The crowd inside Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) was milling; excited children were gaggling over the colossal dinosaur fossil arched from the atrium and art lovers were ogling at the largest collection of Chinese artifacts outside China.
I was jostling with the crowd; in the cacophony I could barely hear the narrative of David Grafstein, the guide. I was hurrying past the dinosaurs; I was looking for Kunti. I knew she was somewhere in the Sir Christopher Ondaatjee Gallery of South Asia. The wait at the elevator was too long; I scurried up the staircase. And then I saw her – Kunti, sitting on an empty bottle rack; her skin indigo blue, her body unclothed, her hands stretched in mudra.
This Kunti, however, is not from mythology. She is Navjot Altaf’s teakwood and metal sculpture that stands out in the South Asia gallery of ROM. This Kunti is real; she was conceived out of pandemonium that artist Altaf heard one day. Outside her house, a woman called Kunti was being thrashed by men who assumed she was a witch. The art born out of that ruthless moment now sits as ROM’s prized possession.
In ROM, there is more of India than the indigo blue Kunti. There’s 12-14th century bronze Nataraja from Tamil Nadu; a painted, mordant-dyed cotton tabby from Coromandel that was specifically made for the European market in early 18th century; an ancient stone Yogini; a Lady in Moonlight photograph by Pushpamala N which is heavily inspired by Ravi Varma; Jamini Roy’s Untitled (dancing gopi) painted in 1950s. That is not all, though. There are artifacts that lie at the heart of the rituals of Himalayan Buddhism and 5th century head of a Bodhisattva (stucco) from Gandhara (now Pakistan).
Walk into ROM galleries and there’d be a hint of India somewhere. In 2010, ROM showcased the Ragamala: Garland of Melodies, an exhibit that explored Ragamala paintings, a South Indian style of painting that was a rage between 16th and 19th centuries. During IIFA in Toronto, ROM mounted Bollywod Cinema Showcards, a stunning array of vintage Bollywood showcards and advertisements assembled for the first time in Canada. Between June 2011 and 2012, visitors gazed at Indian painted photographs that dated from 1860s, a few decades after the invention of photography to the modern-day interpretation of painted photography.
BATA SHOE MUSEUM: In ROM, I was soaking in the artistic heritage of India. A few blocks away I was to set foot on more of India. Yes, foot. Literally. In Bata Shoe Museum, the biggest and perhaps the sole museum in North America dedicated to the history of footwear, there was more of India waiting.
An 1840 saffron pair of mojris worn by a temple dancer in Rajasthan embellished with beads, brass bells and golden zardozi. A 19th century pure silver filigreed mule with leaf and vine motifs that was common as dowry for brides.
An 18th century paduka from Jaipur with high stilts and gold toe knobs. A pair of simple thong slipper worn by The Dalai Lama. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s black pumps that was donated by Rajiv Gandhi. Century-old padukas in wood and metal, some decoratively etched; others almost monastic in their simplicity. Embroidered mojris adding color to Museum’s nearly 13,000 shoe collection which is the life work of Sonja Bata, wife of Thomas J Bata, the scion of Bata Shoe Company.
However, what took my breath away was a pair of shoes that is currently valued at – hold your breath – $ 160,000. The 1760 pair of mojari made of gold, silk, leather and encrusted with ruby, diamonds, emerald and sapphire belonged to the former Nizam of Hyderabad. The fully zardozi gold embroidered shoes with wide upturned curled back toes and brown leather sole has a lining of apricot colored silk and velvet.
The slight wedge heels have silver braids; the throat is embellished with floral gold medallion set with emerald, ruby and diamond gems. The Nizam’s mojaris are so exquisite that it would put even the priciest jewellery to shame. This, however, is not the most expensive artifact of Bata Shoe Museum. But ask Sonja Bata and she’d confess that the Nizam’s mojaris are priceless, a piece of history from India, a country which still has a town called Batanagar; a country that she still loves!
Preeti Verma Lal