Uttara Museum

(Paintings, sculpture, sketches, digital prints, installations and video art)

The hill state of Uttarakhand in India is well known for its rich cultural, artistic and architectural heritage. The tradition of its unique arts and crafts is visible all around the state: from homes to temples, clothing to cultural ceremonies and agriculture to traditional business. It is also evident, on the one hand, in the folk art of Aipan and other decorations and, on the other, in the beautiful wood carvings on windows and doors and the tools associated with agriculture. All these things reflect the artistic skills and aesthetics of the society.


It is remarkable that the hill art has never been a secluded activity, but was an integral part of the livelihood and lifestyle of the tribal and rural communities of the hills just like breathing, eating and ploughing. It is difficult to separate art from work and work from the art because both are inclusive activities. Unfortunately, very few efforts have been made to collect, promote and preserve the rich heritage of the state’s arts and crafts in a comprehensive level.

Diversity has been one of the biggest identities of Uttarakhand art. The temple art of Uttarakhand, the unique architecture of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Jageshwar and Bageshwar temples and the statues of local deities made in rural areas are the finest examples. The old houses, many of them abandoned today, have been the storehouse of stone architecture which indicates that this region was quite developed in residential architecture and design. Tebaries, or three-storey houses, were a distinct feature of this architecture. The intricate geometrical and floral patterns carved on their wooden doors and windows and bright colours give them a unique place in residential architecture. This residential architecture was different in various regions and depicted the diverse geo-aesthetic perception of society.


Today, when a bland and superficial kind of architecture has made inroads in the hilly regions, the old pattern of three-storey houses with miniature inscriptions and motifs can be found only in areas dominated by the tribal people. Also, there cannot be any match for the artistic weaving of woolen and silk clothes which are made along the border areas of Uttarakhand. These clothes are a wonderful gift from the tribal community of Uttarakhand and their unique patterns and designs are rarely found in any other state. The beautiful carvings on brass commodities like hukkas, gagar, tashtari, diyas, kalash, and other household items denote another dimension of the art which flourished in this region.

Since long, Uttarakhand has also been witness to the large-scale migration from the hills to urban centres and mega cities. Artistic talents from this state were no exception to the exodus aimed at looking for better opportunities. A number of those creative personalities achieved name and fame in the cities where they stayed but, unfortunately, Uttarakhand could not be much benefited from their accomplishments.

Uttara Museum of Contemporary Art, Dehradun

Initiated and built by well-known and the National Award- winning artist late Surendra Pal Joshi (23 July 1955-12 June 2018), Uttara Samkaleen Kala Sangrahalaya (Uttara Museum for Contemporary Art) is a significant attempt to bring the modern and contemporary art activities under one roof. First of its kind, it is indeed a dynamic initiative for creating space for contemporary and future art of Uttarkhand. It comprises of a permanent display of the works by Surendra Pal Joshi, who was born and brought up in Dehradun.


Much of Surendra’s works is based on and dedicated to the tragedy of big floods in the Kedarnath valley in 2013. There is also a separate floor for a modern art gallery where art practitioners and craftsmen can showcase their old and new works whenever they wish. With this, they can have the opportunity to carry forward the artistic legacy of Uttarakhand. There are regular shows of the artists from the state that are organised at the museum.

Inside Uttara Museum

Surendra Joshi’s works exhibited in Uttara are multidimensional. They comprise his recent paintings, sculpture, sketches, digital prints, installations and video, providing a complete artistic experience. Viewed by the visitors, these works will appear beautiful and brilliant, but at the same time they will expose the visitors to those realities which have been the take-off points for most of these works.


Moved by the devastating floods of Kedarnath and Gangotri in 2013, Surendra Joshi travelled to the affected regions and recorded his overall experiences in the form of sketches, figures and colours. His journey was not restricted to the flood-affected areas only, but it became a study-oriented visit to Uttarakhand and the life of the people in the Himalayan state. The artworks exhibited in Uttara are the outcome and expressions of this journey. They reflect the turbulent memories of the devastating floods and the struggle of the people with natural disasters and nature itself, which is always a source of both beauty and courage.

Blue Mountain III

Perhaps this is the first time that an eminent artist has depicted the images of post-disaster Himalayas in such a way. Nicholas Roerich, born in the 19th century, was perhaps the first artist to profile the Himalayan ranges on his canvases, but the Himalayan terrain in Surendra’s works is quite different from that of Roerich’s works. In Roerich‘s canvases we see the Himalayas as the symbol of peace, beauty and mystery, as if immersed in some meditation. Surendra avoids a mere realistic depiction of the Himalayas and its tragedy, but transgresses his experience so that only a shadow of reality remains visible.


In modern art, reality separates itself from realistic depiction and gets transformed into some other reality. The sketches done by Surendra Joshi also fit into this definition. They appear effortless, realistic and spontaneous as if done on the spot, but the layers of colours and their arrangements impart them an abstract character and keep them in an independent category. While drawing, particularly while drawing sketches, it is imperative for the artist to know what needs to be drawn and what to be avoided. Surendra has kept this in mind and structured his sketches in such a manner that they could be very well seen as independent paintings.

Paani, Uttara Museum of Contemporary Art 

Surendra Joshi was an innovative artist and did some very interesting experiments in the art of installation in recent years. Using thousands of safety pins, he had created a huge helmet, which was much appreciated in the art world. With the surrounding music and light and a headphone attached to it, the helmet turned out to be a very impressive installation. Another important installation, Paani, again made of safety pins, depicts the wrath of water. He has sculpted the three most popular symbols of the hills—the dhol, the damau, and the ghilda, with the same medium and style, which, in fact, reflect the true spirit of this museum. Both dhol and damau have always been essential parts of hill life and have a sacred place in almost all the rituals of the people of Uttarakhand. Right from the birth ceremony to the wedding, fairs and markets, dhols and damaus, or nagaras, are popular and visible everywhere. The downtrodden communities have been the maestros of dhol-playing.

Dhol and Damau, Uttara Museum of Contemporary Art 

Similarly, the ghilda has been a permanent companion of the hill women. The womenfolk carry it to bring produce from the fields, fodder from the forests and other household commodities. Surendra Joshi has used these well-known tools as symbols of life in the hills. In the same spirit, the replica of a wooden house is also exhibited here. This residential architecture is on the verge of extinction now and its presence in the exhibition is like a memory and a metaphor of the mountains. An installation of a helocopter made of thousands of safety-pins, is one of the most eye-catching works in the mueum. That the helicopters played a crucial role in the relief and evacuation work in the foolds gives the object a unique significance.

Based in the heart of Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, Uttara Contemporary Art Museum is the first-ever institution of its kind which has come into existence in the state. It’s a monument to  Surendra Joshi’s artistic vision and his hard labour as well. Surendra Joshi saw to it that the institution started functioning before his untimely death in 2018.


Mangalesh Dabral

Writer is a Sahitya Akademi Award-winning  poet and journalist  with 15 books of poetry and prose to his credit. He also writes on art, music and culture and lives in Delhi-NCR