Edited Excerpts From An Interview
Why is heritage such a heavy, distant word for us in India?
It’s true that the state of our heritage is appalling, but all is not rosy elsewhere either. Be it ignorance, apathy, degradation, effects of pollution or the use of monuments as public toilets, the desecration of monuments or them being the subject of religious strife — these are not situations that are unique to India, nor are they constructions of the present moment alone. These are systemic problems. This is what happened to the Greek monuments when the Romans were appropriating them, looting them and taking their contents away to Rome for themselves, and in Córdoba in Spain (when it became part of the Arab caliphate of al-Andalus in the 8th century) where a monument became a church and then a mosque and then a church again. We seem to have forgotten how to solve these problems, and pay attention to lessons that have served us well through history. There is a contemporary amnesia around these problems — history can show us mechanisms to solve problems if only we look at it.
What are we getting wrong?
The way we hire people for the entire cultural sector of India needs to change. The government has very set, anodyne parameters for recruitment. Administrators, especially at the lower level, do not have the specialised skills and sensitivity required in fields of culture and conservation. They are not coming in to head most of our art institutions with backgrounds in culture studies or art history or anthropology or art or religious studies, painting, theatre, music, dance or history. So the professional competence of the service suffers. In recent years, this role has been appropriated by the private sector, with bodies like the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage and personalised curatorial endeavours. Increasingly, the Archaeological Survey of India, the Museums Commission of India (now defunct) and other such bodies are being rendered as mere administrators and a private sector, which is rising, is taking charge as the specialists. If that’s the way governance is moving, the UPSC needs to recognise this radical shift and put in adequate safeguards and provisions for the rise of the private sector in the culture industry.
Should conservation be the job of the government or should the private sector step in?
Something needs conservation when it falls victim to negligence. When people stop caring, losing it means little to people. It’s illustrative to look at what happened in Afghanistan, which was plunged in chaos when the Bamiyan Buddhas were destroyed. They may have been taken down by the Taliban, but it was in an atmosphere where there was public apathy amongst Afghans towards their Buddhist heritage. In India, too, there is now a systemic crisis in culture. Afghanistan may be an extreme example, but it should tell us what can happen if we remain aloof to our heritage. Our schools in India are divorced from our artistic and cultural heritage and even when that’s taught, it is with either a sense of nostalgia or right-wing agendas. That’s why we don’t really care about these things. Fixing the problem requires many departments to come together in the government: education, rural development, small-scale industries and crafts, tourism and, of course, culture. A lasting solution would also require the engaged and consistent involvement of the private sector at every level. We do not need the State to censor heritage and culture. If the State is failing us in the kind of education it gives in conservation and maintenance of heritage, then it cannot be smug enough to not wake up to the culpability of its crime. It is left with no choice but to engage with the private sector to conserve heritage, and find effective public-private partnerships.
How can the Ministry of Culture make itself relevant?
We have more heritage in India being unearthed now than in the past 50 years. That’s because more and more suburbs are encroaching on the countryside, canals and roads expand their web, and dam river valleys submerge archaeological sites — ‘development’ will inevitably march forward. Thousands of objects continue to get discovered and our museums are illequipped to house them; they do not even have an active acquisitions policy anymore. We have a law that says all antiques have to be sold only by licensed vendors and must be registered. The disincentives to private ownership of antiquities within India means they gets smuggled abroad. The State has not done anything to encourage the possession of heritage in our homes. These are systemic failures of the State. The Ministry of Culture needs to find ways of bringing heritage back into the Indian home — the home, which is the harbinger and keeper of culture. Until then, we’re not going to fix the problem because the private sector is not a stakeholder in the heritage of India. The institutions that maintained heritage in an older world are now gone. We live the ‘Peepli [Live]’ life as it were. Modern India has to ask itself how it intends to sustain heritage in the life of an urban migrant. If the ministry was finding it difficult to keep pace with what was happening 30 years ago, the changing scenario now should ring alarm bells.
What kind of stories should our museums be telling us to get us excited about our heritage?
We have never been a ‘museumgoing’ culture. People traditionally go to religious institutions, but these are not holistic or comprehensive or unbiased tellers of history. In India, museums started in the colonial period. Since then, not enough has been done to make them relevant to the people. At present, religious monuments continue to be the biggest stakeholders in informing Indians of their heritage. People go to temples, mosques and temple museums. The Akshardham temple in Delhi has a museum that is very popular and it tells you the history of Hinduism and Indian civilisation. It’s interesting that a temple is appropriating the job of telling people ‘Indian’ history. Naturally, they’re going to tell it from their point of view, even if a religiously-constructed view of history is alarming for a secular nation. There are museums like this all over the world. But equally, in many countries where there is a strong discipline of history, there are ways of writing it that aspire to be unbiased. At the Swiss National Museum, the first question that gets answered as soon as you walk in is — who is a Swiss person? The answer the museum gives is that everyone in Switzerland is a migrant. They’ve come from the Balkans, Germania, etc. If we were to ask ourselves, “Who is an Indian?”, the answer is similar. No one is an ‘original’ Indian. Everyone is a migrant. We seem to be a long way away from that kind of public ackno w ledgement in our museums. There are, however, some museums in India that are telling engaging stories even though they’re less frequented than others. And they’re largely the result of public-private part nerships. There is the Calico Museum in Ahmedabad, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai and the Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum in Pune. There have been some public museums that have been successful: the Crafts Museum in Delhi, for instance, and now the commen dable effo rts being made by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu San grahalaya in Mumbai. There should be sound, historically-grounded curatorial interventions in our museums to const ruct unbiased narratives.
What happens to a people who lose their heritage?
You have a civilisational crisis — let’s just look at our neighbours to see what has been destroyed and forgotten in Afghan memory. An entire class of intelligentsia has fled to the West. How many are interested in moving back to resuscitate it? The crisis of the loss of heritage is not new. But we must remind ourselves that it requires farsighted policy-making for the State to safeguard history and culture. You can’t expect a society to function normally if its heritage is not protected.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.