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 ?


alice said...

hey do you still have your grand dad's history text book? It would be wonderful if I get a chance to go through it. That must be India's history from Brit's perspective, no?
Title of Pamuk's new book is 'museum of innocence'!!

Gautam Kumar Kutariyar गौतम कुमार कुटरियार said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gautam Kumar Kutariyar गौतम कुमार कुटरियार said...

Respected Madam,
This is how we Indians are. Ignorant about our own glorious past and present strength on one hand and praising anything and everything that is foreign. Would like to mention a link to an excellent post in a blog I visited some time ago.I am sure you and other readers of your blog will like it.
Importance of History
Moreover would like to tell the readers of your blog about the method to find and read the reports on sad state of affairs of Indian Museums. Please type the following in the following and hit the search button in "museums"
Alternatively you can also click on the following link:
Link to Search Pages containing the word museum in CAG website using Google
Thank you,
गौतम कुमार
का. निमलेप, नई दिल्ली

July 16, 2010 10:48 AM

Gallimaufry said...

Wonderful post and a timely reminder of the whole lot of things we need to do if we are to preserve our heritage.
Agree with every single thing you've said.