School children during their visit to Museo Camera, in Gurugram. | Museo Camera
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Gurugram, as we know it, burst into popular imagination with a Chetan Bhagat novel and the first batch of MNCs. As it grew into ‘a suburb on steroids’ or NCR’s own Maximum City, it lacked what Delhi had. A cultural heart.

To unwind, the GDP-friendly residents of Gurugram could only go to the malls, pubs and restaurants, and maybe an occasional trip to Fun N Food village and Kingdom of Dreams.

Poulomi Bose, an artist based in the millennium city, said: “For those of us living here for the last few years, going to Delhi was the only option if we wanted to go someplace that is not a mall!”

In fact, Gurugram’s only hub for cultural activities, Epicentre, which opened in 2008, was shut down in 2016. Proposed plans for cultural hubs have never really materialised, like a state of art cultural complex project construction on which was to begin in 2016 but is still caught in a maze of permissions.

And just when it was beginning to change in recent years — you can call it the Gurugram Renaissance — with new museums and a cultural centre, the pandemic came and took a toll.


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India and Gurugram’s firsts

Museo Camera, a cool photography museum in Sector 28 was inaugurated in 2019; The Quorum, India’s first homegrown private member’s club opened in 2017; and Heritage Transport Museum, the ‘oldest player’ among the three, and India’s first transport museum, opened in December 2013.

What’s significant here is that these cultural spaces are a result of largely private interest and hustle, not government patronage like in Delhi. The journey of not-for-profit crowdfunded Museo Camera began in the basement of self-taught photographer, historian and archivist Aditya Arya while the Heritage Transport Museum began as a private passion project of hotelier Traun Thakral, who turned his hobby of collecting vintage cars into a museum at Tauro, Gurugram, with assistance from the government of India.

You wouldn’t normally associate Gurugram evenings with William Dalrymple, Tavleen Singh, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Subramanian Swamy, Ram Madhav, Sachin Pilot and Pratap Bhanu Mehta talks. But that’s what The Quorum has brought to this dizzy suburb. Not bad at all, for a city that lacks a functioning sewer or drainage system, reliable water, public sidewalks and parks but is heady with malls and The Magnolia.


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Self-sustained models, collaboration over competition

The Heritage Transport Museum has jaw-dropping collections of centuries-old palanquins, locos, vintage cars and even planes. And all these gorgeous wheels with rich accompanying histories that would make any curiosity-driven school group buzz. Tarun Thakral treats visitors to his museum like they are consumers who must be engaged with. Not the top-down, take-it-or-leave-it relationship of Delhi’s government-run museums.

Vivek Narain, who conceptualised and created The Quorum, said it has “played a small part in shaping the culture of Gurugram.”

The Heritage Transport museum leases out its space to pre-wedding shoots, corporate events, apparel shoots and even film/video shoots.  Not quite the celebrity-spiked Met Gala of New York, but these do try to generate both chatter and cash for the museum. Punjabi music videos like the popular 2018 pop song Dilli Sara by Kamal Khan and Kuwar Virk and Dil Ton Blacck by Jassie Gill featuring Badshah, were shot at the Heritage Transport Museum. E-Commerce firm Droom, too, did one of their shoots here.

 

Arya of Museo Camera spoke of the public-private partnership between India Photo Archive Foundation and the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram that has allowed him to run the museum the way he wants to, with absolutely no interference.

The museum is a dream-come-true for both professionals and those simply looking to get a perfect profile picture clicked. The outside boasts an artsy auto and a Fiat, while the interior has galleries full of images captured by various photographers, including Arya himself on his many assignments. If you buy a ticket, you get to step into a time capsule of sorts that begins by describing ‘grains of silver’ that was once used to create and develop photos, to information about the latest phone camera with the highest resolution or pixels. The museum houses 2,500 cameras collected from 100 countries.

From 19th century phone booths, to a QR code on a wall which you can use via Instagram to add all kinds of filters to create photos, the museum is a candy shop that one cannot exhaust in one visit. From vintage advertisements from the world of photography, camera companies, film roll manufacturers, accessories and related products, historic patents, the scope of it is mind-boggling, to say the least.

