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A NEW LEASE OF LIFE

Next year, in February, the Indian Museum in Calcutta will celebrate its 200th year of existence. An iconic building with some of the finest representations of Indian stone sculptures, this institution lay nearly forgotten. It had got mired in lethargy, stood still in a time warp, and waited to be awoken in a new age. The Indian Museum, which functions under the jurisdiction of the Central government, is being restored to its original grandeur under the direction of the governor of West Bengal, who is its chairperson and guardian. The elaborate fašade has been meticulously repaired and is looking quite spectacular in spite of the ill-placed flyover that virtually bumps into its frontage. This should have never been permitted by the municipality because it violates the law that says that a minimum distance should be maintained when new structures come up near historical ones.

Work is in progress within the museum where some select galleries are being redesigned. The building itself is being restored to its original form, releasing its vaulted ceilings from unnecessary mezzanines and other additions that blemished this architectural gem. It is a truly special building and museum, the best in India. In the large central courtyard, natural light pours into the building, casting shadows to bring in coolness. Broad balconies border the galleries on the ground and upper floors, providing space to rest and absorb the beauty both within the galleries and of the building itself. Using a traditional form of architecture, where rooms are built around an open courtyard, the Indian Museum epitomizes the essence of traditional India as well as contemporary usage of a space.

Rich layers

This project should be the leader, showing the way for all state museums to urgently restore their repositories of the best of Indian classical art. Imagine if every Indian state had a grand museum that showcased its best traditions. It would reignite pride, excite and energize a new generation into wanting to preserve the legacy of this diverse and varied civilization. India was among the first 10 countries in the world to establish a museum, and we must appreciate that headstart and not allow babus to destroy all that helps this nation to stand apart from most others. A big hurray to the Indian Museum and its curators for celebrating their priceless treasures and for giving it a new lease of life.

Calcutta has many remarkable buildings. Sadly, they appear to be in a state of decay. It is a city that embodies a crucial slice of Indian history without which there would have been no Gandhi or his non-violent protest. The seat of early British power, on the banks of the Hooghly, and the living cultural ethos of Bengal blended together in spite of the contradictions and confrontations as India liberated itself from its colonial masters. The strength of India was that it absorbed what it wanted and rejected that which was unpalatable. The layered cultures made for a complex fabric of life and living. A sophisticated and philosophical social order was the result of this great mix of new ideas, expressions and experiences.

Preserving that extraordinary past will give a new India the confidence to stride into a changing world and continue to invite and absorb the best from other cultures and nations. We know how to layer life, embellish it with bright and colourful bits that come our way, add value and move on. To lose this facility, this inherent strength, and become robot-like, would be silly. The economically powerful countries may have money. But India has resilience, which should not be neglected because of the ignorance of the administrators.