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Respecting our legacy

Apr 29, 2012 :

Attitude Matters

Most of us take pleasure in inscribing our names on the walls of invaluable archaeological masterpieces our country is home to, without realising the irreparable damage we are causing to the cultural heritage of India. Isn’t it about time we started preserving our heritage, asks Melanie p kumar.

In need of conservation : (Top) Golconda Fort, Hyderabad;  (From left) Hampi; a room in Qutub Shahi Tomb, Hyderabad; part of a temple wall in Shivaganga. (Photos by Yathi Siddakatte)Most of us are guilty of taking things for granted — be it our familial relationships, our inheritance, or our heritage.

Our heritage is reflected in our ancient forts, palaces, places of worship, townships and water bodies.


These have existed even before today’s generation started life on this earth and depending on how we respect our legacy, it will be available for future generations, as part of our history.

But while there is one group which feels strongly about preserving the ancient monuments and other artefacts of the country, there is another more eager set that is determined to bequeath its own legacy to future generations; these may vary from suggestions for names that can be used for future progeny or declarations of love that will be etched in stone forever.

Be it the ancient stone structures of Badami or Aihole, the fortresses and palaces of Udaipur or Jaipur, the Mughal structures in Delhi or the Elephanta Caves in Mumbai, none of them are free of the etchings of names like Rakesh, Ali, Victor, or Krishna loves Rita, or John loves Meena! In some instances, the two names are intertwined with a heart; in others, there is an arrow going through the heart!

After all, if Shah Jehan could put up a whole marble structure as a tribute to his beloved Mumtaz, why should common man’s love not be allowed to be immortalised on stone?

There is a Hindi song with words that go like this — Ik Shahenshah ne banwa ke haseen Taj Mahal, hum garibon ki mohabbat ka udaya hai mazaak... which roughly means that Shah Jehan, by putting up the Taj Mahal to his lady love, has belittled the way in which love can be expressed by an ordinary individual. So, what is the next best thing to do?

Carve out your declaration on a monument of stone and achieve immortality of sorts!
Call it the unstoppable revenge of the proletariat!

At the fortress of Rani Padmini at Chittorgarh, it was surprising to see the height at which the names had been carved out. How on earth did the chap manage to climb up that high, without any support, to make his declaration of love, or was that his brand of heroics — a do or die kind of thing!

One can only hope that he got away with a few broken bones in the worst case scenario after achieving the feat!

Tourism has turned into a vastly commercialised industry with every person living in and around an area of tourist importance trying to milk the beleaguered tourist. The most grotesque trend is the commerce that has crept inside the premises of monuments across the country and perhaps in other parts of the world.

From the rocks that are painted with the names of the bubbly drinks, to the booths selling food and beverages, it is not a pretty sight to behold. Nor is it environment-friendly when flex posters are nailed to trees and toxic paints used to adorn rocks! Equally disturbing are the food wrappers flying in the breeze across the courtyards, which are the repositories of our history.

Commercialisation

The city of London has not escaped such commercialisation. Who would imagine that Westminster Abbey, which has afforded a last resting place for many famous poets and litterateurs, would have food kiosks operating right above the tombs of some of these famous names from the past?

Any sensitive tourist would, in the first place, be trying to tread softly on these floors and one is even more horrified to find vendors and buyers nonchalantly going about their business above these tombs, whose occupants would most certainly be turning in their graves at the indignity of it all!

Well, perhaps not so surprising for England whom Napoleon is said to have called “a nation of shopkeepers!” (No doubt, it is this shrewdness that ensured that for several centuries, the sun did not set on the British Empire. But that is another story altogether!)

But India does not carry this dubious distinction. So, why must shopkeepers hound tourists to purchase their wares even within the premises of these historical structures?

Even more disturbing are the mounds of plastic that litter these heritage sites. While cities like Udaipur have declared themselves to be plastic-free zones with heavy fines imposed on those who succumb to the temptation of cheap plastic, they are not above allowing the use of the majestic City Palace for a multi-cuisine restaurant.

Hasn’t it occurred to the authorities that the cooking of food could damage the walls of these ancient structures, let alone the problems of dealing with the wastage and leftovers?

Another strange phenomenon is the conversion of ancient heritage buildings, which may or may not have once been places of worship, into modern day places to conduct prayers.

This is the case across India in the forts of Chittorgarh and Jaipur, amongst the rock structures of Badami and Pattadakal, and even in the midst of the Mughal architecture in Delhi. The stains from the oil lamps and the smoke rising up to the roofs, from the incense, can have damaging effects on these ancient structures.

More than the indifference of the tourist public is the total apathy of the government bodies, which are in charge of these buildings and museums. A visit to the museum inside the Aga Khan Palace in Pune can have any serious visitor in tears.

The palace itself is a majestic building and considered amongst the greatest of the architectural marvels of India. The place is so closely linked with the country’s freedom movement, as this is where Mahatma and Kasturba Gandhi, his secretary Mahadev Desai and Sarojini Naidu were incarcerated and where Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai breathed their last.

Maintenance

The inside of the museum is musty and badly-maintained and horror of horrors, there is actually an ancient photograph of Gandhiji stuck on the wall. The photograph appears to be giving way and it won’t be long before it will become a part of history just like Gandhiji!

