Know Your City: How a middle class man with an uncanny vision built Pune’s Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum

The sculpture of the past herein will bewitch you with its charm.”

(Translation from the final lines of the poem, ‘Rasikaprat’, written by Adnyatwasi. The Marathi poem is inscribed on a marble plaque that greets visitors at the entrance to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum.)

On January 14, 1981, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi paid a visit to the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in Shukrawar Peth — and was surprised by what she saw. “For many years, I have been talking of the necessity of collecting and preserving articles which have been of everyday use in households all over India but are now becoming rare and unavailable. What fine workmanship and attractive designs they have…I was delighted to find that long before and without knowing of my idea, Dr Kelkar had, on his own, put my idea into practice. He and his wife have made an excellent collection,” she wrote in a letter dated April 5, 1981.

Visitors at Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum on Friday. (Photo by Atikh Rashid)

Dinkar Gangadhar Kelkar, popularly known as Kakasaheb Kelkar, had single-handedly built a museum containing artefacts of regular use that represent the exquisite history of craftsmanship of the country. Among the collection are an elaborate hair dryer from 18th century Thanjavur, a mirror made of jade, an array of sindoor, kumkum and jewelry boxes and a brass foot-scrubber or vajri set with bells that once aided the shringar (makeup) of women.

Pen boxes of wood, glass, ivory, copper and brass share space with ink-wells with bird and animal motifs. Arms and weapons come in varied forms, from battle-axes and tiger claws to bows, arrows, guns and small equipment. In the treasure trove are 500 lamps, such as tribal hanging lamps, a guru-shishya deep (lamp) and a poison-testing lamp. The oldest artefact is a ninth-century Tandava Gajasur. Following tradition, the names of the artisans were never inscribed on their work and have been lost in the haze of time.

“The concept of museums and antiques was hardly known to common people, which also meant that these objects were not so expensive. Dr Kelkar came from a middle-class family but had an uncanny vision. He could imagine the value of what others considered useless,” says Sudhanva Ranade, Kelkar’s grandson and director of the museum.

Sudhanva Ranade, Kelkar’s grandson and director of the museum.

Kelkar spent 60 years gathering the objects, traveling the length and breadth of India and creating a network of friends and acquaintances who kept him informed in an era when letters were the only means of communication. “Till the age of 75, he was considered mad as people could not understand why he was filling his house with trash. After 75, everybody realised that he was actually a visionary historian,” adds Ranade.

May 18 marks International Museum Day. This year, the theme decided by the International Council of Museums is ‘The Power of Museums’. In an article, titled ‘Museums of India: A Review on the portal of the Archaeological Survey of India’, SS Biswas writes that the origins of museums in India go back to the late 18th century, although references to chitrashala or picture gallery can be found in ancient Indian literature…There are also records of royal antiquarians who collected objects of curiosity to embellish their palaces. Feroz Shah Tugluq (AD 1351-1388) bought two colossal Ashokan pillars from distant places and established them in Delhi, his capital.” But, Biswas adds, museums as we understand them today, did not exist in ancient or medieval India.

The earliest museum in India, in the modern sense, is the Indian Museum in Kolkata, which was founded in 1814. The Museums Movement in the country goes back to William Jones, who founded the Asiatic Society in Kolkata in 1784, which began to conduct a mythological study of the wealth of India. The Indian Museum was originally the Asiatic Society Museum and contained the organisation’s collection. Today, there are almost 1,000 museums in India, including museums of national importance, such as the National Museum in Delhi, the Indian Museum in Kolkata and the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad. There are also state museums and specialized museums dedicated to children, science or railways. Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum is unique for the history of its founder and the nature of its collection.

Pen boxes of wood, glass, ivory, copper and brass share space with ink-wells with bird and animal motifs. (Photo by Atikh Rashid)

Born in 1896, Kelkar showed an early inclination for literature and aesthetics. “During his school days, mathematics was not his cup of tea but poetry and history certainly were. He combined the two to write historical poems. Under the pseudonym Adnyatwasi, he composed verses in which Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Thorle Baji Rao Peshwa were heroes,” says Ranade. As he wrote of the glorious past, Kelkar began to be attracted towards artefacts from those eras.

He was a frequent visitor to the home of Sardar Dixit Patwardhan, an old family that had once been bankers to the Peshwa, and admired a miniature painting that hung on the wall. “Out of the blue, he told the Sardar that he wanted the painting. He got that painting (it hangs in the Gujarat Gallery of the museum) and, from that point, he kept collecting. He would visit obscure villages and tribal settlements, grand temples and humble huts, go to forgotten attics and folk fares. He was always collecting. He would go off to some place and return with a door or an artefact that he would eagerly call the family to admire,” says Ranade.

