TALES FROM THE CRYPT

Hindustan Times (Gurugram) - - Ht Think! - Kru­tika Behrawala kru­tika.behrawala@htlive.com

They’re sym­bols of trust, to­kens of love and puz­zles that can take half a day to solve. One is shaped like a map of un­di­vided In­dia (be­low),

oth­ers re­sem­ble fish, mon­keys, pis­tols. About 3,500 locks fill up the loft of the Pa­tel fam­ily’s sin­gle-storey home in Hamir­pura, in Gu­jarat.

Tra­di­tion­ally farm­ers, they’ve been col­lect­ing metal and wooden locks for four gen­er­a­tions, and over a cen­tury. The locks are a mix of orig­i­nals and repli­cas. The heav­i­est weighs 41.5 kg and re­quires eight keys to open. The tini­est weighs 4 gm, and is 1 inch high. There are pin locks, com­bi­na­tion locks, trick locks, even one made of solid sil­ver, meant for a bride’s dowry box. There’s a lock that has a con­cealed key­hole only re­vealed when you press the right rivet.

“When my grand­fa­ther [Gopal Pa­tel] started his col­lec­tion, peo­ple didn’t lock their doors in the vil­lage,” says Dashrath Pa­tel, 50, third-gen­er­a­tion cus­to­dian of the col­lec­tion. “It was when thieves en­tered his home and stole a pot of ghee that he went in search of one. It turned into a hobby and he started col­lect­ing them.”

KHAMBHAT CON­NECT

To buy his first lock, Gopal Pa­tel trav­elled about 55km, from Kheda to Khambhat (for­merly Cam­bay), a port town known for its sturdy locks. “Khambhat was an im­por­tant trade port, so locks were made here to seal the chests that would be shipped overseas. Even to­day, it’s easy to find th­ese old locks by the hun­dreds in the town,” says V Raghu­nathan, 63, a Ben­galu­rubased for­mer banker, aca­demic and au­thor who has been col­lect­ing locks for three decades, since he started his ca­reer as a fi­nance pro­fes­sor, at the In­dian In­sti­tute of Man­age­ment – Ahmed­abad in 1982.

His col­lec­tion com­prises about 750 unique locks — one shaped like a girl with her hands joined in a na­maste; an­other a Mughal-era com­bi­na­tion lock with Ara­bic text in­scribed in its ro­tat­ing dial. The right se­quence of text is a verse from the Qu­ran. Th­ese were sourced from Ra­jasthan.

“In pre-In­de­pen­dence In­dia, parts of Ra­jasthan and Gu­jarat were in­di­vid­ual prin­ci­pal­i­ties with trad­ing com­mu­ni­ties and a lot of wealth. So lock-mak­ing be­came an im­por­tant part of the cul­ture,” Raghu­nathan says. His col­lec­tion also fea­tures pieces from the other lock-man­u­fac­tur­ing hubs in In­dia such as Jammu & Kash­mir, Ker­ala and Ut­tar Pradesh.

FORM & FUNC­TION

In 19th cen­tury In­dia, the type of lock you used told a story. A tem­ple lock of­ten had mo­tifs re­lat­ing to the de­ity. A pad­lock that took five keys to open could in­di­cate a joint fam­ily of busi­ness­men who didn’t trust one an­other.

“In­dian locks were known for their func­tion­al­ity and in­ge­nu­ity,” Raghu­nathan says. “There are locks where you can see the key­hole and have the key in your hand, yet the method of in­sert­ing the key is so com­plex, such a spa­tial puz­zle, that it can take half a day to open it.”

The most valu­able col­lec­tion of trick locks in In­dia be­longs to Dr Hiren Shah, 60, an Ahmed­abad-based pae­di­a­tri­cian. “They’re me­chan­i­cal puz­zles that I find ex­cit­ing to solve,” he says. His col­lec­tion, pieced to­gether over 25 years, fea­tures over 2,000 orig­i­nal pieces with about 500 dif­fer­ent trick or puz­zle locks.

Over the years, he has been in­vited to con­fer­ences and lock col­lec­tors’ meets in Ger­many, China, France and Aus­tralia to talk about his col­lec­tion.

“An­cient locks haven’t been given their due in In­dia. You won’t find ex­ten­sive col­lec­tions in mu­se­ums, or books on them,” says Raghu­nathan, who is plan­ning a book him­self. Shah has set up a house mu­seum dis­play­ing his pre­cious col­lec­tion.

Last year, the Pa­tels show­cased their col­lec­tion at an ex­hi­bi­tion in Vado­dara. This May, they were in­vited to show­case se­lected pieces an ex­hi­bi­tion or­gan­ised by the mu­nic­i­pal cor­po­ra­tion of Su­rat. “We were told that in Su­rat, about 2 lakh vis­i­tors saw the locks,” says Pa­tel. “I be­lieve it’s im­por­tant for peo­ple to know about th­ese old locks. A lock, af­ter all, is a sym­bol of trust.”

NANDAN DAVE / HT

■ Dharma Pa­tel and his son Dashrath with the fam­ily’s lock col­lec­tion. The heav­i­est weighs 41.5 kg and re­quires eight keys to open.

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