to business ethics. The city even keeps time (to this day) using the massive stone observatory (the largest of the five in India) built by Jai Singh in 1728! This time-warp and the elongated continuity of traditions over centuries offers an enrichingly stirring experience to those who explore this cultural dynamism seldom offered by the "museums" that are stapled on to this milieu.
Often battling the severe budgetary starvation of sorts, these beleaguered institutions (in Jaipur and so also in other parts of India) of cultural preservation and promotion, helplessly watch their audiences dwindle. As their oft sterile presentations pale against the inherent cultural energy that exudes from their stakeholders, the very existence of "museums" comes under a revisionist eye. This echoes, to some extent, the remark questioning the traditional Western museological relevance to such societies made in the Foreword of the 1994 CAM Symposium Proceedings (Joy Davis, Martin Segger & Lois Irvine) .... adding perhaps a shade or two in an attempt to embolden the lines on this canvas, yet to be coloured...