Decolonising Research Series: Decolonising ’National’ Heritage: How Indian Museums and Cultural Spaces are Addressing their Colonial Pasts
This series of podcast episodes will focus on Decolonising Research, and feature talks from the Decolonising Research Festival held at the University of Exeter in June and July 2022.
The eleventh epsiode of the series will feature Shibani Das from the University of Exeter and her talk 'Decolonising 'National' heritage: How Indian museums and cultural spaces are addressing their colonial pasts.'
Music credit: Happy Boy Theme Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com) Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
Hello, and welcome to rd in the in betweens. I'm your host Kelly Preece. And every fortnight I talk to a different guest about researchers development, and everything in between. Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of Aldi in the in betweens, and this our 11th episode in the decolonizing research series. In this episode we're going to hear from University of Exeter PhD students Shivani does with her presentation decolonizing national heritage, how Indian museums and cultural spaces are addressing their colonial pasts.
This is a conversation that's been happening for about 10 years quite strongly within the mean this continent. And it addresses a couple of issues, branching from changing syllabus to changing architecture to changing public attitudes about our colonial past. So who am I to speak to you about all this, this is just to outline that I will be speaking to you not from a political perspective, but from a professional one. I have. I'm currently an HR CCDP doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter, and partly funded by BT archives. But my professional training back in India has been in and around museums and organizations that deal with cultural spaces. So just a list of the places that I have worked at. And I have been closely associated with the Government of India as well as private organizations. So the following five slides will just be an insight to what I have experienced and would not be a blanket statement I would be making across India, I'm sure there will be many people in the conversation, who want to have their own points of views. And I welcome that. Towards the end of the presentation. I've mentioned my email id and my profile. So I'll be happy to continue this conversation sometime later as well. But having said that, let's carry on. So, to begin with, I would like to talk to you about what decolonization means, in the Indian perspective. Across the past month, we've been having conversations about decolonization in the academic space or in the research space on how to how we deal with decolonization within the archives. But decolonization as a national conversation has taken a different route in India completely. So, the three main components of this conversation that are recognized the politician or the museums or cultural spaces, and the Academy space, so for a large part of Indian political history, the conversation has gone from the right hand side, the left hand side, what I mean by that is from the academic space through the cultural space into the cultural space, there was a large Academy conversation about when decolonization began, a lot of British historians believe that began when the Empire began to crumble. So with this second world war onwards, in the process of decolonization, Indian academicians did not appreciate how much focus was given to the British as actors in this conversation. So when the British decided to leave India that was a process of decolonization. What sort of nationalist historians or subaltern or postcolonial historians began arguing about was that decolonization would actually be the process of independent India, shedding the layers of its colonial past, which pushes a timeline back to 1950s 1970s. And the opening up of the Indian economy opening up the Indian quality to the larger world. This had an impact on cultural spaces and how they were designed, which led to opera how politics was designed, with regards to our colonial past, but ever since 2014, there has been a switch in how the Indian public and have been in government understands this, the conversation has switched course and short moving from the, from the from the left to the right, there is a there is a major sort of a tangible political movement to change or to manipulate or to edit, how Indians think of their past or react to their past and that political change has impacted cultural spaces and internal Academy spaces. This sort of two way conversation is quite an interesting one that we will discover more with examples that come ahead. So I've taken the liberty of sort of condensing condensing this conversation down to three simple steps. I do realize it's very reductive, but to have a good conversation, I feel some reduction is essential. So three steps for basically decolonization How would I as the government of India or as India, talk about decolonization and my approach to it. Number one, you remove, remove any selectively remove any tangible remnants of one's colonial past, if you can't remove it, then you appropriate symbolism, the conversation that we will be having would be around the India Gate and this coronation Park in New Delhi. And we'll go ahead and talk about that in a bit. Number two is God right or you
name whatever, you can't change immediately. So here we have conversations about rewriting how people react to your history or learn their histories, be it through syllabus, in schools, or in universities, or in how we interact with history on a day to day basis. For example, road names, metro station names, museum names, etc. And step number three, which is the final step, which is almost in completion right now in Delhi, is rebuild, undertake massive and drastic construction projects to change the historical landscape. Now, these steps, in my opinion happen over a long period of time, you have to begin to corrode a public's reaction or relationship with that history, to be able to take a drastic step like rebuilding a construction or tangible space. So the first conversation I'd like to have with you in the first case study we like to discuss is removed. So, on the left hand side of this presentation, you see a very interesting sculpture from coronation Park in North Delhi. It was built in 1911. On the right hand side of a familiar symbol of Indian democracy, which is India Gate built in 1921. In New Delhi, the coronation Park is a very interesting Park, it is largely abandoned, it is not it's not in the center of the city is not celebrated. It's not the focus of civic life in that area. It is sort of a graveyard of sculptures that, at the at the moment of independence when we had a lot of Imperial sculptures across the city on road crossings, and the government did not know what to do with it. They just picked everything up and the deposited in one land where the royal the bar was held in 1911. But when approaches when one approaches the park today, what one sees is just streams and streams of magnificent Imperial sculptures left and complete abandonment taken from taken out of where they were originally designed for out of that context. And not sort of responded to or agreed with or addressed by any any any person crossing the road. So that's one way of dealing with decolonization. That