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Let’s improve museums, but also create shared spaces to experience culture, explore identity

I started bemoaning the condition of Indian museums very early in life. I may have been eight or nine when I found myself peering through a stained glass at an exquisite Ming vase at Hyderabad’s Salarjung Museum. I remember being horrified and declaring an immediate ambition to become a ‘museumologist’, a term I was offered in an attempt by my bemused parents to add some vocabulary to what was clearly an emotional moment! Of course, my attitude of despair must have its roots in what I sensed around me, chiefly mum’s constant critique of how poorly Indians appreciated their own cultural heritage.

Today, as a mother of two eternally curious children, I am a vehement museum goer. No matter how dowdy or dusty, we go to as many as we can, as often as is possible. Not only to museums where collections are formally housed but also to archaeological sites that I see as museums of a different kind. Sometimes there is some interpretation offered, other times we have to do our own reading and research, but it is always interesting. And yes, with children now better traveled and exposed to international standards of preservation and interpretation, the questions on the quality of Indian museums are sharper.

Interestingly, they come with less angst. I don’t think my kids see life from the lens of Indian nationalism nor do they have that same view of India as an under-resourced nation fighting for its place among the cultures of the world. Instead, they seem to take things for what they are. ‘They could be better, but if it isn’t here, we shall see something else somewhere else!’- that’s what their attitude seems to suggest. Simply put, being Indian does not seem to be the focal point of their identity. Being city-bred, educated, English-speaking, internet-savvy, politically aware- these attributes seem more pronounced, and so they fit in easily with children of friends from other nations and contexts who are from similar backgrounds.

A few of my SPA students have taken up museums an other sites of heritage interpretation as their final design thesis projects. We have had intense discussions; for instance- Whose heritage are we choosing to interpret? Are we commodifying heritage? Is commodification ok if we also benefit communities? And then deeper issues about the self-perception of communities about what is their cultural heritage. All of these discussions highlight the vast differences in how people, across cultures and generations, perceive their identities and how sensitivity to a wide range of identities is crucial to nearly everything we do as interventionists- whether as architects, engineers, social workers, policy makers, lawyers and what have you.

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Refurbishing and adapting iconic architecture to new uses is imperative. Demolishing important markers of history is tantamount to erasing a section of our collective historical identity. Raj Rewal designed the Hall of Nations in 1972

To come back to museums and specially the debate after the pathetic and tragic case of Delhi’s Natural History Museum, clearly much needs to change in how we manage our museums. Whether the fix is in devolving management or in bringing them all under a single umbrella, the fact is that museums and all sites of heritage interpretation must be given the utmost importance in our public culture. I’d vote for bringing a larger number of sites into public use for a variety of uses, of course with attention to safety and long-term preservation. The Purana Qila hosts a dance festival in Delhi, as do the Khajuraho and Konark Temples. The Lodi Gardens is a fantastic urban space where families picnic, couples embrace, theatre groups rehearse and fitness enthusiasts work out and the Nehru Park is known for music performances and food festivals, where kids in keds holding badminton rackets will sometimes tumble into a Bhakti music concert! Many other spaces that are now being considered obsolete, like Rewal’s Hall of Nations in Delhi, can be refurbished and used practically even as they serve as markers of our modern history. Instead, they are being demolished and petitions to save them seem to be currently unheeded.

 

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On the 1st day of May this year, this past weekend, The Max Foundation hosted its fundraising and awareness event ‘Chai for Cancer’ at Lodi Gardens, leveraging the sheer beauty and evocative power of the heritage site for a great cause! Viji Venkatesh, Country Head, The Max Foundation claims patients feel positive vibes here.

There are similar sites across the country that offer a chance at cultural education through osmosis, that offer the freedom of expression and exploration, that are in themselves spaces of interpretation. These must be better integrated with the city fabric through transport, branding and the seeding of activities as and when appropriate. A strategy that works on improving the quality of museums as well as opening up the idea of cultural interpretation through the creative use of heritage-rich public spaces can achieve two important objectives. First, they will open culture out to a much larger number of people and in this, keeping spaces and events free and open to public is key. Second, the new and varied interpretations of culture born out of these new experiences will impact how young people view their identities; indeed, this will generate some much-needed thinking about the question of identity in our society. I can see this ruffling feathers too, but that’s part of the social churn and I believe the more space we give for this churning to happen, the better off we might be!

 

Mr Modi, the critics are the ones you should be talking to

It’s twenty six years since Tiananmen Square today, and the concern over free speech and government repression of dissenting voices is as much as ever. Quoting from a piece in The Quartz published yesterday in the context of Tiananmen Square, something I found really relevant… “Then and now, China‚Äôs senior leaders seem unable to grasp or to admit that people could both be deeply critical and deeply patriotic.”

This is really the crux, isn’t it? Shouldn’t politics be about being able to give space to dissent without feeling insecure about it or even better, being able to channelise dissent into meaningful debates and discussions that fuel energy rather than moving to squash it at every instance? Should dissent not be interpreted as concern and interest, as a way for people to engage? Should it not be seen by governments as an opportunity to involve citizens, or at the very least as a way to know what drives or upsets people?

Yesterday’s papers reported about Indian PM Modi’s denouncement of communal politics, his meetings with leaders from the Muslim community. Minister of State for Minority Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, whose ‘go to Pakistan’ edict for lovers of beef is now infamous (and which I was considerably incensed by), was present at Modi’s meeting and was perhaps being chastised as well.

Modi’s reticence on addressing the issues that are making minorities and liberals squirm has been widely commented upon. But it seems clear that Modi speaks up at this time because the conversation on communalism is detrimental to the one about economic development in India. He believes it is the latter that brought him to power and will keep him in the PM’s seat. I cannot comment on other analysis (usually from the parties in the Opposition) that suggests that the real objective behind BJP’s government is to fulfill the RSS’ longstanding dream of making India a Hindu nation. But I am hoping the PM’s public statements go beyond his own personal resolve and extend to creating a culture that stops pouncing on anyone who disagrees with right wing ideology.

For those who disagree are doing so because they believe in a different idea of India, not because they want to jump ship. Those who speak up are those who love their country, or at least are affected by what’s happening around them. Possibly they also have ideas and imaginations that the nation could benefit from. To me, the inability of Modi to tap into this pool of interested and engaged people, many of whom voted for him perhaps hoping that they could participate in some way, would be his true failing. If he, or any other leader, could channelise this energy and enthusiasm, the possibilities could be endless.

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