Following a phase of decline, the Capital’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library has regained its former glory as a hub for the social sciences

“Indians are far better at destroying institutions than at nurturing them,” Ramachandra Guha had observed in an essay a few years back in Outlook, counting historian B.R. Nanda, founder director of New Delhi’s Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), and his successor Ravinder Kumar as rare exceptions.

Under their aegis, NMML, an autonomous institution under the Ministry of Culture, became a repository of documents relating to all aspects of the freedom movement, and the venue for lively seminars and enlightened scholarship. It was a fitting homage to Jawaharlal Nehru, a scholar and an institution builder, who lived in Teen Murti House, where NMML is situated.

After a glorious run through the 80s and 90s, however, NMML seemed to have succumbed to the familiar story of institutional decay. In 2009, in a note to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, also the then Minister of Culture, a group of scholars outlined four objective indicators of the institution’s decline, in the areas of its publications programme, research material, staff morale, and academic culture. The threat of NMML “becoming a failed institution” loomed large.

This decline appears to have been arrested now, and signs indicate that NMML is well on its way to reclaiming its former glory. Fresh oxygen was infused in the last two years, through a combination of energising existing programmes and instituting new ones, much of it was made possible through grants for modernisation. “We are trying to broaden the focus, but retain the core strengths,” said Mahesh Rangarajan, the current director of NMML.

The centrepiece of the campus, the Nehru Museum is in the process of being redesigned, to enable it to serve better the nearly 12,000 visitors it gets daily. Here, particular attention will be paid to the events after the freedom struggle as also the history of the site.

“At the risk of sounding glib, we have tried to bring the city and people across the world to Teen Murti,” said Mr. Rangarajan. “We see it as a hub for ideas about the study of India in the widest sense, in the broad humanist spirit of the times Nehru lived in. For this place to be a hub it has to be a crossroads. It cannot be a hub in and of itself. A community of scholars and very highly accomplished staff is still a very small community. We will be able to work better only if more people come in.”

According to Dr. Rakhee Kalita Moral, a current fellow with NMML, working on the subject of the conflict in Assam with a particular emphasis on woman combatants, “The good thing about NMML is that it is constantly engaging you with the work of other people and this kind of coming together of various aspects of new thought in social sciences makes it very exciting for anyone willing to open oneself up to new knowledge.” Her views were echoed by Dr. Anu Kapur, a senior fellow and the first geographer to be granted the fellowship, who also emphasised that at the NMML “one can be the kind of fellow one wants to be. It gives you a space for contemplation, which is a necessity for the social sciences.”

The oral history project has resumed, with recordings of noted personalities like former Chief Minister of Nagaland S.C. Jamir and film archivist and scholar P.K. Nair. The archives have been boosted with the addition of the private papers and photographs of naturalist M. Krishnan, poet and architect Adil Jussawalla, scholar Amrita Rangaswamy and mathematician and historian D.D. Kosambi among others. “In August, the first volume of the selected works of Rajaji will be published. The nine-volume project is expected to be finished within three years,” Mr. Rangarajan informed.

Apart from the Tuesday seminar series (continuing since the early 70s) and the conferences and workshops, both of which have seen a spurt in recent years, a public lecture series has been instituted, whereby scholars affiliated to different universities and institutions in India and abroad present a paper. From 27 public lectures in 2012, the number has risen to 80. Organised under broad themes (‘Rethinking History’, ‘Interrogating Social Justice’, ‘Science, Society and Nature’, ‘India and the Wider World’) these lectures have now begun to be uploaded onto the NMML website in audio format; the videos will soon be uploaded, too. June onwards, the papers written by NMML fellows and some of the speakers will be uploaded onto the website.

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