was when India did not know what to do with its past. So it decided to pick everything up and push it sort of like under the carpet or in a cupboard that you never want to open ever again. This park still exists and most of these sculptures are an absolute ruin. This is an example of one way of how one can deal with one's colonial past. If you can't remove the colonial symbol you can re appropriate the meaning of the colonial symbol which come which brings me to India Gate, possibly one of the most iconic symbols of Indian democracy. For Delhi at least. India Gate is a celebration of everybody who had passed away fighting for the British Empire in the First World War. It is an imperial symbol it isn't it is a power it is a symbol of all those Indians who lost their lives not for Indian freedom but for British freedom. However, this does not sit heavy on an A common Indian person's mind. The appropriate appropriation of the symbol has been so complete that it is it's visible on most sort of tourist banners, it's the center of our Republic Day celebrations. It is something that all Indians will in the evenings come and sit next to celebrate a very sort of personal relationship with it, you will have ice cream Windows walking up and down the street kids playing it's a very open space wherever we can walk in and it is understood to be a symbol of reverence and respect for one's past not not majorly sort of associated with our colonial history. So these are two ways that India has dealt with some of these major symbols of its colonial history. I spend a lot of time trying to wonder what causes this selection. Why in the India Gate did not have the same do not suffer the same destiny as sculptures from the coronation Park and the within the comes to mind. It wasn't that you can't physically remove it and you can't physically break it down. But I'll be happy to to know what you guys would feel about this as well.
The second idea is to rewrite and to rename Now these are two heavy ideas that are on the same slide. But they have a similar logic behind them. So there has been a move to rewrite history, not just within the larger Academy historiography, but also within how schools and students understand or learn that history is. So between the two major examples I can give you, the nCrt school syllabus changes, and the undergraduate course changes. Within the school syllabus changes. We've had a series of educational reforms that have moved ideas like say caste politics, or Mughal history, or communal writing or communal violence in Indians. In Indian Indian past, there's also been a move as a fairly political move to suppress the role of the Congress in the independence movement. Just to give a little bit of a background Congress was the larger political force that has been largely defeated now by the current incumbent government, which is the BJP. So ideas like for example, codes from the hero have been removed. The role of rural county in certain movements has been reduced in text. Even as far as population data about how many Hindus versus how many Muslims live in a country, or that their employment rates have been smashed. In school, the textbooks now we need to understand the sort of the sanctity with which a normal school child or or sort of a parent would regard what is it mean a text given that it is published by the government, it is considered to be of a certain value that cannot be questioned, and has been marked up and used for like school learning or passing exams. So the level of questioning that happens at this level is very minimal, which makes change like this very dangerous. This change is going to expounded when one reaches the undergraduate courses. Over the last five years, the undergraduate courses for history learning for the BA in history has been has changed drastically. Just one example that like to begin with is changing the name of, say, history of India to history of Wrath of Hara thrash, which is sort of more in a commercial dualistic Hindu approach to looking at the history of, of India. There's also been a move to sort of have courses that are titled
Indus Valley Civilization so so the Civilization and its Vedic connection. So when you have courses title like this, there's an assumption that be the history or Hindu history goes back as far as Indus Valley Civilization, which is not a historical fact. But I think through strategies like titling, like making titles like there's so many courses like this, a lot of students would not be able to exercise their ability to critically, critically address this issue, or critically understand the politics behind these kinds of changes. You also have changes in the administration of colleges, you have, in recent past, we've had a massive change in the removal of certain Dean's of principals who don't agree with political changes happening across the country. And those who are ideologically inclined tend to find themselves in positions where they can control, for example, which PhD thesis gets passed or which PhD application is successful. So you have sort of a systematic change and a sieve and a syllabus change happening at the same time. On the right hand side. It's a very interesting list. Initially, I was thinking of doing an entire background or just the number of name changes that have happened in India across and this is just a small summary of it. It's a conglomeration of CTG city name changes, road name changes, museum name changes, and it's color coded. So, when I was looking at this list, I was trying to break down logic behind it. And I found a three way logic. The first is changing a name from a British name to a secular name. The second is from Google name or a Muslim name to a Hindu name. And the third is from a Imperial name to a Hindu name. As you can see that there is a large movement towards making every name more indica, more Hindu. And the definition of indica is largely becoming a non Muslim or, or isolation like a separation change. So I've just made a color. I've just made a color coding happening. So everything in blue is your secular changes. So how Kingsway has been renamed to rajpath Queensway to Janpath all these names are largely understood to be a common secular common communal shared nomenclature, but as we move on to everything in yellow or everything in white, you see either change from for example, the web, the most interesting one was the Mughal museum that was changed to Chatrapati Shivaji Museum in 2020, which is a very recent example, this museum was to be built in Agra, which was a city made by a permaculture ruler. It was supposed to champion the Mughal contributions to Indian culture such as miniature painting or architecture. But in 2020 20, after the museum was already in construction, the Chief Minister of particular state announced that the name has to change initially to brasure Museum, which is a local Indic population or the local language population. And later, it was argued that you would have Chatrapati Shivaji, who is a very strong Mahabharata, Africa from Maharashtra, West India. So this is a trend that we all see happening very often, there are tangible repercussions to these trends, where you have a lot of financial investment in changing names, in rotations, as well. But mostly what it does is it tries to manipulate or change how the public addresses or reacts to history on a day to day basis.
