On 28 August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi virtually inaugurated the renovated complex of Jallianwala Bagh Memorial in Amritsar. While some lauded the re-vamp, saying it was required, several historians, politicians, and netizens have criticised the renovation heavily, accusing it of erasing or glamourising history.
The main change was that the constricted entrance made of Nanakshahi bricks, through which General Dyer’s soldiers marched in, has been rebuilt into a gallery with murals with almost no trace of the alley that carried the horrors of the day. It also has shiny new floors and is partially covered. The next big change that has been made is that the well into which the victims had jumped to protect themselves when the soldiers had opened fire has been covered with a transparent barrier. However, the change that has fetched the most criticism is the addition of a light and sound show to “display the horrific massacre” and “instil a spirit of gratitude and reverence towards the martyrs”.
Renovation or restoration?
Perhaps, like several other Twitter agitations, this too will subside in a while or get watered down to being called ‘unnecessary criticism by the opposition’. But here’s why this issue is more disturbing than it seems – what heritage sites need is ‘restoration’, not renovation.
Globally, conservationists try to retain the colour, feel, and texture of historically significant buildings. The objective is to ‘restore’ the architecture closest to its original form. A prime example of this would be the Jewish Museum, Berlin. With alleys with high walls and metallic grey building exteriors with a rugged texture, the architecture invokes a feeling of despair and a sad remembrance. This makes it contextual with its past.
In comparison, conservation projects in India seem more like beautification drives.
Sometimes, these projects are even promoted to seem like the government has transformed some dilapidated buildings into beautiful structures. The same has been echoed by Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative director Gurmeet
Rai Sangha. He has reacted to the Jallianwala Bagh re-vamp by saying these are reducing the significance of heritage places to “theme parks”. He said, “This trend has been going on for the last five to seven years…Instead of reducing it (Jallianwala Bagh) to a theme park by putting statues, the focus should have been on things like documentation and interpretation centre.”
Corporatisation of conservation
For a country known for its rich culture, India does little to preserve its heritage. A 2016 report reveals that the Ministry of Culture receives less than 1 per cent of the Union budget.
Resultantly, several historical monuments have received poor to no maintenance at all. In 2017, the government announced the ‘Adopt A Heritage’ scheme. Under this, public and private sector corporations can adopt a heritage site. They can establish and maintain tourism infrastructure there. In return, they would get brand visibility on these sites.Advocates of this scheme compared it to the restoration of monuments in Italy by private corporations. But India is a country that has had different dynasties with different beliefs; it is a country struggling to become one nation even after 75 years of Independence.
Considering this, is the comparison justified?
The Dalmia Bharat Group adopted several such sites like the Red Fort, the Kaziranga National Park, and several historical monuments in Assam. One of these structures was the Rang Ghar – one of Asia’s oldest amphitheatres. Several student bodies in Assam — who have a significant hold over the state’s politics — opposed this move.
It is essential to look beyond partisan politics here and understand where this opposition came from. The disbelief stemmed from the fear that the restoration will go into the hands of incompetent decision-makers, who will be insensitive to these places’ historical context.
Cut to now, and these fears are being proven right. In Jallianwala Bagh’s case, even though the renovation happened under ASI and NBCC, the work was tendered to Gujarat-based Vama Communications.
Need for a nuanced understanding
Culture Secretary Raghvendra Singh has responded to the criticism by saying there was “nothing factually incorrect” in the conservation. But the move is not being questioned in terms of factual accuracy: it’s being questioned as a conflict between the expected intent of the project and the intent resulting in the present glamorisation of Jallianwala Bagh. Case in point: the light and sound show. Is a nighttime spectacle really the way to impart the sombre history of a massacre?
Decision-makers need a more nuanced understanding of the issue. India is a nation with a complex past. What it deserves from its government is a more profound cultural sensitivity and responsible review before a heritage site is re-vamped. Most
importantly, the decision-makers need to understand that for the past to stay undistorted, we need ‘restoration’ – not a renovation.
Prattusa Mallik is a student of COMMITS (Convergence Institute of Media Management and IT Studies), Bengaluru. Views are personal.