The Contribution of the Decorative Arts Department at the National Museum of India to Sustaining Cultural Heritage

Craft, Handloom, Art, Museums, Collections, Sustainability, Sustainable Devt.

The Contribution of the Decorative Arts Department at the National Museum of India to Sustaining Cultural Heritage

Pathak, Anamika


Issue #002, Winter, 2019                                                                            ISSN: 2581- 9410


India is a land of rich cultural heritage with artistic traditions that date back five thousand years. Antiquities of all periods, made by hand, are preserved in diverse locations including temples, private collections, archaeological sites and museums. While each organisation has its own significance, this essay considers the importance of museums, their role as public institutions and contribution to sustaining cultural heritage, addressing, in particular, the work of the Department of Decorative Arts (DA) at the National Museum of India (NM).  

The National Museum of India

A key activity of the museum is to collect and preserve antiquities and also to disseminate knowledge of the past. In common with other museums around the world, the National Museum of India (NM) works constantly towards to these goals. Following the recommendation of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 2016, to work for society and its development, and an express commitment to ensuring the conservation and protection of cultural remains, it has focused on three main objectives of museology, which are: collection, conservation and communication. 

     The NM has a collection of around two hundred thousand artefacts, the management of which has been divided into departments: Pre-history; Archaeology; Painting; Numismatics and Epigraphy; Manuscripts; Decorative Arts; Arms and Armour; Anthropology; Central Asian Antiquities; and Pre-Columbian and Western Art. Each department has at least one or more permanent galleries that are open to the public, displaying selected artefacts related to the theme and subject of that department. So far, there are altogether twenty-seven galleries for public viewing. Arranged over three floors, they are organised in chronological order and by materials and are thematic. 

A team of dedicated conservators works to maintain the condition of these objects, preserving the life of fragile artefacts for the future generations. The curatorial staff carry out the documentation of antiquities, studying them in detail, also setting up regular temporary exhibitions to disseminate knowledge of the past for generations to come. Assisted by the NM’s Education department, they also take part in the museum’s educational programme delivering workshops, lectures and gallery talks; the list of programmes carried out by all the departments at the NM since it opened to the public at its present site in the 1960s is extensive. As it is difficult to cover them all, a selection of outreach programmes carried out by the department of Decorative Arts (DA) will be discussed in detail and is the focus of this essay. 

Indian Decorative Arts

Indian decorative arts have a glorious past. But a significant number of traditions are still being practised in India and artisans work with a range of materials; for example: terracotta art, metal craft, wood carving, and textiles. These materials were traditionally used to produce handmade artefacts for daily use as well as occasional and ritualistic use. They were decorated using a variety of techniques, including bas relief, carving, casting, inlay, enamel, weaving, printing, dyeing and painting. A majority of the examples at the NM were produced between the 17th-19th centuries, but a few exquisite works of art were made in the 20th century. 

     The range of artefacts in the DA department is vast and diverse, and the objects are ritualistic and secular in nature. The DA collection includes metal ware, wood carvings, glassware, crystal, ivory and bone carving, semi-precious stones and textiles of cotton, silk and wool. The importance of this collection is that it unfolds many aspects of the human imagination and creative expression. These artefacts inform us about the people who used them, the craftsmen who made them and shed light on trade and commercial activity as well as technological developments in a particular medium.   

The Permanent Display of Decorative Arts

The Decorative Arts department has been part of the NM since its beginning in the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Palace) on 15th August 1949. It moved to its present location in 1960. Initially there were only two galleries: wood carving, and textiles & decorative arts. The display of wood carving included carved and painted wooden panels from Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and western India. The objects included religious statuary of Hindu deities, decorated panels and intricately-carved doors and window panels. The Textiles Gallery showcased examples of dyed, printed, woven and embroidered textiles, for personal use as well as furnishing fabrics. It was renovated in 1996 and is presently closed to public for further renovation. Prior to 1996, other objects like metal lamps, bidri ware (metal inlay), ivory and few glasses utensils were on displayed in the same gallery. 

