Exhibition of neglect

The Aga Khan Palace museum in Pune is in dire need of upkeep. Photo: Jignesh Mistry  

There are ways of seeing and then there are ways of seeing a museum. Historian Vinay Lal taught me the latter.

During a recent trip to Aga Khan Palace in Pune’s Yerwada area, I felt the despair of a historian.

The palace museum, a beautiful building, is in a shambles. Most of the paintings and photographs that chronicle important landmarks of India’s freedom struggle are in need of immediate restoration (most are beyond repair). Exhibits languish in neglect and bear scars of graffiti by overzealous visitors, even their cracked frames not replaced. Many parts of the museum have developed cracks and water stains.

When this is the physical condition of the museum, it is no surprise that no thought has gone into curating or organising the images on its walls. A sorry state of affairs, indeed.

Aga Khan Palace was built in 1892 by Sultan Muhammed Shah Aga Khan, the 48th spiritual leader of the Khoja Ismaili sect. During the Quit India movement, Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, and personal secretary Mahadev Desai were interned here from August 9, 1942. Also imprisoned here were Mirabehn, Sarojini Naidu, Sushila Nayar and Pyarelal Nayar. Desai died of a heart attack six days after his arrest and Kasturba passed away after 18 months of prolonged illness. Their samadhis are located on the premises. The white marble memorial, designed by celebrated architect Charles Correa, still stands. Gandhi was released from Aga Khan Palace on May 6, 1944. In 1969, Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, donated the palace to the Indian government. It was declared a monument of national importance by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 2003.

The rooms occupied by Gandhi and the others were converted into a museum containing paintings, photographs and various personal belongings of Gandhi and Kasturba. Neelam Mahajan, a volunteer guide appointed by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, has guided several thousand visitors through the palace, including the likes of Giani Zail Singh, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Neelam Sanjiva Reddy, I.K. Gujral, Manmohan Singh and Pratibha Patil, during her more than three decades of association with the palace. Mahajan was also present when Richard Attenborough came here to shoot his magnum opus, Gandhi, and remembers the 10-day holiday that was declared for the shoot.

She was a student of National Model School, which operated from the premises of the palace from 1956 to 1972 before it was converted to Ba Bapu Memorial. No entry fee was charged then. From 1980, the Gandhi Society introduced a ticket of Rs. 2 and Rs. 5 for children and adults, respectively, which is now Rs. 15 for Indians and Rs. 200 for foreign nationals. The museum gets around 500 visitors a day.

Mahajan, who gets a monthly honorarium of Rs. 6,000, has seen little improvement or maintenance over the years. “Governments come and go. They all make promises (to revive the palace) but you can see the situation for yourself. I feel demotivated to walk visitors through the rooms to show them fading and torn photographs and paintings. Every second visitor asks about the state of apathy here. What do I tell them?”

ASI took over the palace from the Maharashtra government in 2003 and developed a road around the palace, built toilets and parking space, and painted and repaired parts of the building. The exhibits, however, continue in a pathetic state.

When questioned, B.G. Yelikar, conservation assistant of Pune’s ASI branch, says, “We have asked for funds and a new museum is on the cards. Repair work will also begin soon.” When probed further, he defends the work, “You can’t imagine how bad it was before we took over. Yes, some paintings and photographs have been damaged, but we will replace them.”

Kunal Ray teaches English literature in Pune and writes on art and culture.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 9:53:58 AM |

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