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Museum to the humanised hero

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Pune’s Swaraj Museum caters to the attention-deficit, technology-driven youngster

In his 1934 work Art as Experience, the American philosopher, educationist and polymath John Dewey remarks that “the enemies of the aesthetic are neither the practical nor the intellectual. They are the humdrum; slackness of loose ends; submission to convention in practice and intellectual procedure.”

City-based designer Shekhar Badve imbibed this aphorism while designing the Swaraj Museum — the Pune Municipal Corporation’s ambitious ₹5 crore venture chronicling Pune’s contribution in India’s early struggle for independence.

The museum serves history in cutting-edge design environments, deploying a hybrid of art disciplines and technology.

Badve believes that a typical museum experience of today should be “inviting, refreshing and modern.”

But Pune’s heritage has often manifested in museums in a most static and quotidian manner. It is to remedy this ‘experiential ennui’, as Badve puts it, that the Swaraj Museum was conceptualised by a team at his firm, Lokus Design.

Located in a narrow, bustling bylane behind the Peshwa-era Shaniwar wada Fort, the two-storey ‘Nana wada’ (where the great leader of the Maratha Confederacy Nana Fadnavis once resided) was specially requisitioned for the project by the Pune civic body.

A team of 50 artists and designers, with advice from two historians, worked round the clock to bring the project — which covers a broad historical timeline, from the 1830s to the 1920s — to fruition.

A sensory playground

The ‘wada’ has been partitioned into 40-odd rooms, capturing the role played by warriors, revolutionaries and intellectual firebrands who waged the early struggle against the British Raj. Through each ‘room’ dedicated to a personality, history springs to life.

“We asked ourselves: Is the early 19th century warrior Umaji Naik, relevant to attention-deficit, technology-driven youngsters for whom history is anathema?” says Badve.

Swaraj Museum has, importantly, chosen to humanise its heroes rather than render them as emblematic deities.

Museum to the humanised hero
 

It is a marvellous, sensory playground where one feels the thrill of Umaji Naik’s early triumphs, with a mural depicting him unfurl the Maratha flag at Purandar Fort.

Then there is the visual history of the armed struggle of the Ramoshis, led by Vasudev Balwant Phadke, which includes sidelights like the robbing of government treasuries. This is intermingled with scenes from Phadke’s everyday life, making this distant 19th century hero more accessible to the uninitiated.

The project transcends traditional museum displays that merely exhibit artefacts and objects: it gives an often visceral feel of the time and geography of Poona and central India in the 19th century.

Except for the keenest history buff, Lahuji Salve — widely regarded as mentor to the early armed revolutionaries — is not a name that immediately springs to one’s mind. But in the Swaraj Museum, Lahuji’s life and his precepts, in which he encouraged youngsters to overthrow the British through arms, is vividly brought to life. His 19th century talimm (wrestling arena or training centre), where he instructed youngsters in arms, is recreated in one of the museum rooms.

Museum to the humanised hero
 

Likewise, to emphasise the stark contrast between the lives of ordinary Indians and the English governing classes during a famine (possibly the 1876 famine), shrewd use is made of 3D printing technology whereby a scene showing the English ‘babus’ in callous revelry cuts to the plight of farmers in drought-racked Poona.

A number of segments have also been presented in comic form, for the benefit of younger audiences. “I believe in good stories and I believe that most people love good stories,” Badve says.

Moving with the Mahatma

He coupled this philosophy with a keen attention to detail while designing the Gandhi Teerth museum in Jalgaon, spread over a sprawling 65,000 sq. ft. area in the district’s Jain Hills.

“We designed it as a visual recreation of Story of My Experiments with Truth, telling Gandhi’s life using the most modern gesture-based technology and 3D mapping techniques,” he says. Visitors feel they are moving with the Mahatma in South Africa, sharing his moral dilemmas, triumphs, mistakes.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak, a passionate nationalist, teacher, reformer, lawyer, was also a highly-effective propagandist, who awakened masses through his newspapers Kesari and Maratha has a dedicated ‘room’.

“To convey his intellectual milieu and engagement with ideas, we have made extensive use of typography while designing his room with a myriad types and fonts shrouding Tilak’s bust placed at the centre. The point is to generate an interest in Tilak’s writings and ideas through these motifs.”

Badve’s next project, he says, is the history of Sinhagad Fort which will be situated within the ruins of the bastion itself. “Apart from the legends of Shivaji and Tanaji Malusare (after whom the fort derives its current name), the fort has a rich history stretching back a thousand years. But our narration opens with a grandfather poignantly reminiscing to his grandson,” he says.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2020 4:53:43 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/art/museum-to-the-humanised-hero/article19697636.ece

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