It wouldn’t be surprising if the past counted for little in India. This is, after all, a country with over a billion people and all the challenges that come with that.
The reality though is that we obsess about our past. We lose no opportunity to tom-tom the glories of India’s culture and civilisation. It is, of course, another matter that this pride in our heritage seems to be wheeled out only on special occasions and is not really a part of our DNA. Why else would we be so indifferent towards visible symbols of our past — museums for instance?
Several weeks ago, I was at the Pondicherry Museum — the Puducherry Museum actually. The government-run museum was then in the throes of a renovation, which mostly seemed to revolve around giving the building a fresh lick of paint.
What stopped me in my tracks though was the extreme casualness with which the whole process appeared to be carried out. To begin with, visitors were being allowed in, to dodge falling paint and bamboo scaffolding and see what they could of the exhibits.
The exhibits themselves were left to the mercies of the painters — very little effort appeared to have been put into protecting them from the paint and dust. There was, for instance, not a dustsheet in sight to protect the exhibits. Instead, just a few sheets of newspaper spread desultorily across some of the objects; many though were splattered with paint. And dust-covered furniture — I’m not sure if they were antiques or replicas — was stacked in the corners of some of the rooms on the first floor of the museum.
In other rooms, wiry workmen pushed around glass-fronted display cabinets that held shards of ancient pottery and antique weapons. Elsewhere, burial urns of clay nestled on beds made of old car tyres, propped cosily against walls. The glass on some display cabinets was long gone and a visitor could have easily walked away with a souvenir that was centuries, if not millennia, old.
I know it’s not easy to find the resources and expertise required to run a museum well, let alone renovate one properly. But surely, it can’t be too hard to find some expertise in a town like Pondicherry, which has a very active chapter of The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). And failing all else, is it so hard to bring some commonsense to how we manage museums and view the past?