Asutosh Museum of Indian Art

Asutosh Museum of Indian Art the central laboratory museum of the university of calcutta, located at its original campus in College Street. The Museum, acclaimed as one of the richest university museums, and a major public museum in India, was founded in 1937. It was named after asutosh mookerjee, the great propagator of modern education in the subcontinent, and Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University for four terms from 1906 to 1914 and again for one term during 1921-1923. The museum was established with the object of collecting and preserving specimens representing different phases of Indian art but with special emphasis on Bengal Art.

Asutosh Museum began with a modest collection of objects of art and archaeology drawn mostly from Bengal and Bihar. However, it soon grew into a rich storehouse that preserves and exhibits more than 30,000 items of archaeological artifacts, terracotta, sculptures, paintings, bronzes, coins, wood-carvings, textiles and folk art collected from different parts of the subcontinent. In particular, the museum has a unique collection of the folk and rural art of the country, of Bengal terracotta through the ages, and of some of the finest creations of the eastern Indian school of sculptures and bronzes.

Antiquarian remains from Paharpur monastery, identified as the somapura mahavihara founded by dharmapala (c 781-821 AD) constitute a prize collection of the museum. Excavation at the lofty mound at Paharpur in Naogaon district of present Bangladesh was launched in 1922-23 by a team headed by DR Bhandarkar, then Carmichael Professor of Ancient Indian History and Culture of Calcutta University. A variety of carved bricks and terracotta plaques recovered from the temple complex are of abiding interest to students of South Asian art and Culture.

In 1937, the Museum undertook a scheme of regular excavation at the ancient site of Bangarh (ancient Kotivarsa) in north Dinajpur district. KG Goswami, a teacher of Sanskrit of Calcutta University, conducted excavation at the selected site of Rajbari mound during 1938-41. The Museum's holding comprises gray ware, red-slipped ware, and polished black ware unearthed from the mound. Other notable finds are silver punch-marked, and copper cast coins, terracotta plaques, seals and sealing and beads of various materials and decorative bricks.

Under the aegis of the museum, KG Goswami conducted exploratory excavations at Chandidas mound in Nanoor in Birbhum district in 1946. The mound yielded shreds of black and red ware, early historical terracotta and some remains of the mediaeval period. The same archaeologist also carried out trial digging at Chandpur mound at Tilda in Midnapur district in 1954-55. The finds that include some early historical terracotta and pottery are now exhibited in the Museum.

Asutosh Museum undertook major excavation work at chandraketugarh in Berachampa in North 24 Parganas in 1956, which was continued till 1967-68. The enormously rich finds from the site consist of, among others, hoards of silver punched-marked coins, copper cast coins, Maurya-Sunga-Kusana terracotta, seals and sealing, and pottery, including Northern Black Polished ware and roulette ware.

Besides excavation work, the Museum has organised archaeological explorations from time to time. A number of early historical sites in the Bhagirathi delta, including Harinarayanpur, Boral, Atghara, Mahinagar and Hariharpur in the district of South 24 Parganas, and also Tamluk and Panna in Midnapur district, have been excavated. Each of these sites has yielded a rich harvest of art objects and antiquities, including copper cast coins, terracotta figurines, and shreds of NBPW and roulette ware.

The Museum is equally notable for its remarkable holding of stone sculptures and bronzes. Stone sculptures housed in the Museum range in date from first century BC to 12th century AD. The earliest specimens are two fragmentary pieces, namely, (I) a stone railing pillar with a standing male figure and (II) the head of a door-keeper wearing a heavy twisted turban, both recovered from Udayagiri near Bhuvaneswar in Orissa and dated in the 1st century BC. A tiny torso of Buddha, in mottled red sandstone (c 2nd century AD), collected from Chandraketugarh in North 24 Parganas is claimed to be the earliest Buddha figure found in Bengal. A sandstone headless figure of Kartikeya and that of a bird (Cock?) discovered at mahasthangarh in Bogra district have been assigned to 2nd century AD on the ground of their art content. A black stone image of Surya from Kashipur in South 24 Parganas, attributed to 6th century AD, shares the aesthetic goals and sculptural formulas of the Gupta phase. The bulk of the stone and metal sculptures in the Asutosh Museum, however, belong to the Pala and Sena regimes. Collected from Bihar and Bengal, they represent the process of evolution of lithic art in the region from c 8th century to 12th century AD.

Asutosh Museum is well known for its rich collection of paintings belonging to the mediaeval period. The illuminated Pancharaksa manuscript, dated in 1105 AD, containing eight paintings of Buddha's life, testifies to the high standard of the pictorial art tradition of eastern India in that period. The Museum also has a large collection of Jaina illustrated manuscripts from western India and paintings produced under the patronage of the princes of Rajasthan and the Himalayan States of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The regional and rural pictorial art tradition of Bengal of this period is represented by a variety of art objects including painted book covers, kalighat painting, and painted scrolls. [Niranjan Goswami]