Having helped preserve treasured pieces of art during her career with the National Museum in New Delhi for over 30 years, this octogenarian continues to do her bit for arts and artists.
Krishna Lal is a living embodiment of the saying ‘age is just a number’. Her voice is gentle but energetic as we chat on the phone about her passion for arts and crafts. After retiring as Keeper (Curator) from New Delhi’s National Museum in 1994, Krishna has been working tirelessly to popularise various arts and handicrafts for more than two decades.
The 81-year-old launched her Krishnayan, a store in October 2015 to find a market for the finest of arts and handicrafts from across the country. She helps dozens of artisans earn their livelihood by providing a platform for their handcrafted and handpainted home decor items and apparel.
Krishnayan is a vibrant little store located in Kasturba Gandhi Marg and is packed with everything, from cushions to coasters and sarees to stoles. Krishna tells me with a trace of pride, “Each piece you see in my store is unique and you will not see it anywhere else.” Traditional crafts like Kantha from West Bengal, applique and Madhubani from Bihar, Rajasthan’s Barmer embroidery, Zardozi work from Delhi, Gond from Orissa, Worli from Pune, traditional combs from Nagina in Uttar Pradesh and lots of beautiful brassware adorn her store. Décor items crafted out of chintz (vintage-style Indian textile that was primarily exported to Europe), the Japanese dye style of shibori and fabric painted with motifs from Baburnama line Krishnayan's shelves.
To my query on how she stays so active at her age, she says, frankly,
Believe me, I have so many health issues. If I had nothing to do, I would be bedridden by now. Every morning, I pop some pills and go about my daily routine because I have so much to do.
She is currently busy taking care of cataloguing at Malliah Theatre Craft Museum, while also running her store.
Krishna joined National Museum in 1960 and retired in 1994 after a long and fruitful career. She explains,
The most beautiful objects from around the world was all around me on a daily basis. So, I developed a fierce desire to protect these art forms and the artists who create them.
After retiring she got together a few master craftsmen and asked to create material to be sold through a stall during the Centenary celebrations of Archaeological Survey of India. She was able to sell products worth Rs 1.5 lakh in two days.
Since then Krishna has been working with these artists. Her products are cheaper for buyers and more profitable for the craftsmen since she avoids middlemen.
Krishna initially invested all her finances in taking artisans under her wing, fine-tuning their work and promoting them. She had weavers and painters working from the terrace of her house, where she taught them the right techniques, and inspired them to reproduce works of different eras, and make their art appealing to today’s generation. “I had Worli painters working on my terrace; I got the wooden chowki painters to start painting on fine fabrics and taught them techniques to fasten vegetable dyes,” she recalls.
When Krishna was in her thirties, she got an opportunity to study Museography at the prestigious École du Louvre in Paris through a scholarship from the French government. She was very hesitant to take it up since she would have had to be away from her husband and six-year-old twin daughters for two years. However, her husband encouraged her to take up the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She says,
This was way back in 1971. I didn’t know to operate a lift or eat using a fork and knife.
But she took that flight to Paris, the melting pot that attracts artists and poets from around the world, and further honed her craft in the beautiful city.
An alumna of Miranda House, Krishna started toying with the idea of a store after her husband passed away in 2014. Her son-in-law encouraged her and her daughters also help out by showcasing her collection in exhibitions within India as well as abroad.
Post retirement, Krishna has also served as an advisor to the Cultural Archives of the Indira Gandhi National Centre of Arts. There, she created the bestselling exhibitions on women’s wear and home linen inspired by Padashahanama (memoirs of Shahjahan) and the chintz era. She also collaborated with historian and arts doyen Kapila Vatsyayan, cataloguing National Museum artefacts and also verifying Crafts Museum artefacts. She has also written a book on the peacock motif in Indian art and crafts.
Krishna has been honoured with 'Prashasti Patra' from Indra Gandhi National Centre of Arts for her Contribution in Arts, and 'Vyaktitav Vishesh Samman' award from Sanskar Society.