Prasar Bharati

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Saturday, March 26, 2016

Lighten the bureaucracy so India’s heritage can flourish - An article by Jawhar Sircar CEO PB

Its rich store of treasures deserves better, and that requires unburdening private collectors and welcoming in business

Neil MacGregor, who recently retired as the director of the British Museum in London, has taken on a number of new advisory roles. In Mumbai he will work with the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) Museum on its displays and presentation of world cultures. The Indian institution and its director Sabyasachi Mukherjee will undoubtedly benefit fr om MacGregor’s insights. Every educated Indian who has been overseas has seen how well heritage is not only preserved abroad but also marketed with passion, even by nations that have barely a fraction of the collections of which India can boast. The holdings of Islamic or Hindu-Buddhist art at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York come nowhere near those held at the Indian Museum in Kolkata or the National Museum in New Delhi. But these institutions are failing, stifled by backward thinking, excessive bureaucracy and lack of funding. So, where did we go wrong, and why?

First, we have to admit that, by and large, Indians are not great historians. The history we learn today is mostly an aggregation of 20th-century discoveries that have enabled us to write about our past with a degree of continuity. It was only in 1946, after the British army officer and archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler discovered Harappa and a link was established with the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro in Sindh (both sites in present-day Pakistan), that the existence of a previously unknown Bronze Age civilisation in the Indus Valley was revealed. 

The discovery added a respectable one and a half millennia to our history. The momentous finds made by the imperial Archaeological Survey of India throughout the course of the 19th and 20th centuries unearthed what we had obliterated. These allowed us, at episodic intervals, to fill embarrassing gaps in our timeline. We had, for instance, completely forgotten the glorious polychromatic art of the 30 rock-cut Buddhist caves at Ajanta, which contain unique carvings and frescos dating back to the seventh century and beyond. The complex was discovered only when a British Army captain accidentally stumbled upon it in 1819, and it took another century to figure out its critical significance. The chance discovery of the Buddhist stupas and their exquisite sculptures at Amaravati by Colonel Colin Mackenzie in 1797 catapulted a nondescript village to instant fame.

Other classic Buddhist edifices at Sanchi in the state of Madhya Pradesh and Bodh Gaya in Bihar were rediscovered mainly in the 19th century, but restored to their present form only 100 years later. Just an hour’s drive fr om Kolkata, we have the ancient town of Chandraketugarh. Few people in Kolkata have heard of the site and only a handful in India and abroad know of the existence of this fortified settlement, which dates back to at least two centuries before Christ.

As an ancient civilisation, India is steeped in certain values and most traditional Indians believe that every object, whether animate or inanimate, has its own lifespan, at the end of which it becomes impure. This means that the clothes and other possessions of a dead person are also impure. Given such obsessions with the clean and the unclean, the pure and the impure, most conservative Indians are programmed to burn or consign to the waters any item that has outlived its period. This may explain why India historically never built any collections or museums: we were uncomfortable with the thought of preserving “polluted” items. It was only after we had been exposed to Western education and thinking that we accepted that a nation’s pride lies in flaunting its rich antiquity. 

Why, then, can’t the Indian Museum in Kolkata be as appealing as the British Museum in London? After all, it was formally established in 1814, largely to house the collections assembled by the Asiatic Society of Bengal, set up by the philologist William Jones, and had a head start over every other museum in Asia, as it arrived within a few decades of the British Museum, the Belvedere in Vienna and the Louvre in Paris. It is housed in a resplendent mansion and has not only Egyptian mummies and fascinating prehistoric fossils, but also relics of the Buddha and a large chunk of a Buddhist stupa [ancient monument] that with true colonial swagger was physically lifted fr om Bhahrut in Madhya Pradesh. But most of the museum’s infrastructure has been left virtually untouched for decades. All attempts to modernise the galleries, displays, lighting and signage are met with strong bureaucratic resistance, red tape and internal politicking.

The visitor entering the British Museum or the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin looks up in wonder at the beautiful transparent atrium dome that covers the whole area and connects the old buildings with the new. In both museums, the dome adds value, glamour and utility—and such a dome could transform the very character of the Indian Museum. Yet when this was proposed during the bicentenary renovations in 2014, it was greeted in Kolkata with shrieks of alarm by conservationists, so-called heritage experts and a sensation-hunting media; the governing body thought it wiser to drop the idea.

