Unpicking history in an Ahmedabad lock museum

A treasure trove of antique pieces and puzzles are on display in the Indian home-turned-museum

Dr Hiren Shah and Dr Namita Shah, owners of the Lock Museum in Ahmedabad, India. Photo: Dinesh Shukla
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Nestled away in the sprawling, antique-filled home of Dr Hiren Shah and Dr Namita Shah in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Gujarat, is the Lock Museum, a unique display of more than 2,000 locks from more than 50 countries.

Ranked among one of the world’s largest collections of locks, the displays have been collected by the peripatetic doctors from their frequent trips abroad. At the museum’s entrance – accentuated by an antique carved door and windows – visitors are greeted by paintings of Ahmedabad locksmiths, who still use hand-held tools.

A flight of stairs takes visitors down to a capacious basement filled with hundreds of locks and keys. German locks from the early 20th century, those crafted during the time of India’s struggle for freedom, Chinese and American locks, as well as several others sourced from flea markets and used goods outlets, have pride of place. There’s even a separate section with 500 trick locks that require a special skill to operate.

“Fans call our collection 'Doc’s Locks',” says Hiren, a sixty-something paediatrician, with a broad smile. “Travelling is our passion and each year we shut our clinics for six to eight weeks to explore the world, meet people from different cultures and add to our antiques and lock collection.”

What fuels the doctor’s hobby of collecting locks is a perpetual quest for beautiful art and design objects to embellish his home. “This search has taken us to countless flea markets and used goods stores from where we source our objects and add them to our ever-growing collection,” he says.

The doctor’s fascination with locks, he says, stems from the fact that “they’re repositories of so much history”. “There are so many stories buried in these pieces, reminiscent of an era and time gone by. Just by looking at each piece, so many memories are evoked. I also have a collection of padlocks called 'smokehouse locks', named so because butchers used them to keep the meat in their smokehouses secure from theft.”

So which is his favourite lock? “Oh, please don’t ask me this question,” he pleads, laughing. “It’s like asking a parent to pick his favourite child. I can’t answer it.”

Be that as it may, he does mention that he does have a few highlights in the collection, such as a 1,200-year-old Chinese lock that was given to him as a memento. “In 2017, I was the first non-Chinese person to give a keynote address at the Lock Conference in Nanjing. In exchange, I was gifted this lock.”

Another of his favourites is the fish lock, which he unearthed among junk in Chor Bazaar, a famous antique market in Mumbai, where hundreds of vendors sell stolen goods.

“There’s an amazing technique to open this lock,” Hiren says. “First, you have to shake the fish on the lock at the five o'clock position. Only if the position on which it settles down is exact, will a hole open up, into which you then insert the key to unlock it.”

Even more intriguing is the Deceptive Dozen, a mystery lock that requires 12 steps to yield. “It’s been displayed in many prestigious exhibitions across the world because it’s the only one of its kind. I sourced it from an Indian used goods store,” he says with pride.

The doctor next points to the Cylindrical Trophy Lock, which has a fascinating provenance. Explaining that he calls it a “trophy” because he had to earn it, he recalls that a seller at a used goods shop in India didn’t want to sell the piece, but agreed to give it to him if he opened it. Always up for such challenges, the doctor studied the lock’s mechanism carefully for 15 minutes, tried a few permutations and combinations and, voila, the lock finally gave way. True to his word, the merchant gave him the piece as a prize with his other purchases.

Hiren says his trick locks collection is an ode to his childhood love for puzzles. “As a child, solving puzzles was my first love. I was forever looking for something challenging to do and puzzles fit the bill perfectly. My parents further nurtured this hobby, which triggered my craze for these locks and now I just keep adding them to my collection,” he says.

Some puzzle locks are multi-stage, so you have to keep looking and feeling for concealed mechanisms before they can be opened. To fuel his passion for puzzles further, he has become a member of the International Puzzle Party, the only Indian to be invited to join an elite group of 300 puzzlers from 35 countries.

This annual forum for serious puzzle collectors meets every year for the exchange and sale of mechanical puzzles, books and related items, as well as for fun and fellowship. Such is Hiren’s devotion to puzzles that he has dedicated the top floor of his home to dozens of unique contraptions that he has collected over the years.

The Shahs have named their home the Houseum, in honour of each nook and cranny of the three-storey property being used to display artefacts of some description. Even the house’s architectural features, doors, windows, pillars, ceilings and railings, have been salvaged and restored by the couple from old havelis and houses.

“Overall, Houseum has over 10,000 exhibits, from doors and windows to caskets, clocks, curios, furniture and artworks,” Hiren adds.

While Hiren sources the locks, his wife Namita has been assigned the job of maintaining them, despite a hectic schedule managing her busy gynaecological practice. Even so, she cleans and oils the locks diligently to prevent rusting so that they remain functional.

One of Hiren’s proudest moments, he recalls, was when Hanns Schell, owner of the Schell Collection, a unique museum of locks, keys, coffers and ornamental boxes, visited him from Graz, Austria. The veteran was so impressed with Hiren’s collection, he invited him to the European Lock Collectors’ gathering, where the doctor spoke about the history of Indian locks.

During his Austria visit, he fulfilled another lifelong ambition, to view the Schell Collection, one of the biggest specialist museums and, possibly, the largest lock collection in the world.

The doctor says he’s happy that his home has now turned into a museum where visitors can visit by appointment to get a peek into the history of locks while also learning about the importance of preserving arts and crafts. They can take a heritage walk through Houseum to admire collectibles that tell fascinating stories of global art, architecture and intangible cultures.

Updated: October 20, 2023, 6:02 PM