     In the 1990s, two more galleries more galleries dedicated to decorative arts were added, during a new phase of building at the museum. The first of these displays Hindu and Christian idols worked in ivory, pen cases, cups, pendants and cuff links as well as Indian and Chinese jade carvings, utensils, armoury, jewellery and huqqas. (fig 1) It also includes ceramics, displaying Mughal tiles, painted pottery from Jaipur, Rajasthan and celadon wares. Besides these three materials – ivory, ceramics and jade – two themes are addressed in the gallery: the concept of leisure and the development of the throne, with board games displayed alongside ivory and metal throne legs and a chair specially commissioned by Kashi Naresh (‘King of Varanasi’) to use at the Delhi Durbar in 1903.   

   Objects in the second gallery are mainly utensils, made from a variety of materials but including examples of different types of metal work such as bidri, silverware, damascening, thewa work (gold fused with glass) and enamelling, as well as glass and jade artefacts, wooden doors and screens inlaid with ivory. 

     In addition to the four permanent galleries, objects from the DA collection are displayed in the arms and armour, paintings, numismatic and archaeological galleries to enhance the story line of each gallery. Thus, in the arms gallery there are wooden toys showing warriors and velvet trappings (jhul) for an elephant embellished with zardozi (heavy embroidery worked in gold thread) and in the numismatics gallery, measuring vessels of metal. Painted ivory images and a papier-mâché box are displayed in the painting gallery. A wooden door from Katarmal, Almorah district and a pillar are displayed in archaeology gallery.

In 2012, the wood carving gallery was renovated; the number of artefacts on show was increased with the displays underpinned by new concepts. An artefact of note is displayed near the gallery entrance: a huge wooden chariot (jagannath), twenty-two feet high, decorated with intricately carved panels of Vaishnavite stories.

Temporary Exhibitions of Decorative Arts

In addition to its four permanent galleries, as well as a presence in other galleries, the DA department has always participated in temporary exhibitions in India and abroad. These have been well-received by visitors. Apart from exhibitions of historical objects, a lot of interest in Indian crafts has been generated by traditional craftsmen representing India at exhibitions all over the world. Among the most popular international shows were: Indian Art at Burlington House, London (1948); Life at Court : Art for India’s Rulers, 16-19th Century, at Boston, USA, (1985); Alamkara: 5000 Years of India at the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore (1994-95); The Arts of Sikh Kingdoms at the V&A, London, UK (1999); Islamic Art of India at the Islamic Arts Museum, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (2002); Libaas Indian Costumes through the Centuries, at The National Museum, King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (2002); The Word is Sacred, Sacred is the Word: The Indian Manuscript Tradition at Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany (2005-06); Sultans of Deccan India at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (2015); The Fabric of India at the V&A, London, UK (2015-16). The scope of these exhibitions and the scholarship informing them is captured in the catalogues that accompanied them.

      A number of exhibitions have also been mounted at the National Museum in which the decorative arts were prominent. Among the most important are: Art and Culture of Varja (1992); Piety of Splendour: Sikh Heritage Art (1992) (fig 2); Minakar: Spun Gold and Woven Enamel (1997); Pashmina (Government of Jammu and Kashmir, 1999); Russian Art (2000-01); Malaysian Cultural Treasures: Textiles of the Malay World (2002-03); Masters of the Cloth: Indian Textiles Traded of Distant Shores (TAPI Collection, 2005); In Adoration of Krishna (2007); Art of Calligraphy and Beyond (2015) (fig 3); Atoot dor. Unbroken Thread: Banarasi Brocade Sari at Home and in the World (2016). The publication of exhibition catalogues and the programme of lectures that accompanied these exhibitions has helped to increase public understanding of Indian decorative arts. 

     Several workshops have also been conducted to create awareness of traditional knowledge across society. In 2015, three workshops were organised to coincide with the Art of Calligraphy exhibition, led by a wood carver, a stone carver and textile weavers. (figs 4-6) The carvers taught participants how to do calligraphy on wood and stone while the weavers demonstrated how calligraphy was incorporated into pashmina weaving, imparting not only practical skills but also an understanding of their creativity as artists. This first set of workshops were specially designed for undergraduate and secondary level students. Following the success of the first round of workshops, which were on demand and open to all, the same workshop was repeated; lots of art lovers, artists, and students of all ages joined in and learned the skills.      

