Saturday, 25 June, 2022
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New Teen Murti museum on memories of ex-PMs doesn’t snuff out Nehru’s legacy by any means

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For the longest time, institutions such as the Teen Murti estate have existed as fiefdoms of the ‘first family’ of Indian politics.

The recent article in ThePrint on the proposed museum for all prime ministers at the Teen Murti complex is symptomatic of how misinformed propaganda can be effortlessly carried out based on personal biases and political leanings. One would possibly see more of this in the run-up to the 2019 elections given the agenda to further the cause of a political party or an individual.

At the outset, I wish to state the disclaimer that I was part of the Consultant Expert Committee of historians from across India who had been commissioned to put together high-quality content on the various former prime ministers of India. I subsequently discontinued my work in this Committee after being offered a senior fellowship from the same organisation, finding this dual responsibility to be a case of conflict of interest.

It is a sad commentary on us as a nation –  few new museums have been developed in Independent India. Government museums make up for 90 per cent of the roughly 1,000 museums in India. In 2011, UNESCO published a scathing report on the appalling condition of India’s top eight museums, citing sub-standard maintenance, lighting and signage among other issues. Museums serve not only purposes of education, knowledge and curiosity, but also give a sense of history, pride and belonging. They are also one of the most significant revenue earners through tourist footfalls.

The five most popular museums and galleries in both London and Paris receive more than 20 million visits between them while Shanghai’s and Istanbul’s ‘top five’ attract more than six million. Just one museum in Paris (the Louvre) gets more than 1.5 times the number of visitors that all of India gets in terms of foreign visitors (9.72 million vs 6.29 million). London with 162, Berlin with 140 and New York with 126 museums lead the charts of national museums. About 100 museums are opened annually in China, peaking at nearly 400 in 2011 alone.

In such a scenario, the initiative of former president Pranab Mukherjee towards creating a truly world-class “Rashtrapati Sangrahalaya” with state-of-the-art technology, dedicated to all presidents of India within the sprawling precincts of the Rashtrapati Bhavan, was lauded and not seen as an attempt to dilute the office of the President of India. However, petty politics and conspiracy theories abound when it comes to a similar initiative for former prime ministers of India, more so when initiated by Narendra Modi.

Currently spread over 25 acres in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi, the Teen Murti House was the residence of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The museum dedicated to his memory occupies less than an acre of this estate. Anyone who has visited the museum in recent times would be horrified by the pathetic state of displays, especially the visual displays that are peeling off. A ghastly recreation of Parliament where Nehru delivers his famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech scares most visitors, this writer included. In 2015-16, the footfall was about 1.7 million visitors, both foreign and Indian nationals, averaging 5,000 a day. Is this the legacy of Nehru or democratic India that we wish to showcase?

It is noteworthy that as part of Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary celebrations, the ministry of culture gave Nehru Memorial Museum & Library a significant modernisation grant in 2015-16 – a first since the founding of the museum in the sixties. The project sought to upgrade the display of permanent galleries on Nehru and augment visitor services. For optimal visitor engagement, use of latest technology as seen in museums across the world, such as holographic projections, and use of digital audio and video footage from Prasar Bharati archives on Nehru, projecting his important speeches, have been conceptualised in a time-bound manner. Restoring the original characteristics of the living areas of the first prime minister is also part of this modernisation plan. Is this “snuffing out” his legacy by the wildest stretch of imagination?

In the same estate, vast tracts of unused land have turned into veritable marshland. The proposed new museum that celebrates the memories of all former prime ministers of India after Nehru, and in a way the evolution of democracy in Independent India, has been proposed here without dislodging the original Nehru Museum.

A team of scholars has been tirelessly working round the clock, meeting family members of ex-PMs, collecting memorabilia, anecdotes, historical milestones as well as trivia, and audio-video footage from Prasar Bharati archives. Alongside, conversations with young start-up companies have been underway to makes these displays interesting and set up interactive kiosks, using Augmented and Virtual Reality, video walls, holographic mapping, tech pods, digital photo printers and digital standees, and curated guided tours.

It is a grand vision and given the fantastic outcome of the presidential museum, it is not unrealisable. When Mukherjee inaugurated the presidential museum, a gallery on him was very much part of the structure. But including Modi in the list ought to be seen as self-aggrandisement, even as the article contradicts itself when it mentions that the prime minister himself has instructed the ministry to accord equal space to all former PMs.

It is plain banal to insinuate that all it would take for an elderly statesman like Deve Gowda to switch political sides is to dedicate a gallery to him in posh Delhi! If nothing, it reflects the mindset of the elitist clique of Lutyens’ Delhi and its “journalists”.

Finally, the Teen Murti estate is owned by the Government of India and is funded by taxpayers’ money. For the longest time, institutions such as these have existed as fiefdoms of the ‘first family’ of Indian politics. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts is another case in point. Spread over 25 acres of prime land, it had members of the family as “Life Trustees”, who were free to appoint cronies at will and pilfer the spoils. If, finally, India is breaking free from this feudal, colonial hangover, it only needs to be welcomed by every democratic, free-thinking Indian.

Vikram Sampath is an author/historian and Senior Research Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum & Library.

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  1. It is a good attempt chroncil history of Independent India. It should also include not only Prime Ministers but also President. Personality of President also contributed to Indian democracy.

    Indian History is very old, vast and over many centuries. A museum on Indian rulers / Kings would make an interesting place to visit for foreign tourists.

  2. Very nicely articulated opinion countering unfortunate propaganda & prejudice by seasoned journos from MSM.

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