Of Museums and Childhood.
When I joined Hindu College in 1984, I made a gang of friends, who on odd Saturdays would go somewhere, do something, meet for lunch. There were a dozen of us, I was twenty eight years old and I had a new baby, and so did another member of the English Department, Renuka Booth. Going to the National Museum, or to Dilli Haat, or to the Cottage Industries at Janpath,or to the hills with students was not something we did often, but it was memorable. We were salaried professionals, and enjoyed the pleasures of our financial independence, though the pittance we brought home went to paying grocery bills or house rent. I bought a bunch of cowbells from Dilli Haat, and though my upstairs neighbour at that time, borrowed them and did not return them (because her child liked it too much) it still remains as one of the significant purchases of a first job. College lecturers, all of us, somewhat looked down upon by the general public (“Lecturers koi kam Nahi Karte” were the invectives of the middle class upon us, and ofcourse the professoriate in Delhi University at that time,were kind, patronising and mildly contemptuous. The fact that the publishing record of undergraduate lecturers in the Arts and Humanities was hugely higher than that of the post graduate departments in the 1990s is a fact not to be forgotten. The new systems of academic accounting actually dull the teachers; leave them free and let them pursue their intellectual ambitions without saying ad nauseum, “Where is the output?” like the king wanting hay turned into gold.
I remember the Mohenjo Dara and Harappa section of the National Museum in the early 1990s, when my three daughters were growing up, and learning to know the city of Delhi. On hot summer days, it was a nice place to browse, with young children, and the teams of school children following their energetic teachers. Corpses folded into earthen ware pots left us completely tongue tied. There were the amber beads, and the miniature toys, and the lovely designs on pottery. The Gandharva exhibits with the greek looking heads of Buddha and the sundry warriors and damsels were lovely too. Up and up you go, seeing the clothes the Mughals wore, and the delicate detailed painting of Rajputana. When the currency section opened, the coins of Gudnapheres had me completely entranced, not to mention the plethora of Mauryan and Roman coins, and ofcourse cowrie shells gleaming in the boxed light.
And then there were days, we went to the Natural History Museum. When I saw the staff sitting on the pavement after it burned down, I felt sorry for them, it’s bad enough to lose your life’s work, but not to have a place to go to when the hot summer winds blow? What could be worse than that? One of the members of that group was a gifted artist, who once had an exhibition at Triveni Kala exhibition in the late 1980s. He drew the forts of Madhya Pradesh, which one sees from the train, perched high up on bare rocks. They were black line drawings, austere, skilled draftsman’s drawings. I felt totally in love with his work, but although they were priced at 800 rupees, circa 1980s, I did not have the money. We were fighting union battles those days, and our pay went up from 4000 rupees to 6000 rupees per month, but rent and food bills, just did not allow us to have that additional spending money. Window shopping and friendships were sufficient for us in those days.
In the Natural History Museum, the children never dragged their feet, which they could when they went to the zoo with me, as the caged animals were never pleasing to them, and only the snake cage created a mild ripple of interest, or the greedy catatonic crocodiles in their fetid state of stupor. The Natural History Museum welcomed us with that wide mouthed laughing dinosaur, and then there was the image of the worms any ancient mariner would have been proud of, from whom we humans had ascended. And the musty exhibits in their glass cases were so remote from our lives, including impaled butterflies. After climbing the stairs, right to the top, the children complaining a little, we would go to Triveni for lunch, and shake off the sense of extinction that accompanied us.
The National Gallery of Modern Art on days when summer was depleting its store of fatal days, and running into the monsoon was equally delightful. The children got their sense of the world from the rooms in which Amrita Shergil paintings led you from company art and it’s black and white etchings to the Tagore School, and then upstairs to the larger rooms where the Hussains, Tyebs and one summer a whole new array of the generation of Rajiv Lochan and his age set were on display with their luminescent or dread oils. Museums grew bigger, better, ticketed, tourist friendly. The reproductions hung in our homes, often not framed, just tacked on with scotch tape on the wall.
Now, I wonder what will replace the Dinosaur exhibitions at Natural History Museum, with their plastic reproductions and terrifying cries, creating immense excitement among five and eight year olds.
I’m waiting for my granddaughter to grow up, so I can do the rounds of the Museums again, after 20 years. And the zoo ofcourse. But let me mention the Science Museum as another delight, with it’s frequently broken exhibits, where eager children must have turned the handle too aggressively, and ofcourse the black and white photographs of our science pundits looking gravely back at us. What’s family, but the continuous sense of rotation and revolution, and the feminist space of recreating the world, regardless of blood or war, fiction or fact? In the Lal Quila, the markets of the traders with their extravagant turqoises, and the baths of the Kings, and the howling of the Delhi wind accompanies the slaves as they move in that relic past to give the last king his food and drink while he writes in the middle of the pond, where he had a room to tide his summer days of writing and reading before being pushed off to Rangoon. Let’s hope we can keep our monuments and museums. Humayun falling down from the stairs of his library still echo in our ears when we visit his tomb, as does Bairam Khan’s gentle presence in the company of eager young lovers and old people walking to ease their bones. But picnics in the old forts is another story, that includes Tughlakabad and Suraj Khund.