The Reserve Collection: Open for Study 

The Reserve Collection of the DA remains open (with the prior approval of the Director General) to all type of students from school to research scholars from India and abroad, besides authors, textile designers and weavers. Researchers visit and study the collection of textiles and decorative arts as per their specified themes. This access has contributed to the revival of a number of languishing textiles by weavers and designers. Among these revivals are the Baluchari sari by weavers at Varanasi; the Mughal-style brocade patka (cummerbund) by Rahul Jain; Persian velvet by Abhishek Jain from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad; Banarasi brocade by Ritu Kumar and Sribhas Suparkar – the latter also revived jamdani (figured muslin); the Chamba rumal (a fine cotton textile embroidered with silk floss) by the Delhi Crafts Council; the pashmina shawl by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir Government. These textiles revivals led to some notable exhibitions, including one of minakari (Persian term referring to enamel) brocade patkas organised by Rahul Jain, another of pashmina shawls run by the Government of Jammu and Kashmir, and yet another of Chamba rumal

Creating Awareness through Academic Activities

The Decorative Arts department had been actively propagating general awareness of the beauty of the subject. Special gallery talks on Indian decorative arts, wood carving, textiles, and exhibition-related topics besides, are organised on a regular basis. The aim of these talks is to explain the subject in detail to the public. Speakers explain the importance, history and technology and recount stories around objects in the DA collection, and the talks have generated a lot of interest in the textiles and other decorative arts subjects. (figs 7-8) Other institutions have also hosted lectures on decorative arts, including the National Museum Institute of Art, Museology and Conservation; the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts; Lady Irwin College, Delhi University; Mathura Museum, Mathura, Uttar Pradesh; the State Museum, Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh; Jñāna-Pravāha Centre for Cultural Studies and Research, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh; the K.R.Cama Oriental Institute, Mumbai . 

     Participation in seminars, workshops, outreach activities and collaboration by the curatorial staff all provide ways of raising awareness. The DA department staff participate in the field of conservation by taking part in workshops on preventative measures and conservation of textiles and decorative art objects. A recent example is the three-month ‘Textiles Conservation Course’ (November 2015-January 2016); developed in collaboration with the NM’s Conservation department, it was specially organised for museum curators, conservators and textiles students. 


Through a regular cycle of events that includes exhibitions (permanent and temporary), lectures in the NM’s galleries and at other institutions,                                                                                                                                                                                                  as well as workshops on art, history and the conservation of artefacts, the DA department has worked consistently to raise public awareness of decorative arts. It has addressed the issues confronting museums as guardians of antique artefacts as well the challenges faced by contemporary craftspeople, exploring the ways in which it can contribute to sustaining India’s cultural heritage. The DA department has always contributed to collecting, documenting and conserving artefacts; beyond which, by facilitating the study of objects in the Reserve Collection by visiting scholars, designers and weavers, it has enabled the revival of several extinct textile techniques. The DA department has maintained its commitment to communicating the importance of decorative arts and traditional craft skills, sustaining its efforts to preserve them for future generations.   


ICOM Annual Report, 2016. See: http://www.

Gupta, S.P. (ed)(1985), Masterpieces from the Collection of National Museum, India. New Delhi: National Museum.

National Museum (2014), Guide Book of National Museum. New Delhi: National Museum.

Starting with Harappan Civilization, several galleries show Indian history arranged in chronological order. The materials-based galleries cover: Wood carving, Tanjore paintings, Musical instruments, Numismatic and Miniature painting. The thematic galleries are organised into: the Buddhist, North Eastern gallery, Ethnic and Tradition, Arms and Armour, and Jewellery.

The annual summer play time offers many activities such as storytelling, workshops around art objects or on various subjects, games, musical theatre programmes, a painting competition, a quiz, and special lectures for children of different age groups, etc.

See: Lal, K., ‘Indian Decorative Arts’ in: S.P.Gupta (ed)(1985), Masterpieces from the Collection of National Museum, India. New Delhi: National Museum.

Mathur, I.D., ‘National Museum of India – A Retrospect’ in: National Museum Bulletin (2002), no. 9, pp-3-16. 

