Dear Prime Minister,
As a citizen of this country, a proud Indian and as an art professional with almost three decades of experience in the concerned field I went to see the exhibition ‘Quit India 75 Chalo Dilli’, inaugurated by you at the National Archives of India. My patriotism ends where my eco-humanism begins therefore I should say that my pride as an Indian citizen is in all what we do as a collective in our country. I need not tell you that culture is a part of our heritage, contemporary life and most importantly it is a facade of our country that leaves very last impressions on our international guests. Hence, I should say that any cultural presentation is at once a reminder for the citizen and an invitation to the guests for partaking in the cultural history as well as the general history of this country. To put it in other words, any cultural exposition done in the public and private sectors forms a sort of cultural diplomacy. An invitation to our history should be a pointer to everyone in order to show how as a country we deeply we care for human values, dignity of life, cultural expressions and political activities of our citizens and above all our openness to the world.
An exhibition of this scale as a whole is a telling sign about how the Government of India thinks about itself, the country, its history and also the possible visitors of this exhibition. An exhibition which could have been an exquisite and rare exposition of extremely valuable historical documents pertaining to a pivotal moment of modern India’s history towards its independence from the clutches of the British Raj, however is reduced to, in the mildest words I can come up with here, a brazen display of linguistic arrogance and ideological titling, which I would say with all humility of a citizen as well as all the vehemence of an art professional as a cultural critic, historian and curator, puts our country in an extremely poor light. You may be offended because a supreme administrator like you and the BJP as a part that has somehow carried off and away the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi with no convincing explanations from or of or by history have of late taken all efforts to highlight the role of Mahatma Gandhi as a central God Head in the Hindutva discourse though there have been slips from the President of the Party calling the Great Saint a ‘Clever Trader’ (Chatur Bania). The Charkha Museum in the Rajiv Chowk (erstwhile Connaught Place) is the latest addition in the recent history of co-opting Gandhiji for your purpose. But I don’t mind that.
What makes me sad, sir, is the Quit India Exhibition at the National Archives. When I saw the advertisements in the newspapers and the highlighting of this show in the cultural snippet columns in the leading national dailies of which some are hugely critical of you, I thought I should see this exhibition. Besides, I am interested in the history of India in general and the history of our national resistance against the British Raj, led by Mahatma Gandhi and his disciples. Quit India, the final clarion call let out by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 telling the people of India ‘do or die’ for the independence of India using non-violent means in fact paved the way for the transference of power in another five years. Though the war fatigue had worn the British out and the Indian administration had become an overhead liability by the mid of 1940s, it was Gandhiji’s stubbornness and the ‘clever’ ploys of a commander-in-chief at large that held the warring factions within India together at least till the ouster of the British from the Indian sub-continent. But we are aware of what the departing British administration had done to our country.
This period, between 1942 to 1947 and a decade prior to this, is very important and interesting in Indian history because by that time, Gandhiji had in a way grown tired of the political manoeuvrings of the Congress and its rival Muslim League, and also Gandhiji was facing the heat both from the faction led by Subhash Chandra Bose who demanded direct action through military means (or rather violent means) and the issue of untouchability and separate constitution for the Dalits raised by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar. Gandhiji led the Dandi March in 1930 and later a series of discussions with the British Authorities which had resulted into the provincial governments. Gandhiji also had seen the infights for power by the Indian leaders and also the growing dissenting by the Jan Sangh, the right wingers and the socialists within the Congress who would soon declare their independence by forming the Communist Party of India. Interestingly both the RSS (the Hindu Maha Sabha/Jan Sangh backed cadre group) and the Communists neither joined the non-cooperation movement nor the Quit India Movement. Both had their own reasons to do so. Subhash Bose’s escape to Singapore, from there to Tokyo and the formation of Azad Hindu Fauj (Indian National Army) and a special regiment for women (Jhansi Rani Regiment) and so on had spiced up the scenario of the Independence struggle of India amidst a War worn world. The Quit India Movement stands right in the middle of all these. An exhibition on this cannot be boring especially when the National Archives brings out its valuable documents on display.
I should say the exhibition is disappointing mainly because it’s lopsided and badly put together. A National Archives Show cannot be this garish and shoddy. The exhibition has everything but nothing. First of all there is not a single photograph in its original pristine form from the archives. Each photograph is blown up and digitally printed on flex materials to make the visual large and too visible to comfort. Once you enter a very badly done portrait relief of Mahatma Gandhi welcomes you. A speaker on the left corner belts out some patriotic song which actually kills the mood of the show. The lighting is full flash flood; hence everything is under ‘lime light’ literally. No focusing of lights or dramatisation of visual. Everything is like an election campaign in an open street full of varying visual vying for attention and a cacophony of indistinct sounds and music. The indistinct sound comes from a film division documentary projected in 35 mm scale marring the visual concentration splitting into unexpected pixellations. On our right is an enlarged round rimmed spectacles to suggest Mahatma Gandhi and each glass has a back projection with some Quit India material. The old caskets like museum containers have the old documents displayed. There are interactive touch screens but no head phones; that means they are meant to read, not to listen. The four halls thus filled with flex boards and the fourth hall is your ‘Man ki Bath’ documentary along with other photographs.
