Mysteries and history

Where did India go wrong with its museums and monuments?

By Jawhar Sircar
  • Published 10.12.15

After the end of the World Heritage Week between November 19 to 25, one looks back at India's track record with a degree of frustration. Educated Indians who have been overseas have seen for themselves how heritage is preserved and marketed abroad with passion, even by nations that have hardly a fraction of what India can boast of. So, where did we go wrong, and why?

To begin with, one has to admit that the Indian cultural gene has never been embedded with a historical chromosome. The history that we read nowadays is, by and large, a post-Independence product where a certain degree of linearity and continuity could be established between the present and the Indus Valley, after the discovery of Harappa by Mortimer Wheeler in 1946. The momentous finds made by the imperial Archaeological Survey of India throughout the 19th and 20th centuries unearthed what we had obliterated and these were factored in, at episodic intervals, to fill up embarrassing gaps in our timeline. We had, for instance, completely forgotten the glorious art of Ajanta, until a British army captain stumbled upon it quite accidentally in 1819, but it actually took another century to figure out its critical significance. The grandeur of Amaravati, that has been in the news recently, and other classic Buddhist edifices at Takshashila, Sanchi and Bodh Gaya were "rediscovered" mainly in the 19th century, but they were restored to their present form only in the middle of the last century. Just about an hour's drive from Calcutta, we have the ancient town of Chandraketu Garh that was mentioned in Greek and Roman records. But how many of us even know of the existence of this fortified settlement that dates back to at least two centuries before Christ?

Let us also not forget that the Indian mind believes in the life of every object, whether animate or inanimate, and considers it to be "impure" after its "death". This means that even the clothes of a dead person are technically impure. Such a civilization was genetically programmed to burn or consign to the waters any living being or item that had outlived its period. No museums existed, because we were uncomfortable with retaining such "polluted" items. But then, we have been exposed to Western education and culture long enough to accept that a nation's pride lies in flaunting its rich antiquity. Why then can't the Indian Museum, which is still called the Jadughar or "the palace of mysteries", be as attractive as the British Museum?

That the Central museums have to seek permissions for every major modification and wait upon an unimaginative bureaucracy is bad enough, but then museums could also not work out their vision and roadmap. Where we failed most was in creating a professional museum cadre as the better students all gravitated to academics. A start has been made recently by sending three batches of bright youngsters for intensive training to world-class foreign museums. Let us hope this succeeds eventually, once many of the present negative museocrats retire and service rules are improved.

As one enters the British museum or even the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, one looks up in wonder at the beautiful transparent atrium dome that covers the whole area and connects the old buildings with the new. The dome adds value, glamour and utility, and such a dome could transform the very character of the Indian Museum. When this was proposed during the bicentenary renovations, it was greeted with shrieks of alarm in Calcutta and shot down. Those who understood international museums kept quiet as the sarkar never sought their support. All attempts to modernize the galleries, display templates, lighting and signage are met with bureaucratic resistance, red tape and internal politicking. This can only be tackled through persistent haranguing in public, through an interested and informed press. Delhi's National Museum was transformed dramatically by a dynamic director, but he was shunted out overnight to the deep disappointment of museum lovers, who had just started revisiting it after decades.

Where India's built heritage is concerned, the ASI has done its bit, but it is unfair to expect this terribly understaffed organization to protect all the 3,650 notified monuments. More than half of these could either be de-notified with no great harm to heritage or handed over to the local community to involve them, instil pride and ensure protection. This would permit the ASI to concentrate on a limited number that would hopefully be better maintained, even within its meagre budget. A few years ago, we had pleaded before the Planning Commission for a raise in public funding, arguing that the Central government spends just 13 paisa per one hundred rupees of its budget on the culture sector, which is indeed very low. We have to start the process of gradually entrusting responsibility to the community, reliable NGOs, willing corporates or select PSUs, as the government has reached its point of exhaustion. But without CSR set-offs or some tax breaks, corporates cannot really be roped in. Having handled culture at the national level, I would plead that neither the state governments nor the Central government should set up any new museum, whatever be the local pressure. The ones that they already have are usually in a dismal condition because of staff problems, archaic attitudes, restrictive rules and shortage of funds. Almost all the major museums in the United States of America and in other parts of the developed world are run by private trusts and corporations and there is no reason why a vibrant India cannot adopt this route. It is also time for the educated and more affluent Indian elite to walk the talk and show the government sector how museums can be run better.

The main villain of this story is, however, the outdated and stifling Antiquities Act that converts every serious collector of art and heritage into a serial offender. Nor has the ASI the capability to knock at every door to find out who has collected what antiquity, or the act prevent the rampant smuggling of historical objects. Numerous committees and experts have pondered every word, phrase and comma of it, and it is now time to act. The good intentions of the government can be better realized though a non-intrusive sharp legislation, that would better ensure that antiquities do not leave our shores without proper procedures. But there is absolutely no reason to stop the free flow of antiquities and art objects within the country, as we seriously need to encourage former royals or zamindars to bring the treasures out of the darkness of their lockers. The present government has taken the initiative to repeal a whole lot of useless or retrograde acts, and we submit that this Antiquities Act should be deleted or radically modified to permit harassed collectors assume their rightful role in upholding the nation's treasures.

The last question I pose is: why is it that we hear of heritage hotels mainly in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad? Simple: Curzon's Ancient Monuments Act did not apply to the princely states. In the rest of India, the ASI cannot, or does not, permit the re-use of its sombre buildings. One way to make heritage more exciting is to open up selected "protected" structures - not the Taj Mahal of course - to tourism with strict safeguards. Though they appear to be at loggerheads, commerce and culture are historically connected, as the generous contribution of traders's guilds to Ajanta and countless other cultural enterprises will reveal. It is time, once again, for them to join hands in rescuing and preserving our patrimony.