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A walk through history, with music as protagonist

The Chime Project is a Delhi-based platform that combines elements of history, music, art and science

A walk curated by The Chime Project at the National Museum in Delhi.
A walk curated by The Chime Project at the National Museum in Delhi.

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On a rain-soaked Saturday morning in September, art and culture enthusiasts braved the unseasonal weather and traffic to visit the National Museum in Delhi. They had been lured by the promise of a unique curated walk where “music is the protagonist”, as part of the Art Fervour Weekender 2022 festival.

The custodians of this experience, titled Chime-ing With Musical History—Shaleen Wadhwana, arts educator and independent researcher, and Nymphea Noronha, behaviour science researcher—run The Chime Project, a platform that curates experiences centred around music and history, art and science at leading museums and archaeological sites in Delhi.

Most visitors to the National Museum begin their exploration of the space at the Indus Valley civilisation exhibit, the starting point being the world-famous figurine of the Dancing Girl. The Chime Project too starts its walk there but it sheds new light on the sculpture by raising questions around its possible purpose and what it might depict about the status of dance and music in ancient times. From there, the group is led to the Maurya, Shunga and Satavahana art exhibit, where we are encouraged to closely observe a sculpted stone mural that once adorned a Buddhist stupa. The exercise is aimed at determining how many instruments, or means of creating music, this single sculpture holds—a surprisingly high number, we discover.

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The tour moves on through the many rooms that encapsulate India’s vast and varied cultural history. We stop to contemplate, and in turn challenge, the gendered understanding of the famed bronze Nataraj statue captured mid-movement in the cosmic dance that created the world. We examine the revelry on display at the miniature painting gallery and the increasing social acceptance of music as an activity of leisure and pleasure. We dwell on the importance of music in establishing cultural ties across borders through the detailed Buddhist murals discovered in China’s Bezeklik caves. We browse through the numerous instruments that have found favour in India over centuries, donated to the museum by avid collector and sarod player Sharan Rani Backliwal. We also glimpse artefacts which are part of the decorative arts, maritime heritage, textiles, and North-East Gallery collections.

Our group, which consists of students of music and the performing arts, professionals from creative fields and art and culture connoisseurs, eagerly laps up the nuggets shared by the hosts. Their commentary is peppered with images and sound bites that they play on a handy tablet. They raise questions and ensure a lively discussion on each subject, the true objective of The Chime Project.

The walks, each one different in its iteration, are organised every couple of months. In fact, in its endeavour to popularise the nuances of our historical past through storytelling and audio-visual aids, The Chime Project also organises similar experiences in other parts of the Capital, such as one which explores the history and architecture of the Qutub Minar Complex. These are aimed at audiences ranging from students and performing artists across genres to curious members of the public.

“Despite our diverse educational and professional backgrounds, we discovered our shared joy of explaining concepts, telling stories and building connections over a number of conversations. We realised that there are some interesting melodies that can be created at the intersection of music and history, art and science. Shaleen already had a background in historical walks as she had interned with Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) in 2010 and led independent groups across Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, and I was familiar with the concept as an audience member of many historical walks as a student and musician. This blend of experiences helped us build our own concept in 2019,” says Noronha.

The diversity of their lived experiences and distinctive educational backgrounds certainly makes their partnership strong. Wadhwana’s academic roots lie in history, with a focus on art history, liberal arts and cultural heritage law. She is a visiting faculty member at the MIT Institute of Design, Pune, and Somaiya School of Design, Mumbai, where she teaches a course on big history and design futures, and has worked with institutions like the British Museum, London, National Museum, Delhi, and Chemould Prescott Road Gallery, Mumbai. Noronha, who is trained in Western classical music, graduated in physics and has a postgraduate diploma in liberal arts, uses her varied knowledge in her role as a behaviour science researcher.

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Explaining the Chime-ing With Musical History walk, Wadhwana says: “We narrowed in on these exhibits after three years of research based on our individual, decade-long knowledge of music and history. We believe that music allows for entry to an oft-heavy subject like history, and history gives a breadth of layers to music and its evolution, leading to an understanding of society, culture, economy, and more.

“For example, if a sculpture is in a dancer’s pose, we work with the audience to arrive at what the dancer may have been responding to, who might have created that music, what instruments may have been used, who might have commissioned those instruments, what were the social classes like at that time, how the sculpture might have been made and why, and so on.”

Though the core of their content lies in the National Museum exhibits referred to here, “the permutations and combinations change when there are newer, temporary exhibitions at the museum to draw our content from, such as recent ones on Company paintings or the Central Asian gallery. This keeps us on our toes as it lets us create newer experiences. We also customise our content on the basis of special requests, like with school groups, who need more attention to pedagogy. So people attending the same walk get different content every time. We believe there are possibilities of curating infinite walks,” say the founders.

Next on the cards is a tour of the “The Cities Of Dehli”, in mid-November. Though not part of The Chime Project, it will be conducted by Wadhwana, in collaboration with educator and independent researcher Akash Chattopadhyaya. The walk will focus on the many cities of Delhi (or “Dehli”, in its authentic terminology) and their evolution from the 11th century to the present day and beyond—the last walk will look at Delhi in 2040.

The next Chime-ing With Musical History walk ( 1,500 per person, excluding entrance fees) will take place in early December. One can stay updated through their Instagram handles: @thechimeproject and @thecitiesofdehli.

Noor Anand Chawla writes on lifestyle.

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