The second idea is rebuilding. And this is something that I feel very personally sort of passionate about these two particular projects, and they are very recent projects. The idea of rebuilding is when you have managed to have sort of I feel discrete changes to how the public reacts to their history, or public understands their history, you've taken the time of changing the syllabus, you've taken the time of changing the road names, slowly, you're corroding how the population is reacting or responding to their own past. What you can then do is commissioned large scale projects, which undertake massive construction, either breaking down and rebuilding or building once again, and there is a trend in recent past that is creating a lot more like this, the India's moving to a more aggressive, symbolic front, a very aggressive, nationalistic kind of jingoistic front that they are putting across this. There are many examples of this one way one common example that a lot of Indians who have joined this conversation will be familiar with is something called the angry Hanuman motif. There was there is a deity called Hanuman. He's a part of the larger epic of Ramayana, which is an ancient epic in India. He's the symbolism of that figure has changed in the recent past. Initially, he was a symbol of loyalty of servitude, of bravery, and always depicted in a sort of amicable manner in paintings. In the recent past, in the past five years, there was a graphic artist in the south of India, who created a sort of a more aggressive muscled version of the same day. And before you knew it, that symbol serve spread across subcontinent at a speed that nobody predicted by be it either in car stickers or in WhatsApp profile photos. It began to be adopted by a lot of population in India because they began at some level, responding positively to this change, of attitude of change of nature to a more aggressive or more sort of nationalist or jingoistic front. But the two examples I've taken up over here, the first is the central reverse the central Vista redesign project in in September 2019, the government of India undertook a project, they made a sudden announcement that they would undertake major reconstruction on the Kings way and the Queen's were erstwhile kings and queens. So, now the Janpath and the rajpath, which isn't center of Delhi, which is called Docklands, Delhi, are bakers and latrines Delhi. because of two reasons, the first was pragmatic reasons or, for example, government offices are very old buildings, they need remodeling they need re they need to accommodate more people, they need to have a lot more efficient working by putting everybody in one building so all these pragmatic concerns that were coming up the second reason was a sort of an ideological opposition to who design this part of the city be it meant specifically Latvians and Baker B them specifically being British, artists, architects, and the idea of the entirety of central value being a British project or a Brit British construction and the government sort of expressed some concerns with how the British chose to depict or chose which aesthetic elements from which design path design history of India did they choose to incorporate and how the current India the powerful current modern India should rebuild something that is more in tune with a more authentic Indian aesthetic. So there was is a large sort of pushback to this decision, especially in a pre pandemic time, there were protests happening about the level of construction that will be required, specifically in a time where India was suffering through a pandemic and needed sources resources in other in other parts of the, of the country. The scheme of this redesign was extremely massive from breaking down any building that is not heritage sites or anything built after 1950s will be broken down, including the National Museum, the entire central secretariat will be evacuated and made into museums of freedom and democracy. And a massive construction would take place that would eradicate all these parks and public space that you see on the side.
