Thursday, October 13, 2011

The past is a mirage

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?


Vandana Vasudevan said...


My cousin Ravi Chari who's an ex-banker from Dubai and now lives in Mumbai, wrote to me about chennai museum last month. I remembered this as soon as I read your post. Here's his account:

"We also took time off to see the Chennai Museum. The whole Museum could do with some face-lift! While the exhibits are great, the upkeep is atrocious!

For your info, all the floors (there are 6 buildings and two are closed for renovation) haven't been swept and swabbed for ages and the dirt and grime could easily put off any visitor before he makes an entry into the respective halls. The staff of the museum in uniform have hung their normal dresses on hooks that are right next to the entrance to the halls that add to the yuckiness of the atmosphere. The wonderful exhibits are mostly well lighted but so many of them have fused spot lights that need to be replaced; the angles of some of them have moved several degrees so that the light focuses on the visitor's eyes instead of the exhibit itself! We also found several cobwebs in some of the wonderful brass and bronze exhibits. When one moves from one building to another one sees several unwanted wooden frames, old furniture like chairs, air conditioners lying piled up on the way! Before entering the first floor of one of the buildings the security guard in uniform was stinking of alcohol and our immediate reaction was to quickly see the exhibits and leave as early as possible!"

You might also want to see this article of mine in Mint about dirty railway stations.


Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Vandana: This is such a coincidence. Earlier today, I so enjoyed your “(Regd.)is not always” piece in Mint that I retweeted it. And then I find the comment from you. Good read too – the one on railway stations.
It’s a pity, the way many museums in India are, especially the government-run ones. What’s fab though is that many new, great, well-run museums are now springing up all over India. And some of them are government-run. And many of them are being set up by Eka Cultural Resources and Research, India’s pioneering museum services company. (Full disclosure: I consult with them). Equally encouraging is that many young people now look at museums as a career. So the change has started.
Looking forward to catching more of your writing in Mint and elsewhere