Going to a museum is an overwhelming experience, to see all that has existed before us and yet is part of one’s existence. However, in the warp and weft of time, even the odds and ends of everyday life become precious, imbued with a sense of history. In the year 2001, the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade installed a permanent exhibition on the Folk Culture of the Serbs in the 19th and 20th centuries, a small part of which has finally travelled to the National Museum in New Delhi and will be on display till the 30th of August, 2017. The exhibition in India, titled Textiles and Decorations in the Culture of the Serbs in the 19th and the First Half of the 20th Centuries, is a fraction of the original collection illustrating the ethnographic cultural heritage of Serbia and the Balkans. Constituted of two parts, garments and adornments of different bridal attires in Serbian culture, and the exquisite textiles and craftsmanship of the Serbian people, the exhibition in India presents an interesting glimpse of the sociocultural geography of 19th and early 20th century Serbian life.
In the first section which focuses on the decorative elements in the Serbian bridal trousseau during the aforementioned timeline, visitors to the museum can observe a mélange of multicultural influences in the objects used to represent the customs of the Pannonian, Dinaric, Central Balkan and Adriatic areas. The items on display in this section are emblematic of the sumptuous confluence of traditional cultures, Byzantine, Roman, Ottoman and Christian, as well as contemporaneous influences from around the world. Case in point, there was a richly embroidered blue sash that was decorated in a floral pattern, reminiscent of Victorian England, which a bride tied around her waist. In documenting the ethnographic heritage of Serbian culture, the museum in Belgrade has worked painstakingly to show how even material elements come to acquire layered meanings, taking on symbolic forms. For instance, ornamental peacock feathers stick out of the elaborate headdress of the Dinaric bride, the eyelike design on the feather believed to ward off evil from the newly-wed. This headdress was also embellished with a series of silver coins, sewn directly on to the garment, perhaps to usher in prosperity in her married life. Every time I walked up to a glass case and peered in to see the contents, a pendant or an amulet, part of someone’s bridal trousseau, I wondered at the difference in meaning that it held now as a historical artifact and what it must have meant to that person long ago. It was just six months ago that I was dressed as a bride in a red Benarasi sari, adorned with a sholar mukut on my head among many other things, waiting impatiently on an empty stomach for my wedding to take place. Now imagine seeing that sholar mukut in a museum suddenly, disembodied, bereft of those to whom they belonged, preserved in a glass case, and you will have understood how transient the present is, those fleeting moments of happiness in life. A history of the world is an inventory of the debris of time. The study of civilizations is often in the pots and pans of someone’s kitchen, or in this case, the bridal trousseau of a Serbian bride, from a time as distant and as close by as our yesterdays.
The kilims and carpets laid out on display in the second section of the exhibition exuded liveliness and warmth, as if you could still picture the people who must have celebrated their special days or even their ordinary everydays seated on them. The vibrant and strikingly colourful kilims are woven through the warp and weft technique in Pirot, a region in the eastern part of Serbia. Known as Pirotkilims, these rugs and carpets are adorned with a variety of motifs, ranging from the zoomorphic and anthropomorphic to more abstract and figurative designs. One of the predominant motifs on display was that of birds. There was one of turtledoves nesting on a tree that ran down the entire length and breadth of a kilim which specifically attracted my attention. In Serbian culture, turtledoves are believed to bring good luck, but there is more to these birds. Considered to be the emblem of Fides, the Roman goddess of trust and good faith, they travel in pairs and are thus seen as symbolic of devoted love, or fidelity. In that particular kilim on display, there were multiple pairs of turtledoves, each pair in a matching colour against a bright red background. The birds that had been paired together had their faces turned towards each other, as if no one but the two of them existed in the world. That kilim, with the recurring motif of a pair of turtledoves turned inward, was akin to a picture of an apartment building at night, full of the lighted windows of people’s homes, each of them consumed in their private, individual lives. Yet, they are also motifs in the vast tapestry of human existence, a point in the fabric through which the thread moves and time continues.
If you have ever wondered what a time machine could possibly look like, look no further than a museum. It is true that a museum will only take you into the past, but our past was someone’s future, we are someone’s future, and funnily, someday our pots and pans will become someone else’s history. But that’s another story. The exhibition is on display at the National Museum in New Delhi for a week more, travel a little and see for yourself.