After the first abortive attempt to visit the Calico Museum, I booked in for the following Monday, and arrived ten minutes early for the strictly controlled tour of this amazing collection of textiles. No phones, cameras, food or water bottles are allowed onto the premises, so I arrived only with a small money purse in my pocket and nothing else. As I was unable to take any pictures, it follows that all photo credits on this page are to The Calico Museum.
The two-hour long tours are limited to one per day by appointment only. On arrival, visitors are assembled inside the front gate, signed in with what seemed to be too many uniformed men for the simple task, any illegal goods confiscated and safely stored, IDs checked, bodies scanned and tickets issued. Then our group was herded through the beautiful gardens with the sound of running water and fountains (a soothing contrast to the frenetic city outside the walls) to the next checkpoint where our first ticket was inspected, taken and another issued, and name and details entered into a huge ledger. Then more waiting until everybody had been thus processed and signed in. Deemed safe and free of any illegal devices or substances, we embarked on the tour with Karmalini – the amazing and slightly fearsome woman in sari, cardigan and demure head scarf, who has been leading these tours for thirty years, accompanied by four other people whose sole purpose seemed to be to count heads as we moved from one gallery to the next, keep an eye on straying hands – “please do not touch!” – and to hurry stragglers along.
Over the top security? Maybe. But I happily submit to this, as do the others in the group, with mild amusement and some awe at the level of protection given to this collection. When one considers that this museum is the premier museum of its kind in India and of world significance for its comprehensive collection of handmade textiles and artefacts spanning five centuries, one can totally understand and appreciate the level of security imposed here.
As Karmalini takes us from one gallery crammed with textile treasure to the next, she singles out one piece to speak about from that room. Her knowledge of the history and techniques seems unsurpassed and her love for the collection and respect for the makers is palpable. Her manner is a mixture of headmistress, sergeant major and benign dictator. If one ever had to choose team members in life, for all her strictness and authority, I would want her on my side. So we paid attention at the right times and places, hurried along when commanded to do so, stopped and waited for stragglers being herded by her staff, and generally abided by all the rules. When one pour soul accidentally dropped a tissue on the floor, an accusing finger pointed at it with “who did this?!!” until someone picked it up. As I said, slightly fearsome.
The collection, the experience? Truly hard to put into words without reverting to cliche – fabulous, wonderful, varied, spine-tinglingly beautiful – but above all, in one word: important. I cannot describe this collection: it has to be experienced.
After the allotted two hours, which, for all the hurrying between galleries, is enough – one cannot take in any more information – we are counted once more, signed out and then comments are invited and entered into another large ledger. A visit to the bookshop is a must as they have quality publications about the collection. Then chai and snacks are served in the garden as we come down from the heady experience that is The Calico Museum.
The cost for all this? Amazingly, it is all free! when I tried to give Karmalini a tip, she politely declined stating that it is not permitted: “your appreciation is enough”.
And I do appreciate the collection, the experience and the people who have made and keep this collection so well for everyone to enjoy.
For the history of this amazing museum and the people who made it happen and keep it going, see The Calico Museum webpage.