Bengal’s rich archaeological heritage dates back to the pre-historic times. Starting from the Black and Red Ware settlements that spread from West Bengal’s Burdwan district to the lower slopes of Chotanagpur plateau in Jharkhand roughly between the second millennium BC to 500 BC to the exquisite terracotta architecture of the fourth century or the emergence of mosques and tombs, indigenous crafts and miniature paintings during the Turko-Afghan rule in the thirteenth century- it is archaelogically a treasurehouse.
The State Archaeological Museum situated at the busy southern suburbs of Kolkata, gives a glimpse of this archaeological heritage and evolution of civilisation from the pre- historic ages to the colonial times. The museum that was inaugurated in an iconic heritage building at 1 Satyen Roy Road in Kolkata’s Behala on 1980 and later extended to a new annexe building in 2006, boasts a rich collection of artefacts and antiquities that would surely take the history lovers on a trip to rediscover Bengal’s past grandeur. The new building that is open for public viewing has its archaeological exhibits spread across five galleries; while the ground floor houses the collections named Sites and Sights and Paintings of Bengal; the second floor of the building has three more galleries displaying Sculptures of Bengal, findings from West Bengal’s early historic period, and a miniature of Jagjivanpur at the eastern fringe of Malda district that was excavated between 1992-1996.
While taking a tour of the galleries, one forgets all about the hustle and bustle of modern day Kolkata and gets immersed in the exquisite art forms that our ancestors once produced. Upon entering the hall for Paintings of Bengal two distinctive art works entitled Krishna with Gopini and Durga Mahisasuramardini painted on large wooden panels of the chariot’s (Ratha) outer surface, capture attention. Painting in Bengal had really flourished as an art and found a distinctive provincial style under Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah. Though the political power soon found its way into the hands of colonial rulers after Nawab’s defeat in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the formal Murshidabad style of painting continued to be practised throughout Bengal. The portraits primarily have religious overtones. For example, the first few paintings at the gallery represents Yama (harbinger of death) and Mahakali (Goddess Kali) in a form of scroll painting that has distinct Hindu references. However, a line drawing entitled combating tigers from the second half of 19th century and a sensual oil on canvas named Two women with a rose show how with passing time, the artists of Bengal focused on other topics to reach out to a larger clientele. Another wonderful line drawing at the gallery: Babu Bilash, portrays the lifestyle of Bengal’s rich urban class during the British rule.
At the gallery of Bengal’s sculptures, one would find stone carvings of the Hindu gods and goddesses that dates back to the early centuries. Both miniatures and full sized black stone sculptures of Vishnu and Surya that were found from different parts of West Bengal during the Pala and Sena Dynasty, are on display. The sculptures went through significant evolution in form and representation. Two full size Surya sculptures, found in Malda’s Gajole in ninth century and Hoogly district’s Bandel in twelveth century are distinctly different in their form and sitting position. Another significant sculpture in the gallery is a stucco head of Gautam Buddha collected from Murshidabad, remniscient of the art in Gupta period. The wooden sculpture of Radha, found from 24 Parganas district in the 19th century is also worth mentioning.
At the gallery of Sites and Sights, one gets an overview of Bengal’s rich artistic heritage through a series of photographs. The images of Raktamrittika Mahavihara reminds one of the lost alleys of Sasanka’s capital Karnasuvarna. The pictures of stupas, monasteries and temples built between the eighth to twelfth century takes the visitors back to the rise of Buddhism in medieval Bengal under the Pala and Sena rule while the Turko-Afghan reign in the thirteenth century or the time of Mughal invasion during the seventeenth century portrays a distinctly different architectural trend of mosques, tombs and mansions. The post colonial era of Bengal saw an emergence of European architecture on both sides of the Hoogly river. The gallery displays several rare pictures of French and Dutch settlements at places like Hoogly, Chandannagar, Rishra at the eastern bank of the river.
Walking through the galleries, delving in stories of Bengal’s opulent past, the visitors reach the gallery where a detailed miniature of the excavation site at Jagjivanpur has been created. The nondescript village near the India-Bangladesh border in Malda bears resemblance with the Vikramshila Mahabihara in Bihar. An extensive amount of antiques like metal images of Buddha, terracotta beads and sealing and exquisite terracotta plaques that was recovered from the spot are displayed in the museum.