Arms gallery at Saleh Khana coming alive with hi-tech conservation processes and traditional swordsmithy of Mewar, Rajasthan, writes Raju Mansukhani
Saleh Khana is the oldest portion of The City Palace Museum in Udaipur. It was built in the 1560’s by Maharana Udai Singh II, in whose name ‘Udaipur’ as a ‘city of peace’ was established.
Today, five centuries after the city’s foundation was laid, Saleh Khana is witness to the coming together of world-class professionals and traditional ironsmiths as the arms and armoury gallery of the The City Palace Museum gets a new lease of life in the twenty-first century.
Mr. Howard Ricketts, armoury and photography expert from London, is the curator who is overseeing the thematic display of arms and armoury.
The gallery will display various swords, daggers, guns, pistols, rifles, assegai spears, shields, maces and axes from different time periods and from different parts of the world.
The curatorial challenge is to give Museum visitors a journey through time, with the artefacts revealing different stories of their origin, use and significance which are often lost to modern audiences.
The first hall of the gallery is being dedicated to Maharana Pratap. He is the legendary warrior-King of Mewar who, in the 16th century CE, resisted the imperial might of the Mughal Empire.
The first phase of mounting and installation of the arms and armoury at Saleh Khana has been underway since September-October 2019.
The renowned UK firm, Plowden and Smith, have been commissioned to give the benefit of their global expertise to the City Palace Museum. In fact, it is probably the first time in India that a museum has resourced an international firm for mounting and installation of objects.
Mr Kevin Smith, heading the mounting and installation team, is Managing Director and Head of Exhibitions at Plowden and Smith, London.
He said, “Displaying a prized piece or collection takes both skill and flair, requiring an appreciation of the aesthetic and technical requirements of the object, and the ability to capture these precise needs in a discreet, functional design.
“We will ensure that all suitable treatment methods and processes are explored, that conservation ethics, best practice and health and safety is rigorously adhered to, and that excellent result is achieved in a cost-effective and timely manner.”
“Restoration of arms and armoury or its display are not a one-time activity,” explained Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar, the Chairman and Managing Trustee of Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation.
“These are works in progress. What you restore today needs equal attention and care a couple of years down the line.” Shriji has been working closely with Mr. Howard Ricketts over the last few years and facilitating the tasks undertaken by Plowden and Smith.
He acknowledges that conservation has not been given its due in museums across India, probably due to the scarcity of professionals who can do justice to such artefacts.
To fill this gap in both technology and personnel, the Foundation established its Conservation Lab in April 2018 at the Chota Darikhana within the Museum premises. The lab draws upon the expertise of the New Delhi-based Centre for Art Conservation & Research Experts (CARE).
Dr Vandana Singh, an experienced conservator and managing director of CARE, has led a team of three assistant conservators who have conserved and restored over 700 artefacts including swords, firearms and objects of warfare. Every process of their conservation has been documented and computerised for ease of access and reference.
To make the complex sound simple, Dr Vandana explained, “in our work, we have to use conservation grade materials besides following the standard norms of conservation which we have been practising for years. These conservation grade materials are reversible. Our focus is to maintain the originality and integrity of the artefact we are conserving.”
It is fascinating to note that Dr Vandana and team are engaging with traditional swordsmiths, gunsmiths and armoury experts to incorporate their techniques. “We are using the best nano materials, fine grade powders and adhesives. At the same time, the traditional tools and techniques of swordsmiths are also being utilized,” she said, explaining how this unique synergy has been achieved at the Conservation lab of the City Palace Museum, Udaipur.
For the lay visitor, the artefacts now being displayed at the Saleh Khana have been restored to its original finery. They will marvel at the sharpness of the swords’ edge, the designs of the body armours, and the glorious colours of scabbard.
As they will stream out of the gallery, with many of them awe-struck by the spectacular displays, another glorious chapter in the history of Saleh Khana would have begun.