Unveiling Shashvat Art Gallery

President, Shashvat Art Gallery, Suresh Abrol explaining details of one of his collections.

 Where forgotten treasures find new life

Sunny Dua
In a world where treasures lie hidden in what some may consider trash, the legacy of the Abrol father and son duo from Panjtirthi, Jammu, has given rise to a remarkable institution known as the Shashvat Art Gallery, Museum, and Manuscript Library. Nestled within a four-story building in Upper Bazar, Dhounthly, this captivating museum has transformed discarded manuscripts, jewellry designs, Ayurveda prescriptions, old coins, and books from the 1930s into an invaluable collection that beckons seekers of beauty, history, and knowledge.
Discover the mesmerizing tale of Shashvat Art Gallery, where relics of the past have found their way into the spotlight. Explore the pages of history through their rare manuscript collection, a place often referred to as a sanctuary of wisdom by scholars and seekers alike. Step into a world where the past is not forgotten but celebrated, where discarded treasures have earned their rightful place in the grand tapestry of human creativity and culture. The place today houses rare miniature paintings, calligraphies, utensils and ornaments that are no more in use.
Amongst the notable collections, the Shashvat art gallery proudly displays Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s life history in the form of paintings, 38 paintings depicting Ramayana till Panchvati scene claimed to be about 130 years old, series of Rag Mala paintings from Basholi School of Paintings, Rasmanjri series of 19th century (Original paintings are with department of archives, J&K), Calligraphies on Vellum, hand-made paper and parchment and Holy Quran of different sizes; one even written on a single sheet and highlighted with golden ink stated to be over 150 years old.
Suresh Abrol, the guardian of this hidden treasure trove of artistic marvels, shares an enchanting family legacy. He recounts, “My grandfather, the skilled artisan Lala Rekhi Ram, crafted exquisite ornaments for Maharaja Hari Singh, and whenever he stumbled upon a remarkable design, he added it to his personal collection. His passion for old-fashioned Dogra jewelry extended to procuring antique ornaments worn by traditional Dogra families, Gujjars, Paharis, and various other tribes. Today, these intricately designed silver ornaments grace the exclusive collection at Shashvat Art Gallery.”
Suresh reminisces about the time when his father, Lala Mast Ram Abrol, carried forward this cherished tradition. Mast Ram Abrol possessed an affinity for collecting manuscripts and had a fateful encounter one day near the banks of the river Tawi. There, he stumbled upon a cache of rare manuscripts, their significance unknown until consulted with a knowledgeable scholar. Many of these manuscripts held valuable insights into the world of Ayurveda. After careful preservation and drying, they found their place among his treasured collection of manuscripts.

A conservator busy restoring a worn-out
manuscript at Shashvat Art Gallery.

