An exhibition entitled Archaeological Survey of India Outside India (till Oct 28) has opened in Currency Building, which was once almost demolished, and has now been partially restored by the ASI. The gallery where the exhibition is being held is preceded by a giant gap in the mammoth structure open to the sky. Above it was the atrium that had earlier been dismantled. The gallery used to be the strong room of Currency Building.
This, however, is not an exhibition of photographs as the notice at the grand entrance claims, but of photographs — some of archival quality — and text printed on “flex”. The printing is not of a high quality and the text is flawed, but these do not take away from the fact that this exhibition has material that could hold the interest of laypersons. The ASI, which celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, had evolved from the Asiatic Society founded in 1784, but it was only after Independence that the ASI started reaching out beyond our borders to countries with which India enjoys bonds of friendship.
This travelling exhibition was organized by the Indian Tourism Development Corporation and the text accompanying the photographs is packed with information. The ASI began its foreign ventures in 1960 with Egypt, and in 1969, it started the restoration of the Bamiyan Buddha. The project took seven years to complete, when the ASI improved the drainage system, restored the stairs, and took measures to prevent further disintegration of the 55-metre-tall and 38-metre-wide figure of the Buddha dating back to the third and fourth centuries. There are several close-ups of both the colossal figure and the smaller one, and details of the paintings on the walls. For sure there are several “before” and “after” shots, which are invaluable as all that is left of the Buddha is a giant hollow in the rock face.
The exhibition is quite a revelation for laypersons. Who would have known that the ASI had gone to work in such far-flung countries as Angola in Africa, Bahrain, Bhutan Cambodia, Egypt, Laos, Mauritius, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka? The list is long and adds prestige to the ASI’s activities. In Angola it restored the central armed forces museum at Luanda built by the Portuguese after defeating Dutch colonizers. In Bahrain — with which India had trade relations since Harappan times — the ASI excavated several burial mounds, and the same holds for Egypt — that was way back in 1960.
From 1980 to 1993, the ASI tried to set things right at the crumbling Angkor Wat temple complex in Cambodia. Many of the structures are held together by the roots of ficus trees. Although the text makes no mention of it for obvious reasons, this project was mired in controversy as the French had challenged the technology used by the ASI. While it is true that only an expert can afford to pass judgment on such matters, it cannot be denied that much of the stucco work executed by the ASI in the name of conservation is not up to scratch.
And that deficiency becomes evident when one inspects the laurel wreaths and other decorative motifs in stucco reproduced of late inside Currency Building itself, not to speak of the innumerable temples under the ASI’s protection. In many cases, the latter look more scarred than revived. Our masons, who were once so prodigiously skilled, have lost their touch. And there is no effort on the part of the various agencies concerned to hone their skills.
The text trumpeting the ASI’s various achievements is pitted with typos, some fraught with unintended comic effect. The section on Bhutan speaks of the damage done by “earth quacks.” The language is couched in officialese. One rather quaint example a few lines later: “insecticide was applied to arrest insect activity”. Surely, the ASI could do better than that. It did when the marvellous Chinese exhibition was held in the National Library not too long ago.
But that is the problem with the whole show. In spite of the wealth of material, everything about the exhibition — from the display, the format to the font of the text — looks like it has won an award in ‘the dullest of the late 1960s’ designs’ category. Government organizations cannot afford to take things for granted any longer. They must shed their fuddy-duddy image.