Monday, June 14, 2010

Musings on Museums in India

When I was a child , my parents always made us visit museums – small and big museums. Whereever we went, visit to the local museums and site museums was must. They took special care to make us read what was written on the boards there and try to understand it better by reading more books on that. Honestly speaking, at that time I hardly understood what I was seeing let alone its importance . In school , I read about the efforts of early 20th Century archeologists to dig up the ancient sites about India . Again, at that time it was difficult for me to understand how important these excavations were. Then one fine day while sorting out old dust laden and moth eaten books in my grandfather’s room at his Lucknow house I came across his school text books of history. I realized that there was something weird . I mean the chapters about Harrappan (Indus Valley ) civilizations were not there. Neither was any mention of King Harsha or Budhha’s life in India . A lot of history was different from what we read as history. My granddad explained to me about how in his school days knowledge about the Indian civilization was limited. Much less had any documentary evidence beyond folk tales and some unauthenticated articles about its ancientness. It took a bunch of zealous Indologists to dig up India’s past and tell Indians about their history. Much later, during my probationary days I visited most of the well known museums across our country. I also read extensively about famous world museums like the Louvre while auditing some of the oldest museums in Kolkata . I was heartbroken to see how less we value the treasures stored in these museums .

Yesterday , with my 12 year old nephew I visited two museums. First was the Nehru memorial, Teen murti bhawan museum and the second was Shankar’s international Doll’s Museum. Both places need immediate repair, renovation and upgradation. Since then I am thinking about the condition of museums I have seen. The earliest necessity to house objects of antiquarian remains dates back to late 1796 AD when the Asiatic Society of Bengal felt the need to house the enormous collection of archaeological, ethnological, geological, zoological pursuits. However, the first museum by them was started in 1814. The nucleus of this Asiatic Society Museum later provided to the Indian Museum, Calcutta. I had one of my first assignment to audit security and preservation of artefacts in these three of the most important Indian museums at Kolkata. This is what we found . It was a sad picture of how ignorant and uncaring we could be towards our heritage. And its not about only museums of historical importance - generally (mis) managed by ASI. The same holds true for science museums, Art museums, even about museums related to Railways, dolls and other such articles. These days people hardly visit museums. These days government hardly takes care of museums. Very few scholars are passionate about the preservation of our national heritage and people generally managing these institutions are sadly, apathetic and disinterested. How else you can explain the pathetic condition of Red fort ….all water bodies dry, all buildings bearing a sad look and ugly ropes barring visitors to go near. People are still visiting these places…but I wonder what will they learn. Few years back in Qutub Complex in Delhi, while visiting with an international group, we found a ASI approved guide telling all kinds of fictional stories about the place. He even mentioned authority of his stories as a Rupee 10 worth book printed in Delhi. Not only this, in Fatehpur Sikri at Agra, we had a guide telling us about the most important event related to the place- shooting of movie Pardes, for which Shahrukh khan came to the place. I am sure emperor Akbar turned in his grave every time this was mentioned. Its not only history about which we are insensitive . We have a similar disinterest for art and science too. Tagore’s Shantiniketan( now Vishwa Bharti University) has statues and murals made by world famous artists lying in open subjected to elements of nature …some in state of crumbling. Similar is the fate of Tagore’s original paintings lying in the stores of the Kala Bhawan for years. National Library at Kolkata also gave the horrifying picture of neglect- people working there do not love the books they collect. Much like the curators of the museums. I wonder what is the condition of state museums at Allahabad, Mathura and Sarnath….which I visited as a child. I know things are pretty shabby at Lucknow, Agra and in Shimla. Many of the old sites and site museums are in the hands of trusts who do not care to look after them.

Its not that there are no efforts to improve the condition of these museums- for example the Lucknow Residency Museum is pretty good so are some of the museums in Rajasthan . I also met a very impressive curator at Coochbehar sometime back- who was very passionate about restoration and preservation of Coochbehar Palace museum. But such efforts would not do much till we find common people interested in history and curious about the things stored in these museum. I found that most young parents feel that books and CD ROMs can give the knowledge required for their kids and they do not need to see the places and things . They rarely take kids to museums- even schools these days organize visits to fun parks and picnic spots rather than museums . No wonder kids neither find the dusty manuscripts and statues appealing nor understand their value . Surprising in Delhi where we have perhaps the biggest numebr of museums , we also have the most apparent dislike to visit the museums. People do not visit NGMA, National Museum or Museum of Natural History unless they have any specific reason to do so. Very few know about the memorial museums and their condition- while some of the prime properties of Central Delhi have been taken to house these . Most Delhites would rather go to a mall than to the beautiful National Crafts museum . Very few would know about the National philatelic museum or Rail Museum .

The more I see the world ,the more ashamed I feel about our apathy for our museums and our heritage stored in these museums. In Shanghai while visiting the Shanghai city gallery at pearl tower I wondered why we do not have such gallery for any of our old cities. The only similar gallery I can think of is Calcutta Gallery at Victoria Memorial hall…which is on a much smaller scale and well, needs serious up gradation . I keep on hearing about upgradation of museums like Shankar’s Doll Museum or Rail Museum too. But the efforts do not seem very apparent. Our apathy for showcasing our heritage was also visible at Shanghai Expo where the Indian pavilion has old cutouts and pictures only to showcase our culture. We do not bother to make multimedia films like China. People tell me that almost all old cities in India have material comparable to full countries of western world…but they go far far ahead from us in showcasing and preserving their heritage. London and Paris for example, remained world class cosmopolitan cities but always gave due importance to their heritage. I wonder why we , Indians , can not be like that ?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Big Fat Indian Wedding and me!!

