A room full of people in a Delhi hotel clamoured to get their pictures taken with Lady Gaga. Some posed with the American singer, arm around her shoulders or her waist, others put their selfie face on. To her right, Amitabh Bachchan was similarly mobbed. Accustomed to fame, both remain unfazed as cameras flashed in their faces. Stuck in a single pose, their faces shone slightly and their eyes were a little blank.

Internationally famous for its life-like replicas of celebrities, Madame Tussauds wax museum arrived in New Delhi’s Connaught Place last week and received an enthusiastic welcome. While wax museums featuring celebrities are popular in several parts of India, the statues at this museum are special because each waxwork will be made in London at the original Madame Tussaud’s workshop and then brought to India.

A wax replica of Lady Gaga.
A wax replica of Lady Gaga.

The history of making wax statues can be traced back to the middle ages, when wax statues of the deceased would stand over their own tombs, dressed in their real clothes. Wax museums came to the scene a few centuries later. And Madame Tussauds’ museum was created, when an entertainment venue opened in London almost 200 years ago, under the stewardship of Anne Marie Tussauds.

A poster for Tussaud's wax figure exhibition, Baker Street, London 1835. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A poster for Tussaud's wax figure exhibition, Baker Street, London 1835. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Before Tussauds became popular for making wax figures for exhibitions, she was made to create death masks during the French revolution. Fashioned with wax or plaster, the death mask was the cast of a person’s face, the impression for which was taken directly from the corpse.

As a young girl, Marie Grosholtz learnt the art of making wax figures while working as a housekeeper for Philippe Curtis, a skilled wax sculptor. Soon, she was sculpting some of the 18th century’s most famous faces for Curtis’s wildly successful wax exhibitions in Paris.

'The Sleeping Beauty' is the oldest existing figure on display. It was modelled after Madame du Barry, the last mistress of King Louis XV. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
'The Sleeping Beauty' is the oldest existing figure on display. It was modelled after Madame du Barry, the last mistress of King Louis XV. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

After her apprenticeship under Curtis, Grosholtz entered the royal court as the tutor to king Louis XVI’s sister. She taught the art of votive making to the king’s sister and lived at the heart of the royal court of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, for almost nine years. However, outside the gates of the royal halls, France was gearing up for the revolution of 1789 and Grosholtz’s ties to the royal family made her a target. She was imprisoned, and her head was shaved in preparation for execution by guillotine.

A last-minute reprieve saved her life, but Grosholtz was made to prove her allegiance to the revolution, by retrieving the heads of those executed and making their wax death masks – including those of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. These wax masks can still be seen at the original Madame Tussauds in London.

According to legend, the head of Madame de Lamballe was brought to Grosholtz on a pike, after which she was made to put make-up on the decapitated head, even as a raucous mob raged around her. The violence continued for years, and Grosholtz and Curtis continued to create likenesses of the dead in one wax effigy after another.

Grosholtz eventually left France and travelled around England, finally settling down in London and opening the first museum at Baker Street. One of the rooms set up within the museum was a tribute to the horrific time she had survived. The room, which still exists at London’s Tussauds, is named the Chamber of Horrors. The exhibits include the heads of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and others who had been decapitated or met with gruesome end. Over the years, the wax figures of criminals and murderers have also been added, to build an archive of crime and punishment of the last 500 years.

Execution of murderer Charles Peace. A 1879 waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Execution of murderer Charles Peace. A 1879 waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since that first exhibition space, Madame Tussauds has become a brand name, with a legacy that spans across the world. The collection normally stays away from the gruesome. The museum in Delhi will showcase a bulk of Indian celebrities, with a few Hollywood names thrown in the mix. According to Anshul Jain, general manager and director of Merlin Entertainments India, the company bringing Tussauds to Delhi, over 50 of the statues will be of personalities like Modi, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and the reality TV star Kim Kardashian.

“We will have a broader focus on Indian celebrities and I am sure locals will cherish meeting their idols who have influenced their lives,” said Jain.