Saturday, 4 February 2012

A Labour of Love

This post is the first in a series about my recent trip to North East India. I was in Guwahati, the biggest city in the state of Assam, for a conference and managed to get a couple of days off to visit Shillong (the capital of Meghalaya) and nearby Cherapunjee district, on the border with Bangladesh. It is a VERY different India and definitely worthy of more than one post. We begin, out of chronological order, in Shillong.

Shillong is a former hill station that grew up around a small lake, and in colonial times was the capital of a much larger Assam province. It was famous for its half-timbered architecture that survives in parts, but it's seen rapid growth in recent years. And it shows - while the surrounding hills are lovely, the city itself feels like a place that has grown too much, too quickly, with central streets almost as crowded and chaotic as Old Delhi's (while also being mostly on pretty steep hills). While parts of Shillong are green and idyllic, others have a rather frontier town-like feel to them that caught me a bit off guard. It also has the biggest military presence I've yet seen in India - it's home to a huge base and there are a lot of soldiers on the streets (this being the North East of India, home to several insurgencies and separatist groups, security is tight). All of which contributed to a sometimes slightly on-edge atmosphere that I hadn't quite expected.

But it retains a charm that bigger cities in India lack, especially around the original lakeside settlement, and the skyline on a sunny day is colourful (if these days more dominated by concrete than half-timber).

Shillong is also home to a tiny museum of entomology that stands as a testament to one man's passion and his descendants' sense of duty. And let's get this out of the way: the museum has a name that you are not likely to forget very easily.

Now that you've done sniggering, let's get on with the blog. I'd read about this place in the Lonely Planet and was curious enough to seek it out even though it is tucked away on a side street and the map in the guide book was pretty much useless. More by luck than judgement I found it - a large but anonymous residential house with nothing but the above sign to indicate the existence of the museum. To get in you have to ring the doorbell. I felt a bit like a travelling salesman and half expected them to say "not today, thanks" and close the door in my face.

Anyway, they didn't. They showed me down to the basement where there is a large room filled with more butterflies, moths, beetles and assorted other crawly things than you can shake the proverbial stick at. The room itself is impressive, since the museum's founder (the eponymous Mr Wankhar) actually built the house specially so that he could have a hall large enough to store his collection. Mr Wankhar passed away some time ago, but his family maintain the museum in his memory.

It's an odd mixture of the quite extraordinary and rather sad. The vast array of unfortunate creatures is crammed into a few dozen display cases, with almost no accompanying information. Some look almost pristine; others have clearly seen much better days. Some are dazzling in their brilliance...

...while others make up in ick factor what they lack in incandescence.

Most of the cases aren't labelled at all. Those that are tend to give little more than the name of the creature contained within (though in several cases only one name was given for a display that seemed to contain quite different specimens). This one, however, couldn't help but make me think that the original creator of the collection hadn't been able to resist a sly dig at the retreating colonial powers:

I had an enjoyable twenty minutes or so peering at the various beasties, but was left in two minds about the place. On the one hand, it's admirable that the Wankhar family has maintained the facility as a public resource, especially for local people (a glance at the visitor book showed that most people who come are from Shillong). On the other, what was clearly a labour of love for its founder - who amassed a truly remarkable collection - seems now to be more of an obligation for his descendants, kept going in his memory out of duty rather than any passion for the subject. There's clearly been no expansion of the collection for years, and while their success in (mostly) preserving the collection in the humidity of Shillong is admirable, it must get harder and harder to prevent it declining.

But if it were, say, handed over to a professional museum, this would rob the people of Shillong of a unique and rather wonderful institution and a chance to appreciate the rich diversity of the area they live in. So for that reason alone I think the museum should stay as it is - a quirky hidden gem in a city that's a long way from the big-city cultural opportunities of Delhi or Mumbai. It's just rather nice to know that it exists at all.


Sonya said...

Brilliant photos.. even the icky beetley ones. I totally need to do more stuff. You are an inspiration.. xx

Isa said...

Hi! I'm from Shillong and didn't even know there was a museum of Entomology in town. Glad I stumbled upon your blog. Now I'll make it a point to check it out. Cheers!


Chris said...

Hi Isa - do check it out, it's well worth a visit! Let me know what you think...