In Arya’s words, it is a place that documents the journey of  “How the silver grains of the film have turned into pixels of today”.

Among the 2,500 vintage cameras at the museum are K-20 cameras, one of which was used to take the infamous picture of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The photo was taken from the bomber Enola Gay’s tail gunner position. The aerial camera was used to take before-after images of the bombings during the Second World War.


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What does it mean for Gurugram residents?

Mamta Gupta, mother of two who also manages her home, said she had recently learnt of Museo Camera through a fellow parent. Mamta says, “Now I know where to take my kids, who often get bored at malls, even in the play areas. It is their age — they constantly want new attractions, and I am glad I can also add information to the fun day out.” With Covid and lockdowns, even those had become scarce, but she feels a museum might be a better option for her kids to learn something.

Residents have often resorted to hosting cultural events within individual sectors. As Priyakshi Ghoshal, a resident of DLF City shared, Durga Puja or Dandiya nights and festivities have been organised with much enthusiasm. But when it came to spaces for larger performances, be it art shows or comedy events, the options have been limited.

The pubs and the restaurant industry in Gurugram have held the fort and often played hosts to a number of events. But that is limiting.

Joy Singh, partner-founder of Raasta, Gurugram says, “From food gastronomy to microbreweries, food and beverage industry is not just about alcohol and food. Lounges are not simply where one comes to drink. They now provide all kinds of experiences like comedy shows, live performances, maybe even dance performances. It provides all that a cultural centre would provide. They are an amalgamation of everything, and cater to all senses to a customer, providing them with an experience.”


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Covid and its impact on the dreams of ‘new’ Gurugram

Museums rely a lot on school trips and visits, and Museo Camera and Heritage Transport Museum are no different. But with Covid, it has been a difficult time, especially with self-sustained spaces like theirs.

There have been no school children visiting since the lockdown in early 2020 to Museo Camera, said Arya.

Rekha Krishnan, Principal of Vasant Valley School, Gurugram shared that schools were struggling to even have ‘regular’ academic days. And as such, school trips or visits might not materialise until the next academic year, if they do at all. She said she cannot give a specific or average number, but the school used to have “lot of varied visits”, including those to museums, but mostly in Delhi, like the National Museum, not to any of the Gurugram ones.

Ragini Bhat, curator at the Heritage Transport Museum, said the average footfall was around 500-600 over the weekends, and around 200 on weekdays; it has fallen to 200 and 100 respectively. Arya spoke of how the entire staff had to be let go during the lockdown. It hit the Museo Camera hard because the pandemic came just five months after its opening.

“On 16th of March 2020, I thought to myself things are getting bad due to Covid, and I checked how many bookings we had, and we had 630. And that very day by 4:30 I had to announce a lockdown, even though the government announced a lockdown later,” said Arya.

Schools such as GEMS Modern Academy, Heritage Xperiential Learning School and Paras World School visited the museum in pre-Covid days and participated in workshops and interactive sessions that the museum provides.

“The idea of this place is to have hundreds of children, and in 16-17 months we have had none,” said Arya.

On weekends, the footfall is 300-400 for the museum, art gallery and the café, Fig, attached to it.

Fig is dog-friendly and has huge glass windows, opening out to a green area, nurtured by Arya himself. The cafe offers items from across cuisines and has a different dessert every day. One big draw is that it offers both Indian and imported single origin blend coffee. Around 40-50 would buy tickets and show around. While the museum complex gets a footfall of around 200-300, not everyone buys the tickets to take a tour of the entire area.

For The Quorum, it has been a different experience. Saloni Puri, director of programming at The Quorum said the place was among one of the first to close down when lockdown was announced last year, and is now among the first to have opened up with complete safety measures in place, and fully vaccinated staff.

But there is hope, along with hesitation. The museums are awaiting the return of the school and college students to offer curated, three-dimensional informal learning spaces in Gurugram. And The Quorum is back to hosting live events after a Zoomified year. Culture is, after all, a way of coping with the world.

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