The president, Pranab Mukherjee, has ‘activated’ Rashtrapati Bhavan in the short span of two months. The change from profound lethargy and sultry red- tapeism of the babus to generous energy is palpable. Disinterest in stemming the decay has also given way to careful restoration of the fine and fragile features of the grand building. This process is unfolding with a pace that is a joy to witness. I was privileged to visit the presidential palace some months ago when the ‘distress’ in the great halls and other state rooms made one cringe with disbelief and shame. Shame, because it is incomprehensible why bureaucrats — in charge of and also accountable for the conservation of such establishments and institutions — have no pride in doing their jobs competently. Either they do not know how to bring the inbuilt aesthetic into play by infusing life and ideas into these manifestations of our legacies or they just do not care.
The library in the Rashtrapati Bhavan is being brought back to life after years of neglect. Thoughtless partitions and ghastly grey, steel racks housing inconsequential weekly magazines and substandard books have been removed. The room has been restored to its original form and the repair work is on the verge of completion. The specially crafted bookcases and the original desk designed for the room have been housed where they should be. Windows that brought in the play of dappled light are finally free of the stacks and other stuff that had prevented them from being opened and used. Respect for the library has kicked in and, hopefully, the present team will go from room to room, restoring to this palace of democratic India the design it deserves.
In the same week, I was privileged to visit the Raj Bhavan in Calcutta. Many years ago, a governor had decided that the building needed attention and initiated a restoration plan. It is a spectacular building that had been maintained in a competent manner. It celebrates the grandeur and scale of its architecture and continues to enshrine the traditions that befit a representative of the head of state. All Raj Bhavans need to be brought to the level of the residence of the governor of West Bengal.
It is very disturbing to encounter the careless administration of India’s finest institutions as well as the complete lack of initiative on the part of the government to enforce basic commitment in protecting what belongs to the people of this country. This is a fundamental truth that politicians and babus have merrily forgotten in our benighted, betrayed democracy. One example of this abject neglect is the Indian Museum, which was the first museum in India and the ninth in the world. Till recently, this building, home to some of the best artefacts in Indian sculpture and more, under the jurisdiction of the Central government, had been wallowing in decay.
Fortunately, the present chairman of the board, the governor of the state, is determined to change the course and bring this amazing, iconic building and its treasures back on the pedestal they had lost over time. The museum has its 200th anniversary in February 2014, by which time he hopes to restore one of the oldest repositories of culture in the world to its past glory. We need one such person pushing the agenda for our other great institutions like the National Museum and the Institute of Advanced Studies in Simla that was once the Viceregal Lodge.
There is not a single nation in the world that does not appreciate and honour India’s material heritage that is a legacy of the country’s rich past. Our civilization is an extraordinary one and for us to demean it by ignoring and neglecting its strength is unforgivable.