Contrast this with the museums and other historical sites at Sevagram and Wardha. The Sevagram Ashram, where Gandhiji lived, from 1936 to 1948, has tourists thronging it from all over the world. Within the precincts of the ashram, Ba Kuti and Bapu Kuti look just like they might have when Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi resided in them.

Bapu Kutir exhibits the Mahatma’s daily use items, bringing alive the simplicity of the great man. Across the road, there is a building which displays photographs from Gandhiji’s times, all beautifully framed, with details of the events neatly inscribed below.

This is the same case with the Magan Sangahalaya and the Shanti Kutir in Wardha, which have professionally displayed the photographs of Gandhiji and Jamnalal Bajaj.

The Bajaj Foundation contributes to the maintenance of several of the buildings and museums here, which seem to be in the best of health, making you immediately contrast them with what one witnessed at the Aga Khan Palace! 

The Aga Khan Palace was donated by Aga Khan to the Gandhi Smarak Samiti in 1972. The Samiti is responsible for the maintenance of parks and gardens inside the palace, which are a pretty sight indeed. One noticed this at the Chittorgarh Fort too where the gardens have a manicured look, while the fortress is in a complete state of dilapidation.

The entry fee to the Chittorgarh Fort is a paltry sum in contrast to neat sums charged at the palaces in Udaipur and Jaipur. Could this be the solution then? Charging the visitor a reasonable sum of money for the upkeep of these monuments?

One might argue that a higher entrance fee might result in a form of cultural exclusion, making it unaffordable for a section of the Indian public.

In a country where cultural exclusion is very much in practice, with the skyrocketing prices of movie tickets at multiplexes (and even more expensive rates over weekends) and the unaffordable rates at music concerts, plays and cricket matches, the scaling up of the entry fee at heritage sites might well be justified, as those who are interested would visit them anyway.

The other kind of exclusion that our heritage buildings practise is the differential rates charged to foreigners. A back-packer on a limited budget was telling me how hard it was for her to pay the USD rate charged to see the exhibition of the Nizam’s Jewellery in Hyderabad while those of us who were Indians, walked in, paying a much lower rate.

Nowhere else have I witnessed this kind of a differential charge for the “foreign” tourist!

Of course, an Indian visitor will surely be disturbed to see many of India’s treasures harboured in the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Kohinoor being a part of the jewel in the crown, displayed in the Tower of London.

But when one travels around India and sees the scant respect that the public and the government have towards their heritage, one might sadly be forced to conclude that the Kohinoor is better off where it is!

Last year, the country celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Tagore with a great show of pomp and reverence. But sadly, the medallion and citation that Tagore won for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 is lost forever.

The country’s first Nobel Prize, along with several of the poet’s personal belongings, were stolen from the safety vault of the Vishwa Bharati University at Shantiniketan in 2004.

The then security officer, Anup Seal said, “We were thinking of better security measures like a closed circuit television inside the museum and more security staff, but before we could do anything, this unfortunate incident happened.”

The theft took place eight years ago. After offering a reward of Rs 10 lakh for information on the missing items, the Central Bureau of Investigation in 2007 informed the Vishwa Bharati authorities that it was closing its investigation on the case.

Though the Nobel Foundation did replace the medallion with one in gold in 2004, it is not the same and does not take away from the callous attitude we have towards our history.

It is appalling to think that there was no proper surveillance at the Vishwa Bharati University where the country’s precious heritage was housed. This reminded me of an incident that occurred at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Just for a few minutes, I had put down a handbag so that I could look at one of the paintings closely.

Before I knew it, there was a security guard at my heels, making enquiries about the bag. When I identified it as mine, he pointed to a poster, which said, “Keep your belongings with you.”

He told me that close circuit television had identified a bag without its owner and he had been assigned the task of checking out the contents of the bag! However embarrassing, I appreciated the concern and respect for the exhibits that prompted the swift action. I noticed something similar in the Shanti Kutir precincts in Wardha.

Security is strictly in place and I watched a young man being hauled up for a minor misdemeanour, namely, plucking a flower!

Another glaring shortcoming is the absence of proper toilets in places of tourist interest. The City Palace at Udaipur, which charged a huge entrance fee, had appalling toilet facilities. With such a huge overrun of tourists, there should have been an attendant in place for a regular cleaning of the washrooms.

It was impossible to sit and rest on the benches even some distance away! The other missing items are garbage bins, as a result of which there is litter within the premises of many historical structures.

Leave alone the ubiquitous trash can, in most of the tourist areas abroad and other public spaces, there are ample and well-maintained toilets. This is one big shortcoming in India and there is really no excuse for it!

In several of the museums abroad, there is no fee charged, but a huge collection box is placed in the centre, where people can put in their contributions. Most of these museums have a very clever strategy of making the visitor exit from the Museum Shop, where one is likely to be tempted to pick up a souvenir or two. But there is no ‘in your face’ pushing down of the items on display.

But you feel hope for the country in places like the Raja Kelkar Museum in Pune, the Gandhi Museums in Wardha and Sevagram, or the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad.

It is amazing to think that the collection and involvement of single individuals and institutions could result in the creation and efficient administering of so many interesting displays.

A chat with Raja Kelkar’s grandson reveals the passion of his grand-father and fills one with hope about people in the right place, who are conscious about and hell-bent on preserving one’s hard-earned heritage, for generations to follow.

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