So this project has sort of divided India a lot in the recent past, specifically with having sort of all academicians to one side and say, sort of a push back from a more pragmatic part of India on the other side, and that only Gupta, who's very respected historian from Delhi spoke about how Janpath or Raj producible was supposed to be a more like a more civic friendly space, for example, to allow a car like a classless a costless space for Indian Indians to come in enjoy their own city, their own capital, to come in have picnics here to have football games here to have walks around India Gate was something that was supposed to be a very common practice amongst delegates who would do this on a day to day basis. However, the current project plans to eradicate all these civic spaces and change a lot of what India Delhi sees as its historical past or its landscape. Now, it is an argument that hasn't been cited as of yet the construction project is ongoing. But one this is I feel one way of handling or decolonizing. One one's own past is sort of pushing back and breaking down these remnants. And then it begs the question of at what point do we stop? At what point do we understand that, like, we put a limit of how much we can go back into a pure version of Indian past, right. The the next example, that came away recently, this month actually was the revealing of a new national symbol. So on the parliament building on top of the parliament building, we would have the Ashokan, Lion Capital head, which you see on the left hand side, this is from 250 BC, from the Shogun empire. It was it sort of Pope's entire pillar, that was the pillars that were built up across India. On the left hand side, you see a line that is a lot more aesthetic it is it shows us an idea of sort of protectiveness or of pride, as opposed to as opposed to the right hand side that can that tone, like in terms of tonality, in terms of aesthetic shows a lot more of an aggressive militant, or sort of an anger that was absent in how India perceived itself in the past. My personal opinions aside, there is a larger collage conversation happening about this sort of tonal tonality change or aesthetic change that one is noticing across India, but this is another example of how we are sort of decolonizing or changing how we want to be perceived across the world. Which I found very, very interesting. However, I mean, I can I can understand how it would be would feel that I'm being very negative about these changes. So I'd have a nice slide about how I think that decolonization also has positive impact on how museums portraying themselves. So on the top you have my favorite museum in Delhi, which is the National Museum as you can see, this is a picture from the basement. I think it's the one early medieval crafts and constructions and that's what the gallery is called. As you can see, it's a very sort of old institution. There are large glass cabinets separating the viewer from the artifact. It's air conditioned, it's very sanitary. It's very Imperial.
Everything is shut off behind certain glass and wooden cabinets, Kavita Singh, who is the head of department of art and aesthetics department in JNU. Jawaharlal Nehru University has written a very nice article called The museum is national where she discusses the impact or the influence of Imperial thought on Indian history on how the national museum itself is designed. So the initial galleries that you have are periodic galleries such as in this Valley Civilization mariage manga Setswana. Moving on to your early medieval late medieval but the moment Indian history starts approaching this Mughal phase National Museum changes its galleries name to materiality. So it becomes from early medieval late medieval becomes brutal architecture, or metal work or musical instruments are most in a way, denying the Mughal aspect of the Islamic aspect of Indian history by how it's designed. It's a very Imperial institution. So also it sort of repels a lot of Indians from entering the institution who feel like they don't belong inside of they don't have a right to walk inside. So it does create a space of otherness. It does elevate civil, I mean culture towards sort of upper level of only being accessible to the elite who feel like they can enter the museum and walk in whenever they want. On the bottom, we have a nicer a much a much more different way of approaching Indian culture, which is the National Museum in Japan. This is an open open design museum that celebrates village life and broom and poo making that's a local culture. The space is a lot more welcoming to a larger class of Indians, it is a lot more spread out is more in tune with indigenous architecture, and indigenous weather, it also would have employed a lot more locals in the construction and maintenance of the museum. So it does have a lot more specialized focus in terms of where the load the location or the locality of what it is celebrating as opposed to a national mall mostly sort of dominating centralizing figure, the National Museum, which has captured the artifacts from across the Indian subcontinent. As the last line to my conversation, today, I'm gonna be starting the cutting to talk to you about opening up the conversation, I want to talk to you about the thin line between decolonization and re colonization. There's something that I began thinking about when I was thinking, what how India is dealing with its past where, in order to address a past, we are trying to replace it with another idea of our history, which has very tangible repercussions on how future generations will see India and how future generations will think about India. So at what point? Do we sort of white like, at what point we fill the vacuum that decolonization that? The idea of removing a colonial perspective of our past? At what point will the bathroom become so strong that we need to fill it with something else? Is that something that will always happen? Can we have an absence? Or can we have can we deal as a people with a change in our how we perceive our history without putting another ideology on top of it and making sure that gets accepted. So when I think about how India is dealing with its colonial past, I feel that there are some negatives of house aggressively it is trying to do so. At the same time, I do believe that there are a lot of positives in the sense of making, changing how we perceive design or how we perceive our cultural spaces, who is supposed to be what's meant for who who understands or appreciates, or, or is able to access it. But it is a thin line that we do need to discuss and address at some point. I do understand I've been speaking for a good 30 minutes now. And I could go on for much longer. But I would like to now open the field, open the conversation up to any questions that anybody might have. Please feel free to use the chat or unmute yourselves. We can talk about I have a lot of examples on my notes that I would love to discuss with you. We can compare how other nations are dealing with that as well. But in the long list of lectures where I saw a lot of conversations about research, and sort of African African reaction, etc. I felt this conversation about how India is dealing with it in its own way, was an important one to have. Thank you so much for your time. It's been a pleasure.
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