There is something about the big fat Indian wedding that is intimidating . Or may be there is something wrong with me? I mean everybody seems to be in love with those…all except me. Our Bollywood has a separate genre of movies dealing with marriages( most of them block busters). Most TV soap operas these days deal with the ritualistic marriages and well, audiences adore these.Not only these , even lifestyle shows talk incessantly about wedding jewellery, dresses, trends and venues . Even on a family level you find everybody so excited talking about someone’s wedding- even for persons they hardly know. As a group we Indians love the pomp and show at our weddings. We love arranging them, talking about them and seem to enjoy everything associated with it. Here I again take a turn and confess being a very un-Indian person . I hate ritualistic marriages and avoid attending them like plague . I ensured that I missed all my cousins weddings and do not even care to attend most parties I am invited to for my colleagues weddings. I remember even as a child I always found the wedding processions and the functions very fussy and if I may say, repulsive. Coming from a family where non-ritualistic marriage (usually civil marriage) was the norm, this attitude may have something to do with my upbringing. But the disturbing part is that my annoyance and dislike for these functions is very visible on my face . Despite my best efforts I cannot even appear to look interested in looking at somebody’s wedding album or admiring the pretty bride. My family members and friends fail to understand my feelings on the subject . Like when I told the female colleagues this morning that I absolutely hate wearing jewellery , they were aghast . For them this is THE topic for discussion given I am going to attend my Brother in law’s wedding . They also fail to see my point when I tell them that I am bit worried about wearing the fancy silk sarees in this weather . For them, weather takes two hoots when it comes to attend a wedding….even backless/ sleeveless dresses go for a wedding in freezing cold months and why not a kanjivaram silk for June wedding at hot and humid Kolkata .

My point is very simple, if the wedding is all about fun and happiness why can’t we cut out all the fuss. My guess is that most people enjoy the fuss much more than the wedding. On some rare occasions when I am forced to attend a wedding party, my hubby expects me to fill him with all details – and here I am -totally blank . I do not remember who all were there , what they were wearing, what was the menu and who looked good or bad! My only concern on such occasions is to somehow be in corner or in a group where people are generally busy amongst themselves , show my face to the host and find the quickest way to exit. My friends tell me I am worse than unsocial- I am almost ‘anti-social’…hubby adds that I have social conditioning problems but I think I just do not like the big fat Indian weddings . The whole tamasha looks so unnecessary to me. You go through rituals without understanding their meaning, you try to please those who actually do not matter, you dress up in most fancy and expensive dresses which would be hardly wearable hereafter . Why can’t people be themselves while getting married? Why one has to eat unhealthy, dress up uncomfortably and meet hordes of uninteresting people ?
I am painfully aware that I am in miniscule minority with this kind of opinion. Most youngsters getting married blame it on their parents’ wishes but still go for all the usual pomp and show . Funny part is that in cross cultural wedding instead of simplifying , people nowadays go for two sets of wedding ceremonies which compete with each other in grandeur .
In the last wedding I had to attend I made a mental list of various kinds of people associated with Indian Wedding Inc . First is of course the bride and the groom, who for day surrender themselves to the will of others and just do whatever they are asked to do. Very few of them seem to enjoy the wedding ceremony…most are too tired with a plastic smile pasted on their faces that they realize the happenings of the day only afterwards through marriage video. Then there are relatives who for one day become important and can boost their place in the happenings . As in India we follow a very complex hierarchy of relatives, there is always a lot of talk about who gifted what? Who did what ? Who was such a pain….and who was so generous with help. I find all these talks very very sick. Third and usually a sizable group is of friends colleagues and acquaintances of the bride and groom. These people usually come only to hang out in the group and eat. I am most surprised by this group. They are always excited to receive invitations. Girls start discussing about dresses and boys about girls . They feel that it is their solemn duty to attend the wedding and enjoy it. And well they do enjoy it. A sub section of this group is of foodies who are interested only in the feast part of the wedding. They discuss and savour each and every dish and then compare notes with one another. The interesting part is that the two people getting married and in whose name everybody is eating the feast are suppose to fasting on the day (in most parts of India ) .
Apart from these, in each wedding you’ll also find some indispensable advisors. Some old aunt or some seen-it-all uncle who would be supervising the preparations as per ‘norms’ . It is good fun watching these advisors who enjoy every bit of their sudden importance and attention as consultants on of what should be done and how and in what sequence. There are groups of women comparing each other’s jewelery and sarees and men discussing who spent how much in their sons/daughters weddings .
Are you wondering why am I writing all these when attending marriage is an important is considered the most important aspect of Indian social calendar ? Well, it is June and the mercury is touching 45 , I am all set to attend my BIL’s wedding at Kolkata and am damn scared about it. I am scared not about not liking it ( which is almost certain), I am more worried about showing my dislike on my face. Wish I had known how to keep appearances on such occasions . Wish I could play “hamari bahurani” role with perfection on days like this.

PS: (14.06.10) Well, it finally is passed..the wedding I mean. The bride and the groom looked tired but happy and I am relived that I passed the ordeal. (The third picture is from this wedding.)