Thus, the Abrol family tradition of curating collectibles was born, and it has since thrived, passing down to the third generation. Suresh, alongside his brothers Vinod, Naresh, and Rakesh, diligently continues to expand their gallery’s repertoire with additional artifacts and manuscripts. What initially started as a simple appreciation for literature and the salvage of discarded pages from vital books, manuscripts, and Ayurvedic journals has blossomed into a vast repository of invaluable manuscripts housed within the Shashvat Art Gallery.
In a poetic twist, “Shashvat,” translating to “Never Ending” in English, aptly encapsulates the enduring nature of this remarkable institution. Suresh’s unwavering dedication led to the gallery’s official registration with the Registrar of Societies and the Department of Industry in Jammu, where he currently serves as its acting president. Originally registered in 2001, the gallery sought re-registration following the historic abrogation of Article 370 and the formation of the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, aligning with the guidelines of the Union Government of India.
Within the hallowed halls of the gallery, whispers of history echo as caretakers proudly display relics from a bygone era, including weathered manuscripts dating back to the pre-partition days of 1937. These delicate pages, with stories etched in ink, have become a magnet for inquisitive minds from colleges and universities far and wide. Recognizing the growing importance of this treasure trove, the library sought affiliation with the National Mission for Manuscripts, under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, in New Delhi.
Established in 2003, this mission breathed new life into the Shashvat Art Gallery, granting it the resources to create a Manuscript Conservation Centre at Panjtirthi. Here, amidst the same premises, ancient, tattered, and abandoned books and manuscripts find rejuvenation. With scientific precision and adherence to national manuscript conservation techniques, a dedicated team ensures that each fragile manuscript undergoes meticulous care. They labor tirelessly to restore these timeless treasures to their former glory, safeguarding them for generations yet to come.
Today, the gallery hums with purpose as three devoted individuals, deployed by the National Mission for Manuscripts, immerse themselves in the delicate art of preservation. With each carefully handled manuscript, they honor the rich tapestry of human knowledge and history that unfolds before them. Suresh Abrol, the torchbearer of this legacy, narrates a heartwarming chapter from his family’s history. His grandfather, Lala Rekhi Ram, was not only a master of jewelry craftsmanship but also a benevolent soul who extended his skilled hands to aid refugees during a time of upheaval.
When approximately 500 refugee girls arrived in Jammu from West Pakistan, Maharaja Hari Singh, in an act of remarkable generosity, pledged to sponsor their weddings. To fulfill this noble promise, the King turned to Lala Rekhi Ram. With unwavering dedication, Rekhi Ram crafted bridal ornaments for each girl, including a ring, a tikka, a nath, and a pair of jhumki earrings in Dogri traditional style.
This grand undertaking became the jewel in Rekhi Ram’s crown, earning him not only the King’s gratitude but also a token of appreciation – a shawl, a bracelet (known as Gokhru in Dogri), a ring, and a pair of elegant ear earrings (Nanti). It was a gesture that showcased the enduring power of artistry and compassion, a legacy that lives on within the walls of the Shashvat Art Gallery.
In the heart of a treasure-filled sanctuary, Suresh Abrol and his brothers preside over a realm where time has woven its stories into 7,000 manuscripts, each a tapestry of languages and scripts – from the intricate calligraphy of Sharda to the sacred verses of Gurmukhi, the poetic elegance of Persian, the lyrical cadence of Arabic, the ancient wisdom of Sanskrit, and the rustic beauty of Takri.
Within the grandeur of a four-story edifice, their haven, lies a realm of multifaceted wonder. The building, an opulent labyrinth of knowledge and artistry, hosts a myriad of domains. Here, an elegant dance unfolds between the past and the present. Office chambers hum with scholarly pursuits, reserve rooms conceal coveted treasures, and the museum gallery emanates the essence of history. Manuscripts recline in silent serenity within the library’s hallowed walls, alongside a rare collection of books. The conversation chamber, a laboratory of whispers and echoes, is a space where time itself seems to converse. A solitary guest house stands as a silent observer, welcoming those seeking refuge in the embrace of culture and heritage.
Guided by the skilled conservators appointed by the National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM), Suresh Abrol and his team embark on a journey to preserve the invaluable manuscripts. It is a laborious task, one that demands the hands of time and patience. With meticulous dedication, these conservators embark on a mission to breathe life back into the fragile pages. Their hands, steady and gentle, strive to heal each page, restoring it to its original splendor. In their sacred endeavor, the conservators work with precision, transforming two pages into one folio.
Their tireless efforts yield 500 folios in curative form and a thousand in preventive form each month. This delicate dance with history is meticulously documented, for in every page conserved, a chapter of our shared heritage is preserved. The National Mission for Manuscripts (NMM) extends its benevolent hand, providing not only skilled conservators but also the essential materials, including precious chemicals. A generous grant of Rs 12 Lakh has been bestowed upon this noble cause, and meticulous accounts are maintained to ensure that every rupee serves its purpose.
As the conservators labor, each manuscript that is lovingly resurrected carries with it the whispers of centuries, offering a bridge between the past and the present, a testament to the enduring spirit of human knowledge and artistry. The owners feel proud of their invaluable collection which they claim have been inherited, collected and even procured through barter system. At times, the Abrols wove a delicate dance, trading their treasures for gleaming gold and shimmering silver ornaments, a pas de deux between history and adornment.
Among their prized possessions lies a document of profound significance – the Shajra, a chronological tapestry of prophets from Adam to the present day, inked gracefully in Arabic upon a canvas that stretches an astounding 21 feet, a testament to the lengths this gallery traverses in pursuit of excellence. With a flair for grandeur, the gallery has orchestrated splendid exhibitions that have graced the cultural landscapes of Jammu, Srinagar, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh.
Here, the precious ornaments themselves tell tales of opulence and tradition. Behold the Nau Lada and Sat Lada, treasures that cascade like liquid silver from the graceful necks of women, each piece weighing up to a staggering 2.5 kilograms. The Hasli, a neckpiece of intricate beauty, and the resplendent Seri capture hearts with their allure. Mahel, where rupees are woven into the very fabric of a necklace, shines like a symbol of affluence. The Chamkali glimmers as a regal heirloom, a kindred spirit to the Rani Haar, Dularu, and the golden treasures of Bugdi Haar, Nath, Tikka, Balakru, Jhumka, Bali, and Koku, all Dogri ornaments that grace the gallery’s stage.
In their collection, also lies the exquisite rarity of Jade stone bowls, mugs, plates, kettles, and vessels, each one a testament to the confluence of artistry and nature’s beauty. Within these hallowed halls, a warm embrace awaits research scholars, beckoning them to dive into the depths of history and culture. Nearly 274 doctoral aspirants have sought enlightenment within these walls, finding solace amidst the wealth of knowledge and artistry that abounds. Suresh, the guardian of this cultural treasury, humbly declares that the true value of their collection defies mere monetary estimation, echoing with an intrinsic worth that would fetch millions in the global market. While some pieces have found new homes in exchange for generous prices, countless others remain firmly ensconced within the gallery’s care, their rarity and authenticity making them priceless relics that transcend commerce.
(The writer is senior journalist)