A house of history

At Teen Murti Bhavan Photo: Special Arrangement

At Teen Murti Bhavan Photo: Special Arrangement

An arc of lightening briefly illumines the three statues that stand on the traffic island. Dark rain clouds scud across the sky as a busload of tourists dashes past the spiked gates that open into Teen Murti Bhavan, home to Jawaharlal Nehru for 16 years.

Its 30-acre grounds house the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, the Nehru Planetarium and the 14th-Century hunting lodge of Delhi Sultanate ruler, Firuz Shah Tughlaq.

The long drive to the house encompasses a mottled green lawn, filled with hopping mynahs and scurrying squirrels, wreathed with towering dita  trees. A lone cuckoo heralds the impending rains. To the right is a brass plaque inscribed with an extract from the will and testament of Nehru, dated 1954.

Past it, rough-hewn steps lead to Kushak Mahal, the stone-and-mortar shikargarh. Its plain arches, synonymous with Tughlaq buildings, are home to cooing pigeons and selfie-obsessed couples. On the other side stands the planetarium. But it’s the white stone and stucco house, built in 1930, that draws a steady trickle of visitors.

Designed by Robert Tor Russell, distinguished British soldier and architect, whose legacy also includes Delhi’s Connaught Place and the Pataudi Palace, the building was earlier the residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and called Flagstaff House. Later, it was named Teen Murti Bhavan — for the three statues by British sculptor Leonard Jennings to commemorate the Jodhpur, Hyderabad and Mysore lancers, who fought gallantly in battlefields across Syria, Palestine and Sinai in the Great War.

Beside the impressive front portico is an old-fashioned store that sells children’s books, compilations of Nehru’s letters to his daughter and the nation, his other scholarly works, and pictures and postcards to a generation that never knew him. By the entrance hangs an ageing brass bell, presumably used to summon his young grandsons, from the outlying reaches of the house.

A striking framed photograph of Nehru sits on a table in the wood-panelled foyer. Ahead lies a grand marble staircase with a statue of a Garuda on the landing. Scholars occupy the library; to access the museum, one has to journey to the back of the house. Flowers bloom aplenty on the lawns. Creepers frame the recessed windows and the pillared verandah on the first floor. Under the shade of trees are eternal flames lit from the memorials of Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, with their famous speeches carved on stone.

Slatted windows throw light on century-old black-and-white photographs, which capture the life and times of the Nehru family. In room after room with long-ceiling fans, a procession of images follows — of the charming boy who grew into a handsome man. There are pictures of a young Jawahar posing with his lawyer-father Motilal, both in identical dinner jackets and fobs, riding a horse in his beloved Kashmir, wearing a shako and boots as a young cadet at school in Harrow, posing thoughtfully with his sisters — Vijayalakshmi and Krishna — at Anand Bhavan in Allahabad, in graduation robes at Trinity College, Cambridge, wearing the wig and black coat of an advocate, and posing awkwardly in a long achkan on his wedding day, his young wife Kamala shyly holding his arm.

More photographs tumble out of family albums, with brief captions that merge Nehru’s private and public lives. His years as a young father posing with his daughter Indira meld into his years as a politician and Prime Minister, with Tagore, Gandhi and his Cabinet of Ministers. Letters in his famous scrawl complement newspaper articles that sum up for the visitor the history of our freedom struggle and the first decades of Independence. Also, quirky photographs of Nehru, by the legendary Homai Vyarawalla, in an assortment of head gear, playfully tugging at Ho Chi Minh’s beard and posing by a ‘Photography Strictly Prohibited’ signboard. And rows of pictures with his favourite people — children — proof enough to celebrate today as Children’s Day.

Upstairs, Nehru’s spirit and his idea of India live on in the carefully preserved rooms. Behind glass walls, the founding fathers of India meet on the eve of August 15;  Nehru’s desk is filled with pens and ink blotters; the shelves and corridors are lined with hundreds of rare books; and his ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech echoes from a scratchy recording. Exquisite gifts from state visits fill two other rooms. His Bharat Ratna and a fast-yellowing white sherwani and Nehru jacket with a rose in its buttonhole stand alone in a small alcove. And across the landing is the room where he died in 1964. His cot is sheathed in a Kashmiri bedspread, and by it stands a small plaque with the last words he is said to have written — Robert Frost’s ‘I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep’.

‘Way out’ says the brass marker, but before leaving, I look out at the sprawl of Lutyens’ Delhi. In the distance, through a haze of fine rain, is visible the rose-tinted southern façade of Rashtrapati Bhavan. As I walk on from the house that witnessed history as much as it was part of it, I pass a garden with a lone red bloom — a rose for Nehru’s buttonhole.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2022 1:14:26 pm |