I was spurred to action by the newspaper articles following outgoing Consultant and Chairperson Dr. Ruchira Ghosh’s interview that spoke of the Crafts Museum, New Delhi shutting down to make way for a Hastkala Academy. I took myself off to dine twice in a week and a half at the much acclaimed Café Lota, and to see the Museum after a hiatus of a decade and a half.

Both the Café and the shop are a triumph of the elegant use of space that breathe, and allow one to do the same! The Café ’s spare beauty complete with angle iron struts, and its culinary delights epitomise understated good taste. The shop is amazing in its egregious minimalism, the rare craft place that selects the fewest things so as to not overpower you with the sheer diversity and wealth of Indian crafts-- that translates usually as the minimum use of space for the most that you can fit in-- but to present you with some of the finest in its non department store aesthetic.

I note as I enter the museum complex, a wall with its array of different jaalis sitting next to each other utterly comfortably, and then there is the spectacular terracotta quadrangle of the god Ayanar and the votive offerings to him. We head past a reception window that has a communication for all: a newspaper clipping that denies the closure of the museum, stating that the planned Hastkala Academy was to function within the existing Museum space and schedules.

Then we enter the exhibition spaces: the ritual exhibition gallery is shut to visitors ostensibly on account of renovation, and slowly it is as if the museum begins to unravel from its earlier vibrant self. No, it is scrupulously clean , nothing is obviously out of place except that the plump white and blue air coolers are a travesty, placed in the midst of treasures in wood , the halls are bare in the way that speaks a desertedness, rather than spaciousness, that afternoon we were the only two visitors who chose to see the museum, while the others confined themselves to the café and the outdoor spaces… a small ‘drawing room’ structure has an incongruously placed floor covering embalmed in a platform covered with a plastic sheet; the wooden bed is distinctly askew with one of its legs sticking out in a visibly fractured manner.. the customized block printed drapes that line two sides of the room look very much as if they need replacement , look to the lower edges for the full impact. They should have been behind glass. The Radhanpur balcony/bay window and the Patan house still tower magnificently over all, but when you peep into the Patan house the floor covering and the cushions seem ghostly.

By the time one climbs up the stairs to the textile section , past a single badly framed image of the child Krishna, one is confirmed in one’s sense of dread : perhaps a once beautiful but now rather painfully nondescript sharara fans out eerily into butterfly wings, a relic of forgotten times; a clay mannequin wears a dhoti that has frayed and torn so much, it is an embarrassment, the large hall has not seen a coat of paint in a while, and then looking at the brassware and bidri work saves one from the complete nosedive that one experiences in the textile segment… yes, the costumes of the princes have become part of the new trousseau of the marriage market for men… there are sarees rolled over batons and assiduously stored betraying the tatters they are in, though. There are the big saree displays, the big shawl windows and so on, chamba rumaals looking like they were pasted in a scrapbook with browning glue…

The sarees in the display windows do not match the painted labels above…

This is a museum that the city does not care for, has forgotten. It will undoubtedly provide inspiration to the devotee of design, for the surprises it holds, including the exquisite bandini work, brocade, wealth of patolas and ikats, and the rare Kashmiri piece amidst the jamewar segments that was commissioned one of the employees told us by a Hyderabad prince or nobleman to look like the lacquer work on the papier mache boxes that Kashmir excelled in…

But the sense of disrepair, the genteel if not abject poverty of resources and worse, imagination that could vivify this warehouse, this land of the dead object, the museum certainly does not feel as if it is designed to celebrate the spirit of Indian craft . For the first time, one begins to feel the tragedy of a forgotten museum …One is drawn to think of other methods of dealing with objects past their date of use: of immersion or burial of sacred objects including texts, and celebrate the recycling of old material that never has to undergo the indignity of a life lived so ungraciously. No one cares anymore for these magnificent pieces, I conclude. They have done their job in nurturing design and the market and now present us with an image of craft in a stage of Christian limbo.

Girish Shahane says in his passionately argued piece about the way Indian cultural institutions have the axe falling on them that “A ridiculous plan is being hatched to create a "Hastakala Academy" within the Crafts Museum complex, “for the preservation, revival and documentation of the handloom/handicraft sector”. The Crafts Museum, which doesn’t have enough space to showcase its own collection adequately, is expected to scrunch up to allow space for a whole new institution.” He speaks of the refurbished café and the increase in revenues, the number of visitors, but what I had not gone prepared for was a museum forgotten by the city.

It is indeed possible that the museum requires much needed funds, the absence of which has allowed the place to vegetate if not go to seed …I am no expert on the political economy of culture. I can only recall the beautifully kept Calico Museum of Textiles, Ahmedabad as a comparative case or think of the Folk Art Gallery in the Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi which doubles up as space to be used for providing vocational training to young girls, or of the guided and structured activities for youngsters in other galleries. No special exhibit, nothing interactive redeems the space.

I do not know the people behind Café Lota and the Museum Shop, but if this museum is to regain any of its former vitality, it certainly could receive the gift of life from the folk who collected the treasures, dreamed of the wall with many ‘jaalis’, the Ayanar quadrangle and the utterly beautiful museum shop. Or from a fresh look from Curators and Exhibition Designers

(Punam Zutshi has an M.Phil in Sociology from Delhi University, and is now an independent sociologist and artist.)