Pathak, A., ‘Renovated Textile Gallery at the National Museum, New Delhi’ in: Marg (1998), vol. 50, no. 1, pp. 69-71.

Pathak, A. (2013), Indian Decorative Arts Portfolio, National Museum. New Delhi: National Museum.

This wooden chair is fully covered with silver sheet, studded with precious stones and enamelled decoration, in addition to which the upholstery is embellished with zardozi precious metal embroidery.  

Agrawal, R.C. (n.d.), Katarmal Wooden Reliefs in the National Museum, New Delhi and Connected Problems, East-West (unpublished), pp. 83-95.  

Author? ‘Temple Chariot Tradition in India: With special reference to Tamil Nadu’s temple chariot’, in: Aryan. S. (ed)(2008), Kala Chintan. New Delhi: publisher?, pp. 152-161.

A selection of exhibition catalogues includes: Stronge, S. (ed)(1999), The Arts of Sikh Kingdoms  London: V&A Publications; Akhtar, N (ed)(2002), Islamic Art of India. Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Arts Museum; Varadarajan, M. (ed) (2002), Libaas Indian Costumes through the Centuries. Riyadh:  National Museum, King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre; Goswamy, B.N. (ed)(2005), The Word is Sacred, Sacred is the Word: The Indian Manuscript Tradition. Frankfurt: Museum für Angewandte Kunst; Haidar N.N. and Marika Sardar, (2015)(eds), Sultans of Deccan India: Opulence and Fantasy. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Crill, R. (ed)(2015), The Fabric of India. London: V&A Publishing. 

Exhibition catalogues published by the National Museum, New Delhi, include: Goswamy, B.N. (ed)(2000), Piety of Splendour: Sikh Heritage Art; Pathak, A., Naseem Akhtar and  Zahid Ali Ansari (2015), The Art of Calligraphy and Beyond; (author/ed?)(2016), Atoot dor. Unbroken Thread: Banarasi Brocade Sari at Home and in the World. Two exhibitions of the TAPI Collection were heldat the National Museum, accompanied by catalogues published by Garden Silk Mills Ltd, Surat: Shah, D. (2005), Masters of the Cloth: Indian Textiles Traded of Distant Shores; (author/ed?) (2007), In Adoration of Krishna.

Several of the researchers who have accessed the Reserve Collection have subsequently published on the textiles studied, of note is: Jain, Rahul (1997), Minakar: Spun Gold and Woven Enamel. New Delhi: publisher? There have also been publications entitled Pashmina (1999), Srinagar: Government of Jammu and Kashmir and Chamba Rumal: Thread and Pigment (1999), New Delhi: Delhi Crafts Council.    

For example, the author participates regularly in academic events such as the Art History Congress, also the Museum Association of India. Recently presented seminar papers include, ‘Textiles, Collections, Communities, Culture and Trade’ (2016) and ‘The Art and Culture of Mughal India’ (2017), both at the K.R.Cama Oriental Research Institute, Mumbai.

In 2015, a special issue of postage stamps on traditional Indian metal craft was released that featured artefacts selected from Decorative Arts at the National Museum. Similarly, India Potosh Limited recently published a calendar dedicated to the traditional crafts of India, which portrayed ivory and metal artefacts from the Museum.  

List of illustrations

Fig 1: Gallery view of temporary exhibition held at the NM in 2000: ‘Piety of Splendour: Sikh Heritage Art.

Fig 2: Renovated view of Decorative Arts 1 gallery in 2013. 

Fig 3: Curator Anamika Pathak guiding the Minister of Culture at the inauguration of a temporary exhibition at the NM in 2015: The Art of Calligraphy and Beyond.

Fig 4: Wood carver conducting calligraphy workshop in 2015.

Fig 5: Stone carver conducting calligraphy workshop in 2015.

Fig 6: Pashmina weaver conducting calligraphy workshop in 2015.

Fig 7: Decorative arts curators Zahid Ali Ansari and Dharmender Kumar running an interactive session with school students during the ‘Mata-ni-Pachari’ workshop in 2014. 

Fig 8: Curator Anamika Pathak leading a gallery walk in the temporary exhibition Rama-Abhirama in 2017. 








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