April 10, 2015

Shankar's International Doll Museum, Delhi

“Delhi, it seems at first, was full of riches and horrors: it was a labyrinth, a city of palaces, an open gutter, filtered light through a filigree lattice, a landscape of domes, an anarchy, a press of people, a choke of fumes, a whiff of spices.”
– William Dalrymple, “The City of Djinns”

In an indiscernible little building off one of the city’s most frequently clogged traffic junctions exists a singularly unusual collection whose origins exist in the colorful contours of a seemingly innocuous gift which, unfamiliar to anyone, possessed the capacity of generating a life-long fascination in its existence in a humorous old man. Financed and managed by Children’s Book Trust (CBT) India and christened after the renowned political caricaturist Keshav Shankar Pillai (lived 1902-89) whose brainchild it professes to be, Delhi’s renowned International Doll Museum, a multihued sparkling shimmering Ali Baba’s cave mystifyingly filled to the seams with jewels of an altogether unique kind crafted into almost every conceivable shape and size, mesmerizingly opens up to visitors like a dearly beloved friend from a long-forgotten childhood, promising to help revisit memory lanes and reminiscence about half remembered childish games and crushes.


Established in November 1965 (following the Hungarian Ambassador’s bestowal of a traditional doll as a gift to Shankar) upon the recommendation of then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru and presently possessing a collection of over 6,500 dolls, the museum, a modest collection betraying humble origins and a capacity to transform into a world class assortment, is literally a child’s (and even a hoarder’s!) dream come true – 160 glass cases, each over a thousand feet long portray in the span of a few footsteps the sartorial and cultural preferences of over 85 countries besides expounding upon the cultural, religious, sartorial and political facets of the numerous states and union territories that compose India and its immensely vast multiethnic, multicultural landscape. A traveler’s dream come true within the span of a single corridor!


Thus there are beautiful, vividly dressed dancers from Spain existing in the neighborhood of muscular, regally dressed horsemen and nobility from Germany together standing shoulder-to-shoulder with flamboyant, stylishly conceived femme fatales from French locales; tall and slender dolls from Bulgaria with slit-like eyes carry on conversations with childish, politically correctly dressed peasants and workers from Portugal and overhearing them are chubby Russian children with their whiffs of brown/blond tresses falling on their faces; exquisitely embroidered and vividly colored are the dresses draped by the Yugoslavs, while the Norwegians, with their drab coarse clothing, appear unusually simplistic and down-to-earth; story-tale characters from Czech Republic look around patiently as if waiting to come alive while overlooking them sit dark-skinned, exotic-looking African ladies and rich, finely designed Kazakh royalty. Then of course there are the peasants, farmers, artists, sculptors, housewives, children, martial artists, dancers, swordsmen and fashion models of numerous nationalities and physiognomic traits – the commendable attention to even the minutest of the intricacies associated with sartorial and manufacturing detail is bewilderingly impressive.


Punctuating the rows upon rows of corridors stuffed with this beautiful collection are massive dioramas depicting scenes from Christmas, farming activities and numerous famous cartoon and literary phenomenon. As expected (and remembered from school books read nearly a decade ago), Japanese dolls, all set upon expensive red and purple stepped pavilions and surrounded by clusters of painted white flowers that at the same time appear contrasting as well as complimentary and beckon one closer with their unblinking eyes, bear unique weaponry and are manufactured with extremely realistic dresses and facial expressions. Also surprising is the South Korean collection that portrays an open mouthed, cheerfully bewildered dreamy expression on each of its participants, but the place of honor is the Indonesian collection where come alive legendary mythological characters and lavishly attired royalty and nobility.


The intriguing Indian collection, unexpectedly enormous, brings home the mesmerizing dresses (including a splendid display of dolls attired in bridal wear) and religious festivals of various states, mythological scenes from the epic legends Ramayana and Mahabharata, Kathakali dancers and exorbitantly adorned religious procession elephants from Kerala, North-Eastern tribal dance forms, Kashmiri handicrafts and their traders, Central Indian hunters, Khadi-clad freedom fighters, wealthy Marathi landlords and beautiful Bengali damsels. The splendid museum also boasts of a special doll-making and training institute and an imaginatively named “Doll Clinic” where even laymen visitors can have a peek at the meticulous research and tiresome complexities of the entire time-consuming process whereby new dolls are manufactured and rare deteriorating ones are restored to their original beautiful existence


After traversing the entire length of the building, one is literally left disappointed at the sudden unanticipated end of the glittering glimmering collection of embroidered, sequin and pearl studded, tinsel adorned, vibrantly attired playthings – but more than anything else, one suddenly feels sorrowful at the sudden completion of the journey through which one was traversing one’s childhood once more. More distressing is the unenviable condition of the museum – of course, it is not as rich or well-curated as the enormous, lavishly funded National Museum, Delhi or the Indian Museum, Calcutta (refer Pixelated Memories - National Museum and Pixelated Memories - Indian Museum) despite possessing an equally, if not more, captivatingly curious collection – yet, one does not really expect to see dust-covered specimens or paint flaking off the walls. Thankfully, visitors, primarily hundreds of young children accompanied by teachers on school trips, are so engrossed sifting and commenting their way through the collection and running around it that they cannot be bothered to notice.

From Korea, with love

Location: Children's Book Trust (CBT), Nehru House (couple of meters from ITO Crossing), Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg
Nearest Bus stop/Metro station: ITO
Nearest Railway station: Tilak Bridge
Entrance fees: Children up to the age of 12: Rs 6, Adults: Rs 17
Photography/Video: Prohibited. Prior written permission needs to be solicited from the authorities at CBT.
Time required for sightseeing: 1 hr
Relevant Links - 
Other monuments/landmarks located in the neighborhood - 
  1. Pixelated Memories - Daryaganj Sunday Book Market
  2. Pixelated Memories - Delhi Gate
  3. Pixelated Memories - Feroz Shah Kotla
  4. Pixelated Memories - Khair-ul-Manazil Mosque
  5. Pixelated Memories - Khooni Darwaza
  6. Pixelated Memories - National Zoological Park
  7. Pixelated Memories - Old Fort
Another museum in Delhi - Pixelated Memories - National Museum
Suggested reading -
  1. Childrensbooktrust.com - K. Shankar Pillai 
  2. Childrensbooktrust.com - Shankar's International Dolls Museum 
  3. Thehindu.com - Article "A doll order" (dated May 26, 2014) by Shailaja Tripathi 
  4. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "No new dolls, few visitors at Delhi's dolls museum" (dated May 17, 2015) by Mayank Manohar 
  5. Wikipedia.org - K. Shankar Pillai

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