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New curator, new dreams for Victoria

From being “primarily a spectacular monument with gardens” to “a happening hangout for young and old, an urban centre for visual and performing art that is also a museum, an art gallery and an archive” — this seems to be the future envisioned for Victoria Memorial Hall by its new secretary-cum-curator, Jayanta Sengupta, who assumed charge on Thursday afternoon.

Sengupta’s appointment comes a year after former curator Chittaranjan Panda’s retirement. In between, Swapan Chakravorty and K.K. Banerjee had filled in.

Still battling jet lag, Jayanta Sengupta told Metro, “I am very, very excited. Of course I have been teaching all my life, so I may find the administrative side a little taxing but my research interests focus on the 19th and 20th Century Indian history, the period of imperialism and nationalism, including the history of Bengal and Calcutta, so here I am at home.”

The landmark structure is in desperate need of restoration, alteration and upgrade and Sengupta says he has some ideas that he hopes to try out. “Being associated with an iconic institution has always been my dream and that it should be in my hometown and should be Victoria is overwhelming!”

Sengupta worked for six years as professor of history at The University of Notre Dame in the US and served as visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Heidelberg University and Utah State University. A Presidencian, he did his Phd at Cambridge University and taught at Jadavpur University for two decades before moving out. So, coming to Calcutta “is quite a homecoming”.

Recalling his own childhood outings at Victoria, he said that to most people, as it was to him, Victoria was still a place to “wander around”. His first serious encounter with the collection inside came only when he was doing his research at JU. So who’s to blame if visitors just “wander around” Victoria instead of visiting the museum? Sengupta says it is not so much the fault of those in charge as the fact that visiting museums are not part of our culture. “Museums abroad like the Louvre and Museum of Modern Art made the effort to get integrated into the public life. But museums here like the Indian Museum and Victoria have not succeeded in doing that,” he added. The crowd around Nandan and Rabindra Sadan is the kind of “buzz” Sengupta wants to bring to Victoria.

“Nostalgia for the British empire is non-existent all over the world. Victoria cannot survive being an empire museum or just an old monument with a fairy. So, a reinvention is needed. It should grow into a composite cultural arena where apart from the museum there can be space for experimental performing arts, contemporary art exhibitions, theatre, a coffee shop, a souvenir corner… everything to woo the crowd indoors,” said Sengupta.

Restoration work on the monument and the collection must, of course, continue. All offices, except the restoration and conservation units, will start shifting to the new annexe, built over the last year, next week. With the offices out of the way, the galleries can be expanded and upgraded with state-of-the-art technology. “There will be a few recruitments in the coming weeks and there are plans to improve the security system as well,” he said.

What Sengupta wants is a change in popular perception. “It is too early to state plans but I have met my colleagues and am sure we will be able to take major steps in this direction soon,” he promises.