Rabindranath Tagore and Santiniketan have both been neglected, their values and ethos have been allowed to crumble and decay, without the remotest effort being made to keep alive, celebrate, rekindle and enhance the raison d’être of the great man and his world view in today’s context. The challenge of ensuring creative transformations with the changing times has been non-existent. The once-upon-a-time fame, energy and vitality of Santiniketan have been diluted to the point of no return. Therefore, all the palaver about the auction in London of the Tagore paintings seems hypocritical. India could not prevent the Nobel award bestowed upon Tagore from being stolen from Santiniketan. It needs to put some management parameters in place before asking for or acquiring any more valuable artefact.
Acts such as these sum up the absence of priorities that plagues our brutalized land. Every single museum in the hands of the government and its babus, including the National Museum, is falling apart. No one at the top cares, and no one at the top works to bring about a complete overhaul. As with almost all things in India, leaders and babus complicate simple realities by finding explanations and excuses to prevent every small change, knowing well that true, simple changes could rock their stationary boat. They want no questions asked, no changes made and no delivery completed. Had there been ‘statesmen’ at the helm, individual leaders would have been compelled to deliver on a clearly enunciated and established mandate. Today, there is no comprehension, no commitment to the job, and zero accountability.
It was during the rule of Indira Gandhi that modern works of art were bought by our national museums and institutions. She understood the importance of the larger cultural traditions, past and contemporary. These disciplines were not placed on the back-burners and neglected, as they are today. She reached out to the young as well as to the experienced. Her friends and acquaintances were from a multitude of professions, and with varied interests, both here and abroad. She met and spoke, listened and worked. She never treated ‘culture’ with disdain. She silently supported and backed the Pupul Jayakars and others to transform their intangible thoughts into institutional realities. Certain things went wrong, others transcended time. But she had the guts to take risks and step out of line, disregarding the predictable cautioning by uninitiated bureaucrats who have been trained and taught to find a way ‘not-to-do’. She ‘used’ the bureaucrat and did not let the babu ‘use’ and manipulate her.
Surely, we need to resurrect our national and state museums from the abysmal state that they are in before we bring great artworks from protected spaces into our diseased ones. Let us sweep out the muck, display our unmatched treasures with skill and care, generate the much-needed pride, and then join in the international bids to acquire more. This cacophony of political voices asking for ‘their treasures’ to be returned for free, paintings that legitimately belong to others, is embarrassing and shameful. If India wants a particular object, India should pay the market price for it because only then will India respect, protect and conserve it.
We have permitted the government to destroy our legacy by keeping true professionals from civil society out of the governance of cultural institutions. Uninitiated babus have ruled. When enlightened leaders set the parameters, babus partially delivered if they felt they were being watched. Otherwise, they were on guard not to reveal themselves as they marked time. When the babu found that his bosses were not really interested or committed to ‘culture’, he was the first to checkmate the king. This must change.