I'm not a musuem buff.
There was a time when, whenever I had time to spare in a city, I'd hit the forts, the museums, the significant spots that find mention in tourist brochures. But over the last year, I'd developed a rather 'whatever' attitude to visible history, turning more and more to the written word.
Besides, it is all so repetitive - the same swords and daggers in the armoury section. The same brocade angarkhas in the costume section. The same parchment manuscripts that I could not decipher and the same erotic carvings that I couldn't tell apart, era to era.
But an impatient morning in Gwalior - with me tele-stalking a senior police official, appointment after tentative appointment getting postponed, pacing up and down, up and down, the musty hotel room - found me at the Jai Vilas Palace Museum.
And I suddenly realized that 'History' must breathe.
It's decaying living-lessons are all there - whispering in museums that nobody wants to visit because it's all so boringly 'same'.... Nobody but the college kids who don't have any other place to hang out and hold hands in. Nobody but people from out-of-town with time to spare, and a train to catch. But even so, some things have to be seen to be understood.
I re-learnt one of the most important lessons my education has taught me - life happens outside the syllabus.
You never know where you might learn what. What questions you might ask, what insights lurk in which fading artefact... you never know what a musuem is waiting to tell you.
The stuffed tigers... the photographs of row upon row of white and brown sahibs, smilingly jodhpurred, with row upon row of dead tiger, lying at their feet. Neat little ends to neat little afternoons of amusements. It was the done thing.
And now, there are no tigers in these forests of Chambal.... Why do I feel as if, if it weren't for the hue and cry about dwindling numbers, it would still be a done thing. New sahibs, new rulers, old bloodsport.
The Scindia women - originally Maratha - are portraited in silken nine-yard navaris... but that was a hundred years ago. The Maratha came to the Chambal, and the royal women found themselves in close proximity to the Rajasthani Rajputs. They were fast shedding the traditional dress for chiffon sarees, pallus delicately perched on hair piled high... that was how royalty was dressing its modern women everywhere in northern India in the twentieth century. The modern Scindia women wear chiffon sarees. The modern Rajput women wear chiffon sarees.
Was this how the saree came to be pan-Indian, and be worn in pan-Indian ways - is this how we began to think there was only one 'Indian' way to dress? To be?
Across the costume section, a man carrying one child yells at his wife, carrying another, "Hurry fast! Time is going."
Hall to hall, section to section, the broken English follows me around. "Fast-fast... what is there to see?.. .Look fast." The man always begins yelling at his wife suddenly, the moment he sees me.
I cannot understand why.
I linger long in a separate section called 'Leda and The Swan" (Yeats' version). At least one of the Scindia rulers had a taste for erotic art. But the piece that lent it's name to this room, was a poor imitation of the original. It was, nevertheless, as out-there-erotic as could be. This marble Leda was clearly having fun.
The room had several other paintings and statues, all of women in the buff. Some Indian, some western....
I spend a long time here - it is so rare to see women being unashamed of their bodies and the sexual act, in this country. Not even in art. I see too many illustrations of ravaged women, frightened women, coying-cloying women.... This was not art at it's creative best. But I spend a long time here.
I notice that Broken English is too embarrassed to stay; he peeks and flees.
And I wonder - how do you tell a woman from a Yakshi?
In the museum, I try hard to understand this mystery. Ancient carvings of dressed (minimally, but still... dressed) women are marked 'Woman, .... year/century", but a naked statue is marked 'Yakshi'... 'Yakshi with beautiful hairstyle'.
There is nothing to tell a woman from a Yakshi. There is no explanation, about era, context, where these statues were found... nothing. All I can see is the difference between the clothes, or lack thereof....
And I'm still wondering whether even our historians, curators, cannot deal with the idea of women's sexuality. If it's sexual, it's not a woman; it's a Yakshi.... Is that it? Or am I reading too much into merely incompetant labelling of museum artefacts?
I also spend a long time with a carpet. It's not pretty, but is, perhaps, some ruler's vision of us. Or a weaver's fingers toying with the idea of a multi-cultural, multi-racial time-warp. For, on one large capet, he's given us Christ being born, also at the last supper, and there, a gun-toting British soldier, and here, some Nawaab, and there a Mughal durbar, a queen, also Budhha, and what looks like a Rabbi, and a Rajput... it makes me dizzy. Who commissioned this?
But there are no answers.
The banquet halls are very British. Long tables, massive spaces between tables, high-backed chairs, forks, knives, crystal. Tiered chandeliers - they could hold thirty of me. Or a hundred. There's another eating hall. It has Rajput-style seating arrangements, on the floor. I ask an attendant if he can give me some background on who ate there and why the separate halls. He continues to squat in a corner, points vaguely ahead and says, "Go inside and look".
In the arms section, I look at a huge gun, and finally understand the origin of the phrase "kisi ke kandhe pe rakh ke bandook chalaana".
You would have needed more than one shoulder to lift this gun. Yet, one finger on the trigger is enough, isn't it?
The palace itself is very... what is the word... square? And hurtfully white. It is not easy on the eye, yet, in it's whiteness, size, geometricentricity (forgive the term; my layman's vocabulary doesn't know how to describe such architecture), it is a strong image.
Everywhere, along staircases, in niches and corners, there are photographs of the royal Scindia family. Especially of Madhavrao Scindia and his wife and his son Jyotiraditya and his family. Their childhood. Their weddings. Their portraits. It is almost a little too intimate, here.
And I am reminded of me: I put up my nostalgia in the same way - collage on walls - the rush to fill up a place with personal history.... I wonder if it is the royal family's way of reminding themselves that all this is theirs, just like the rest of the palace that continues to be their home, out of bounds for the public....
Yet, these photographs are too intimate, almost, for a museum. Too alive. Too 'now'.
And I remember what a young party-worker had told me a year ago, in Shivpuri. "This region's biggest ailment is Mahal Rajneeti (Palace Politics). The Scindias rule - irespective of democracy. If it's not the brother, it's the sister. Now, the son."
And across a large hall-way, I see a young woman, looking at herself in one of the queen-sized mirrors. She turns to view her profile, then runs her hand over her stomach - there is a slightly swelling belly. Her eyes meet mine, in the mirror. There is such stillness there, such history...