The Gurusaday Museum has the air of being something tucked away, even though it stands in plain view in the middle of a large landscaped garden just off Diamond Harbour Road in the south-west part of Kolkata. If the lights are already on in the exhibition rooms when you enter, it has been a busier day than usual for your ever-obliging guide, Churamoni Hati, and if you seem even vaguely interested, he will start by explaining to you that the museum has on display six different forms of kantha (usually embroidered or patchwork cloth articles handcrafted by reusing older pieces of clothing): sujni, durjani, baitan, arshilata, rumal, and lep.

Unfortunately, the museum, an important repository of indigenous crafts of undivided Bengal, is facing untimely closure.

The most prized kantha in their collection stands in the middle of the main hall. It is a double-sided sujni kantha from Khulna district of Bengal, dating back to the 19th century. It was made by Srimati Manadasundari Dasya of Jangal Badhal. Almost encyclopedic in its ambition, the kantha depicts 19th century Bengali society complete with views from the andar and bahir-mahal (private and public quarters of the house), a hunting scene, cars, wild animals, fantastic flowers, flanked by Indian soldiers carrying bayonets and British soldiers carrying swords. The embroidery is exquisite. “Could the bayonets refer to the Great Uprising of 1857?” Hati speculates.

Sujni Kantha. 19th century. Khulna. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta

On the right-hand side of the main hall you find their collection of patachitra (painted scrolls meant to illustrate oral storytelling) from 16th century onwards, depicting regional versions of mythic tales. Today the scrolls hang inside glass cases, static and mute, divorced from their original purpose, alongside their urbanised brethren, the 19th century Kalighat pat-s from Kolkata. The museum holds palm leaf manuscripts, both handwritten and printed, as well as richly crafted manuscript covers from the 16th century depicting the Dasamahavidya and Dasavatara.

But before exploring further, let us see how this unique collection was assembled.

A scroll depicting Manohar Fanshira in 18 panels. 19th century. Midnapore. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta

In the winter of 1928-’29, Gurusaday Dutt, an Indian civil servant in his mid-forties, made his first acquaintance with the English Folk Dance Society founded by Cecil Sharp in 1911. In January 1929, Dutt witnessed the All England Dance Festival at the Albert Hall and it was an eye-opener. “While I watched the dances in that hall, I resolved in my mind to start a folk dance movement in Bengal on my return home,” he writes in The Folk Dances of Bengal, published posthumously.

Dutt returned to India later that year and was posted in Mymensingh (present-day Bangladesh) as district magistrate. Shortly thereafter, he claims to have “discovered the beautiful jari dance...and set to work in starting a movement for the revival of the baul and jari dances”. He founded the Folk Dance and Folk Song Society, followed in 1932 by the Rural Heritage Preservation Society of Bengal.

Previously, in 1925, Dutt had founded the Saroj Nalini Dutt Memorial Association, in memory of his dynamic wife who had died suddenly of fever that same year. The association carried on the social work Saroj Nalini had set out to do, offering education to women, particularly in rural areas. Dutt is perhaps best remembered as the founder of the Bratachari Movement, which was an essentially Bengali response to Baden-Powell’s Scouts.

Dasavatar playing cards. Early 20th century. Bishnupur. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta

Honouring art and artists

As a civil servant, Dutt travelled extensively. Despite his administrative duties, his collection of “folk art” grew steadily from 1929. By 1940, a year before his death, he had collected around 2,500 articles that included textiles, dolls, wood carvings, moulds for sweets, and even performing arts. Dutt tended to see himself as someone who “rediscovers” (punarabishkar) and helps revitalise the rapidly disappearing indigenous traditions of Bengal.

Recent scholarship has drawn attention to the problematic role of folk collectors, arguing that the category of Indian folk arts was a colonial, urban creation, which sought in the rural “other” a Romantic earthiness and honesty untarnished by the industrial teleology of Western modernity. In the early years of the 20th century, Bengal saw a number of folklorists, mostly working within administrative or knowledge power networks, who tried to document oral and pre-print traditions of art in an effort to bolster racial pride among Bengalis. Art in Bengal need not look towards other cultures and civilisations, but could find in its own soil energies that had been forgotten.

Durga or Parvati. 11th century. Rajnagar, Birbhum. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta

Although Dutt’s position as collector (with occasional interventions into traditions) can be seen as problematic, his commitment is evident from the large body of literature that he produced and from the nature of his collection. Eager to place indigenous traditions on a par with western, bourgeois art, Dutt held an exhibition at the Indian Society of Oriental Art in 1932, which a few years previously had displayed the works of Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky in Calcutta. He was sensitive to the dangers of bringing what was regarded as anonymous collective traditions, often fragile, into contact with established urban artists, whose sense of individuality seemed to set them apart.

While touring two villages, Ramnagar and Sahora, on the Birbhum-Murshidabad border, Dutt’s eye was caught by the brilliantly-coloured walls of some houses. His notes include not only descriptions of these paintings but also the names of the individuals who had painted them: Aparna Debi (24-25 years), Brajagopi (32 years), Pramodini Debi (42 years). The art form may stand for collective expression but that did not imply for him anonymity of the artists themselves. He observed in his writings that some of the richest traditions were being carried forward by women: the kantha, the moulds for making sweets and mango-paste, alpana, and wall-paintings to name a few.

A catalogue of exhibition at the Indian Society of Oriental Art, 1932, from the Gurusaday Museum library. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta

Little support

After Dutt’s death in 1941 the collection was inherited by the Bengal Bratachari Samity, which formed the museum in 1963. The museum’s executive secretary, Dr Bijan K Mondal, says that in 1984 the Samity came to an agreement with the President of India, deciding that a committee would be formed to run the museum. Today the support from the Ministry of Textiles has been withdrawn and the museum faces closure: the fate of this magnificent collection hangs in the balance.

Dr Mondal says that their appeals to persons of political influence both within the state and at the Centre have so far fallen on deaf ears. “The Ministry is asking us to generate our own revenue to run the place,” he said.

"Surya's son, Yamaraj is his name/You need not fear if you are without blame." A page from GS Dutt, Banglar Lokshilpa o Loknritya, showing his attempt at integrating text with image. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta

With funds drying up, the museum will soon find it difficult to pay for the security and basic upkeep of the 3,300 items in the collection. Devsaday Dutt (Gurusaday’s grandson) expressed his concern. “The 80 bigha that remain of the 100 bigha land my grandfather willed to the Bratachary Samity could be leased out or utilised otherwise to generate revenue,” he suggested. But is there a more immediate solution to this?

The museum has great potential. As a collector, Dutt was aware of the limitations of a static collection, especially when it came to the vibrant traditions he sought to uphold. He did not just collect the scrolls, but painstakingly noted down the lyrics of the narrative songs that were sung along with them.

Sundarimohan Das, founder of the Calcutta National Medical College, in a letter to Dutt written in August 1931, even suggested that he record a film of the dances that he saw on his travels. Perhaps, if a solution to the funding crisis can be found, it would be possible to dream of multimedia exhibits (such as patachitra with audio recordings of performances) and a more interactive interface for a museum that has done well so far to keep Gurusaday’s legacy alive.

Detail from a scroll depicting the story of Raja Harischandra. 19th century. Midnapore. Photo credit: Shrutakirti Dutta