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The Fort Museum is a repository of treasures that marks the passage of India from a British colony to independent nation

The sun shines bright and fierce. A little away, the Bay is peaked with the numerous chevrons of foam caps. The entrance to Fort St George is a maze of steel barriers — a multitude of people tries to squeeze through the security scanners. Beyond the empty pavilion topped with a cupola, shrouded in an arbour of dusty leaves and past old cannons captured in wars the British fought as they unfurled the Union Jack across Asia, stands the Fort Museum.

Among the oldest buildings inside the Fort — built in 1795 — the Museum once housed the Madras Bank and the British Infantry Officers’ Mess. Pigeons roosting in its eaves wheel out over the moat. Its louvred windows and grand columns overlook a road noisy with traffic. Its high-ceiling halls resonate with the hum of a seashell.

Pages from history

Opened on January 31, 1948, under Lieutenant Colonel DM Reid of the Old Madras Guards, the Museum houses galleries spread across three floors, crowded with memorabilia of the Raj. The nearly-4,000 objects on its roster have been donated by many sources, including disbanded army units.

It is also a treasure trove of offbeat stories. Consider this. 1840. What would you do if you were captured when surveying in China and thrown into a tiny cage with your kneecaps hammered? Captain Philip Anstruther of the Madras Artillery sketched his surroundings. Impressed, his captors allowed him a bigger cage. This is the fascinating story of Anstruther’s Cage. Legend has it that he used to always carry a gold mohur on his person — a gift from someone who was ugly, because Anstruther was uglier! He was eventually released and sailed back to Madras on HMS Blonde, with the infamous cage.

Objects and stories such as this, told by old koi hais, have survived dusty albums and leather-bound reports, to be part of the Museum. In the many fabrics, crockery, mortars and matchlocks that drowse in glass cabinets is the story about the British and India.

Thomas Banks’ marble statue of Cornwallis — its base shows Tipu Sultan’s sons being taken hostage — lords over the stairwell. On either side, wood panelled rooms open out to display small arms, fragments of shells dropped over the city during the Wars; medals awarded for service in the North West Frontier Province and Burma campaigns; uniforms of the Governor’s Bodyguard; regimental colours swathed with the names of places where the Army fought — Cawlighur and Wyndewash — and stained with blood — the price of Empire; plates and bowls that bear delicate butterflies and fruits from the era of the Nawabs of Arcot; a yellowed Bible that belonged to Streynsham Master, Agent of the East India Company; and registers of births and deaths.

A wooden staircase leads to the first floor with its hall of paintings. Focus lights hammered in at intervals along the ceiling cast a halo on the canvases enshrined in grand frames. On benches sit visitors cooling themselves in front of the constant whirr of pedestal fans and gazing at the beauty of the paintings, each one a treasure. Stringer Lawrence, who founded the Indian Army, stands with a Nawab of Arcot; and Raja Ravi Varma’s painting of Governor Arthur Havelock — painted in absentia — is a remarkable three-dimensional work. His piercing eyes seem to follow you. Vignettes of 18th-Century India, captured by Thomas and William Daniell on aquatints, and kings and queens robed in ermine, stand in solitary splendour. But it is a painting of young Queen Victoria, long before she became the dowager empress of India, that holds centre stage. The painting is a reflection of why she continues to dominate the imagination of filmmakers — the queen is the subject of two films, Victoria and Abdul and The Black Prince, this year.