Kelkar, an optician by profession, saved the objects from destruction and loss and turned them into evidence of the lives and traditions of India’s millions. One of the most popular displays is of Yali, the evil crusher. From his dagger-like teeth to bulbous eyes to mighty arms that end in vicious nails, Yali evokes such formidable power that he is almost always surrounded by a crowd of fascinated museum visitors, children and adults alike. The wooden statue is from south India where Yali is traditionally found outside homes or temples.

The museum is also an ode to a grieving father. In 1938, Kelkar’s 10-year-old son, Raja, passed away. He was the only one who had survived of Kelkar’s first eight children as, during the time, healthcare facilities were not very good. “He was devastated and his priorities changed. He stopped writing poetry and turned his energies into collecting. The thought started coming to his mind to convert his collection into a museum,” says Ranade. The original name of the museum was Raja Sangraha, later changed to Raja Kelkar Historical Collections and, finally, to the present Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum.

The museum is also an ode to a grieving father.

What was Kelkar’s methodology? Apart from approaching families of royalty and nobility whose houses were full of objects d’art that they did not want as well as local bazaars, Kelkar employed tact to a large extent. A multi-metal figure of Rama, present in the museum, for instance, is from two shops in south India —one had the torso and the other the head and neither knew about the other. “He went to the shops, told the owners that he had come all the way from Pune and why didn’t they go and get tea for him. When they had left, he measured the head and the torso and concluded that these belonged together. He could convince both shopkeepers to sell, bought them home and put them together,” says Ranade.

The Mastani Mahal, built by Baji Rao I in 1734 and one of the museum’s highlights, was, reportedly, in a dilapidated condition and was dismantled from its original site near the Mrutyunjayeshwar Temple, presently located on Karve Road, and pieced together, according to the original plan, at the existing museum.

Kelkar segregated the collection into galleries dedicated to kitchen utensils, textiles, doors, ivory and puppets, among others. “He devoted a section to women because he felt that their work, carried out daily in the confines of their home for their families, was not appreciated and their personal lives little understood,” says Ranade. The gallery of musical instruments, which deserves its own separate visit, contains the khol of Kesjvrao Bholt, sarinda of PL Deshpande, tamboori of Bal Gandharva, sarangi of Kadarbaksh Khan and flutes of Pt Pannalal Ghosh, among others, as well as a number of rare musical instruments.

The museum might have remained obscure if not for the former Maharashtra chief minister Yashwantrao Chauhan’s visit in 1961. “The state government began to give a grant for the museum’s activities. In 1974, another chief minister, Vasantrao Naik, suggested that Kelkar donate his personal collection to the state for its perpetuity. In no time, Kelkar agreed. Accordingly, in 1975, the agreement was signed and, although the ownership of the collection is vested with the Government of Maharashtra, the rights to manage, develop and expand the museum have been assigned to an autonomous body, which is called as the board of management,” says Ranade.

The board of management of the museum is headed by the chief secretary to the state government of Maharashtra and it has equal representation of the government and the heirs of Dr Kelkar, Ranade adds. After Indira Gandhi’s visit, the museum received national and international recognition and funds for its expansion. Kelkar was honored with awards such as the Padma Shri and Salar Jung Award.

At present, only 11.5 per cent of the 23,000 artefacts are on display due to the lack of space, though the museum has been allotted six acres of land at Bavdhan for the construction of the proposed Museum City. “The museum is unable to deliver it on account of non-availability of required financial support,” says Ranade.

Today, the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum is facing one of its greatest challenges. The pandemic had forced it to shut its doors for 17 months, and resulted in a loss of revenue. Before 2020, it used to attract 1,30,000 visitors every year and the current footfall is yet to rise. School and college trips have ended.

The museum has tried to raise funds, as well as adapted technological solutions to ease back-end processes and enrich visitor experiences, which includes the launch of a 3D virtual tour of the museum. Photography is now allowed as the museum seeks to harness the power of social media influence. A website, developed with the help of the German government, reflects the warm and welcoming nature of the museum.

“We cannot depend only on governmental assistance. We look forward to the corporate sector to extend much needed financial support to take care of the museum’s day to day revenue expenditure,” says Ranade.


Leave a Comment