The City as a Museum, Kolkata—A Visual Journey

The City as a Museum, Kolkata—A Visual Journey

The City as a Museum, Kolkata—A Visual Journey

collection stories


The City as a Museum, Kolkata—A Visual Journey

DAG Museum’s annual festival ‘The City as a Museum’ attempts to explore the various archives, communities and artistic traditions that cohere around the life of a city. Put together, they tell different stories about the city across time and space, from the point of view of neighbourhoods, collections and institutions, but not just limited to those either.

In order to learn more about this unique programme that seeks to explore heritage outside the walls of a traditional gallery or museum, read on!

The City as a Museum, Edition 2

The second edition of ‘The City as a Museum’ in 2022 travelled to several spaces within the city of Kolkata—as well as beyond it—to create a map of connections, close-knit communities and dramatic interpretations. The itinerary for this journey was inspired by the artworks in DAG's Museum Collection, which provoked us to ask a series of questions, relating them to built spaces in the city, archives and transformative social imaginaries. Using Kolkata as a location that expressed national, international and local traditions of art-making, this edition of ‘The City as a Museum’ attempted to re-connect place-names with artistic heritages that were often endangered or on the brink of loss.

From the sketch walk at the Chintamoni Kar Bird Sanctuary

Staging the Tagores of Pathuriaghata

As some of the most influential patrons of art and culture in the city, the Tagore family used their residential spaces as inspiration for their work and style. The home was a precious space in colonial Bengal, representing an imaginary world where greater authority could be asserted, new fantasies could be birthed and cultural traditions revived—away from the public taint of the colonized city.

Tracing the Fresco

For our second stop, we travelled up the Hooghly river, reaching the banks of Chinsurah—an old Dutch colonial settlement—where the Hooghly Imambara is located. The Imambara was built to be a sanctuary for pilgrims travelling from various parts of South Asia and beyond in the nineteenth century. The philanthropist Haji Muhammad Mohsin is popularly credited with financing the building, which was completed several decades after his death, by the architect Syed Keramat Ali.

View from the Hooghly Imambara

(Un)learning the past

We arrived at the heart of colonial Calcutta next. Built during the high noon of Empire when nationalist stirrings were creating strong currents in the cultural traditions of Bengal, the Victoria Memorial presented another aspect of the colonial encounter.

William Taylor

The Triumphal Reception of the Seikh Guns

Engraving, tinted with watercolour on paper

Re-discovering Shanu Lahiri

One of the questions that animated many of our programmes for ‘The City as a Museum, Edition 2’, is the following: How were women artists taking to the art world in colonial and postcolonial Bengal? This is another story studded with significant absences. However, if we look again—through our own collection—there are some clues about their presence as well.

The Culture of Science

What were the conditions under which the scientific temper was modulated in the colonial city of Calcutta? If science is a form of universal knowledge, reproducible everywhere under the same conditions, why would a scientist underscore a particular, cultural narrative to explain his own work? These are some of the questions that confronted us on our next stop—at the Acharya Bhavan and the Bose Institute in Kolkata. The former was the final residence of the pioneering scientist J.C. Bose and his wife, Lady Abala Bose, while the latter was built to accommodate cutting-edge research laboratories across the fields of physics, biology and chemistry.

The Bose Institue

A retreat for an academic artist

Continuing with our search for meaningful ways to address some of the absences in our own archives, we arrived at the sylvan location of the Chintamoni Kar Bird Sanctuary, which was adjacent to the Bhaskar Bhavan State Museum and the Amina Kar Gallery in Narendrapur, a suburb of Kolkata. Both Chintamoni and his wife had advocated for the overgrown nature park to be converted into a state-supported bird sanctuary, which was realized in 1982 and named in Chintamoni’s honour after his death in 2005. A sketch walk was undertaken to create a collective mural using postcards, emphasizing the role of nature as a source of artistic inspiration in traditional academic training in art.

The Past in Print: Exploring the illustrated periodicals of colonial India

For the penultimate event of ‘The City as a Museum’, visitors found themselves treated to a guided walk of the historic public library in Uttarpara that was established by Jaykrishna Mukherjee in the mid-nineteenth century. It is now recognized as one of the earliest—if not the first—public library of its kind in Asia, becoming an important centre of exchange between British and Bengali intellectuals of the time. It has a couple of residential rooms on the first floor and received literary figures like Madhusudan Dutt and educationists like Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar and Mary Carpenter.

Pebet by Kalakshetra Manipur

A significant part of our collection is drawn from a body of works largely produced by anonymous artists working around the Kalighat neighbourhood of Kolkata since the nineteenth century. Traditionally described as the Kalighat pat, the typical subject matter of many of these artworks satirized the hypocrisy of the gentrifying elites of Bengal. The works themselves were executed as line drawings with suggestive colour washes: a simple and easily reproducible technique. Mixing the vocabularies of parody, mockery and social and religious critique these works pointed towards the ways in which colonial habits became entrenched in the colony—as similar practices of imperial expansion was undertaken on areas such as the North-eastern frontier states of India, including Manipur.


Untitled (Cat stealing prawn)

Water colour and graphite on paper

So, it was another revelatory experience to watch Kalakshetra Manipur closing out ‘The City as a Museum’ with their iconic performance of ‘Pebet’. Adapting the subject of the hypocritical cat—a mainstay of many Kalighat pat—the play relied on forms of children’s storytelling, performative gestures and movements, plaintive cries, and a largely wordless series of sounds to revive the same spirit of critique and mockery of a pious cat attempting to lure away a brood of birds from their protective mother. Directed by the late Heisnam Kanhailal, featuring a central performance (continued since their first staging in the 1970s) by Sabitri Heisnam—the play struck a thunderous chord with a full audience at ICCR’s Satyajit Ray Auditorium, bringing our programmes to a satisfying end.

Your Views

We are always interested in learning more from viewers like you. If you have a suggestion about a space, a collection or a story we can explore for the next edition of 'The City as a Museum' let us know.

What sites or stories should we include in the 2023 edition of the festival in Kolkata and Mumbai?