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A guest of the President

The weekly change of guard. Photo: Happymon Jacob  

Though the head of the Indian State occupies Rashtrapati Bhavan in the heart of New Delhi; to the general public, it is a colonial building and a reminder of the British rule in the country. To most ordinary Indians, the building is a source of mystery: the site of inscrutable high-politics, un-republic-like pomp, and bothersome protocol. The 13th and current President, Pranab Mukherjee, who was himself mystified by it till he occupied it in 2012, decided to bring the Raj-era building closer to the nation by throwing it open to the people at large. Today, one can visit Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Mughal Gardens with far more ease by using an online booking platform.

The 340-room Rashtrapati Bhavan was built by Sir Edwin Lutyens with red and cream sandstone, in the middle of a sprawling 330-acre estate atop Raisina Hill. Even as efforts are made to make the place less colonial and more people-friendly, the building’s grandeur and majesty is jealously maintained by its curators. The long corridors, portraits of Viceroys and the British Royalty, and occasional pieces of modern art set aside the building as one of its kind.

Yet an outsider’s gaze cannot really talk about what actually happens there. So I was quite excited by a surprising invitation from Rashtrapati Bhavan to be a guest of the President for a week. I joined a group of 31 teachers from India’s Central Universities to stay at Rashtrapati Bhavan earlier this month. This flagship programme — “Inspired Teachers In-Residence Programme at Rashtrapati Bhavan” initiated this year — offered exciting and enriching fare ranging from intellectual engagements with the President (in the historic Long Drawing Room) to witnessing the weekly Change of Guard Ceremony, the Swearing-in Ceremonies in the Durbar Hall, walking through the long corridors lined with imposing columns and watching the equestrian training of the President’s bodyguards. By the way, if you are not a six-foot tall Rajput, Jat or Jat Sikh, don’t even bother applying for the job.

Spending a week at Rashtrapati Bhavan allows one to experience daily life in this small, but picturesque, model township. One also gets to watch the constitutional functions of the presidency from close quarters. We often lost our way in this huge building but our in-house tour guide Roshan Singh ensured that we had a pleasant and memorable stay.

This is a very happening place, not the lazy leisurely place we imagine it to be. There’s more than just official business. Rashtrapati Bhavan hosts a number of literary, cultural and intellectual functions. There was a concert by Begum Parveen Sultana; a special screening of Piku with actors Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan and director Shoojit Sircar in the audience. Bachchan introduced the film as one about the relationship between a father and daughter, with the daughter caring for her “father who suffers from I will not say what now.” While the rest of us laughed right through the film, he maintained a serious face! But then it’s not every day that you hear Bachchan say that he is “happy to see the ‘inspired teachers’ from India’s Central Universities in our midst.”

Among the many thoughtful initiatives, two projects initiated by President Mukherjee stand out: Samagam, a community initiative for senior citizens, and a school for special children on the Rashtrapati Bhavan campus. A visit to the latter was a heart-warming experience with 15 to 20 laughing kids wishing us a “good evening” and listening intently to the instructions of their therapists. In Samagam, citizens over 65 years of age meet for a few hours on weekdays to sing, dance, watch films and practice yoga under the care of the wives of the Rashtrapati Bhavan officers. Every township and university campus should follow this example and set up such initiatives for special children and senior citizens.

During our stay, we interacted with the Vice-Chairman of NITI Ayog, the HRD Minister, and others, and expressed our concerns with the central government’s higher education policy.

We stayed at ‘Peacock Service Apartments’. We soon realised why it was named so. There were peacocks everywhere. When one went on a morning walk, they were perched atop trees and spreading their wings and screaming loudly when you retired into the night.

The inscription on the Jaipur Column in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan reads: “In thought faith; In word wisdom; In deed courage; In life service; So may India be great.” In times such as this, we need a lot more faith, wisdom, courage, and service to ensure that the idea of India is not sabotaged.

The writer is Assistant Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2021 7:51:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/happymon-jacob-on-life-at-rashtrapati-bhavan/article7360735.ece

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