Sir, here I have to tell one thing what had put me off at the outset itself. First, the flex boards and not a single pristine photograph from the time, which I would have looked at for a longer time absorbing the days of struggle for Indian independence. Flex boards are good for election campaigns not for museum level exhibitions. I am aware of the ongoing ‘language problem’ in India. Hindi is our National Language, no doubt (I can read and speak in Hindi). There is a militant opposition for Hindi in South and the North Eastern parts of India. We had recently seen the blackening of the Hindi signage in Bengaluru metro stations. But sir, when we have an exhibition in the capital city of India, don’t we think that our viewers are not going to be just Indians but foreigners too. What is atrocious sir (please don’t mind my English) is the ‘Hindi’ forced at the face of the viewers. Its Hindi, Hindi and Hindi. I searched for a single English note that simultaneously explains what the exhibit is all about. No. Only Hindi. It is almost like saying, If you don’t know Hindi, please Get Out. You are not welcome here. I also thought that the whole exhibition was done for people who just had cataract operation. Each letter is six inches big which really do not help one to read unless a huge distance is between the letters and the reader. Lack of scientific approach in design and display. The same electioneering approach.
Sir, I understand that language is identity (one of the elements that helps one form an identity and crisis too) and one should be proud of one’s mother tongue as well as national language. But at the same time, sir, language is a window to the world. If we are sticking to one language means we are closing not only windows but also doors. If we are talking about a new India, then it is an India that has opened its windows and doors to let the foreign winds to come in also the national breezes to waft across and as Gandhiji had put it, ‘never to be blown away by those currents’. Hence sir, these are the avenues where we really need to think about using multiple languages so that we tell the world by that gesture itself that look we are a new India and we are surging to grow and also we are true to our tradition, athithi devo bhava (Guest is God) and we make you comfortable including in the use of our language. Here the Quit India exhibition at the National Archives is clearly meant for Indians that too the North Indians who are natural Hindi speaking and reading people. Sir, it is not democracy; it is not inclusion. Sir, it is exclusion. By doing this, you have excluded me from my own country’s heritage. When I was there, right in the middle of the cacophony hardly five people were there and I realized later that all of them were from the office or the department. I was the lone visitor! Right from the Central Secretariat to the National Archives, almost a kilometre, while walking I found the flex boards announcing this show displayed along the tall iron fencing. Sir, if you really wanted the show to be Hindi and to be ‘seen’ by people, the whole show could have been kept there in the street, displayed in the fences because hundreds of people are there in the road but none inside the archives.
The Quit India exhibition gives out some more pointers. Though the exhibition organizers had not provided anyone with any magnifying glasses, which is mandatory to read small prints, I trained my eyes to see the names and details printed in the documents. I have to say this that however you try and purge this country of the Muslim traditions and cleanse the history of the Islamic contributions in socio-cultural and political life of India you wouldn’t be able to do that. To do that perhaps, you have to start a new National Archives and put the existing one for incineration. Our country’s history cannot be without the contributions of the Muslims. Even in the Azad Hind Fauj I see a number of Muslims. By the way sir, one of the first martyrs of INA hails from my village and INA Hero Vakkom Abdul Khader’s home is next to my home. I understand that this exhibition has given quite bit stress on Azad Hind Fauj and Subhash Bose. I don’t remember seeing a good presence of Nehru. I know you have the political as well as ideological reasons to do so. But sir, pitching anything to prove a point which does not have historical proof would develop internal contradictions causing the final collapse. And at times, sir, however we try we wouldn’t be able to include those who were not in the Quit India Movement. Though you perhaps would feel to have the early RSS and Hindu Maha Sabha leaders into the narrative, it wouldn’t be possible because they simply were not in the movement! You should seriously think about this internal dynamics of history. However, we try to create new history, the histories that have gone by would show up unexpectedly or rather come out like the ghost carnival from the vaults of archives. You can always interpret history but you cannot change history. You can include yourself in the history by virtue of your works, but you cannot create a new folklore and call it history.
Sir, this exhibition could have been really great had it not been limited by its design, language and promotion. What ails our country at least in the cultural field is our greed for numbers than quality. This exhibition, had it been given to historians who have studied the particular portions deeply to curate it and also had assigned designers from well known design schools (Gujarat boasts the best design school in India, NID) to create the show, and if you had consulted good communicators regarding the use of language and employed a good advertising agency to promote the show, things would have been absolutely different. We have still time sir. Please set the ideological agenda aside when it comes to project India to its own people and the guests. New India and Make in India, your ideas have a lot of value but obviously not like this one. Make in India cannot be so shoddy an affair like this Quit India exhibition because we have always better professionals in this country.