The central government owns and finances the largest and oldest museums in the major cities, including the Indian Museum, and administers them through supposedly autonomous boards and committees. But the directors of these institutions have to seek permissions for every major modification and then wait for the necessary approvals from unimaginative bureaucracies. It is perhaps not surprising that these museum leaders have forgotten how to lead. When an enthusiastic ministry, keen to reform the sector, rained money on them five years ago, the directors refunded most of it, as planning, procedures and approval required too much time and effort. 

Wh ere we have failed most is in creating a professional museum cadre that attracts talented individuals. The best all gravitate either to the universities or to the foreign auction houses. Both pay and prestige are higher there and the rules less cumbersome. A start towards reform has been made recently by sending six batches of bright young people for intensive training to the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and to the Metropolitan in New York. Let us hope that initiatives such as this eventually succeed, at least after many of the present museologists retire, but service rules and working conditions will have to improve considerably.

Impossible job

Where India’s built heritage is concerned, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), established in 1861, has done its bit. But it is impossible to expect this terribly understaffed government organisation to protect all 3,650 listed monuments spread throughout this vast country. Guarding the 30,000-year-old paintings in the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh is critical but not all the monuments currently protected by the ASI are as important. More than half could be delisted with no great harm to heritage. If these were handed over to the local community, it would involve them, instil a sense of pride and belonging and ensure their protection. This would permit the ASI to concentrate its attention on a limited number of sites, which would hopefully be better maintained, even within its meagre budget. We have to start the process of gradually entrusting responsibility to the community, reliable non-governmental organisations and willing corporations because government agencies have reached the point of exhaustion.

A few years ago, the Culture Ministry pleaded for a rise in public funding, arguing that the government spends just 13 paisa per 100 rupees of its budget on culture—or just 0.13%. Aggravating the situation was the lack of tax breaks for corporations that wished to support the sector. The new provision in the Companies Act to encourage corporate social responsibility may kick-start this initiative. Having handled culture at the national level, I would plead that neither individual states nor the central government should set up any new museum, whatever the local pressure. The ones that already exist are usually in dismal condition because of staff problems, archaic attitudes, restrictive rules and funding shortages. Almost all major museums in the US and other parts of the developed world are run by private trusts and corporations, and there is no reason why India cannot go down this route. It is also time for the educated and more affluent Indian elite to start supporting its museums and show the bureaucrats how these institutions can be better run. 

The main villain of this story, however, is the outdated and stifling Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, which makes a serial offender of every serious collector of art and heritage. This law forces almost every antiquity in private ownership to be declared through a tortuous and ineffective process. The ASI officers who supposedly supervise this system do not have the time to knock at every door to find out who has inherited or collected antiquities, nor can the law prevent the rampant smuggling of precious historical objects. 

Numerous committees and experts have pondered over every word, phrase and comma of this law and it is now time to act. The well-meaning intent of the government can be better realised through non-intrusive, targeted legislation to ensure antiquities do not leave our shores without proper procedures. But there is absolutely no reason to stop the free flow of antiquities and objects of art within the country; we need to encourage former royals or impoverished aristocrats to bring their treasures out of dark lockers. The present government has taken the initiative to repeal many useless or retrograde laws and the Antiquities Act should also be deleted or radically modified to permit harassed collectors to assume their rightful role in upholding and proudly displaying the nation’s treasures.

Leisure lifeline

The last question I pose is this: why is it that we see splendid palaces made into heritage hotels, mainly at Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Hyderabad and Bhopal? Simple: the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act passed by Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, in 1904 did not apply to the former princely states in the north of the country. In the rest of India, the ASI cannot or does not permit the re-use of its sombre forts, grand palaces and old heritage houses. One way to make heritage more exciting is to open up some sel ected historic structures to tourism with strict safeguards. Commerce and culture have been connected throughout history. It is time, once again, for them to join hands to help rescue and preserve our patrimony.

• The author is chief executive of Prasar Bharati, one of the world’s largest public broadcasters. He is also vice-president of the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union and was India’s culture secretary fr om 2008 to 2012.

Forwarded By: Jainender Nigam,PB NewsDesk ,         

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