On fixing India’s cultural spaces (24 March 2018)

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 24 2018)

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It might be sacrilege to make a declaration such as this but visiting the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican last week, I was more than a little underwhelmed by the mood of the place. The famous ceiling of this famous building is, no doubt, exquisite, what with Michelangelo reluctantly giving up his sculptor’s tools to paint its frescoes, neck craned for a full four years to achieve this 16th century feat. But the overall climate of the building today is disappointing. Part of the blame rests with my guide who, two hours earlier, had started to fan anticipation, dinning endless rules into my head—we could not speak inside the chapel, no questions could be asked, and the only sentiment permitted was unsmiling solemnity, textured with reverence and awe. As it happened, the chapel was all crowd, sweat, and refractory chatter, not helped by guards on loudspeakers shepherding people down the aisles. There was no room to stand, and before my stipulated time had elapsed, I decided to decamp, choosing fresh air and the sun over Michelangelo’s monumental art.

The crowds I saw during my visit to Rome did leave me thinking, however, about the deep enchantment Italy sustains for the world at large, droves of tourists digging deep in their pockets for the pleasure of consuming its cultural heritage (mass perspiration notwithstanding). At about a tenth the size of India, Italy is home to five times as many museums, and hosts five times more tourists than we do in our own, more extensive portion of the world. And that is the puzzling part—we have the Taj Mahal and we have Hampi; there is culture and there is cuisine; there are forts and palaces; and there are jewels and infinite objects to enthrall. Most importantly, there are fascinating stories. The ingredients are there, in other words, and yet we fail—to succumb to a vulgar word—to “showcase” the best of our national inheritance. Where are India’s museums, I wondered, and why are there no crowds thronging ancient buildings in such large numbers that guides must hiss and fume when someone prefers the air over awe? Why, if the overcrowded Louvre can draw nine million visitors in a year, do our museums attract less than 100,000 visitors?

It is estimated that India is home to 800-1,000 museums, a minor figure when even our former colonizers in Britain own more than twice that number, while our current rival, China, has proactively established 4,000. Italy has a museum for every 13,000 citizens; India has perhaps one for every 1.3 million. It is another matter that most would not complain about this shortfall given the dreary experience that a visit to our museums involves—besides lines of restless schoolchildren compelled to tour dusty halls and look interested, we have a problem in the way we run institutions of art and culture. Some of it is bureaucracy—the Union ministry of culture oversees a large number of museums, but there are many under other ministries, not to speak of dozens run by local authorities. Budgetary allocations are abysmal—this year, the culture minister has Rs2,843 crore to disburse (about the same as the cost of an extravagant statue planned in Mumbai), of which museums will receive an even smaller slice after allocations to archives, the archaeological survey and other departments are made. In comparison, Italy earned €200 million (around Rs1,600 crore) through sales of entry tickets alone.

Ticketing is a complicated subject. On the one hand is the argument that art and heritage must remain accessible—Rs20, in a poor country, may already seem like a lot. But if there is no revenue of significance from tickets, and if funding from “above” is inadequate, we can at best watch and sigh as our cultural resources crumble into dust—two years ago, it was discovered that 24 monuments had gone “missing” altogether. Occasionally, of course, there are bursts of energy, as when hundreds of crores were invested for the “state of the art” Bihar Museum, or after a generous allocation was made for the Indian Museum in Kolkata in 2014 (where, ironically, millennia-old objects were damaged by inexpert handling only a year later). And then there are private museums, though how accessible these will be to modestly heeled audiences is uncertain. The question is, do we allow cheaper access while the institutions themselves collapse, when smarter ticketing, and the superior quality this ensures, might actually increase the number of visitors? Surely museum passes could be priced at least at par with the average movie ticket, or will the piety associated with cheap entry survive as a smokescreen for our collective failure to do a better job?

There have been encouraging sounds about “rescuing” India’s museums through public-private partnerships, though attempts at pulling these off have not succeeded. One group in Bengaluru, which was to develop the iconic Venkatappa Art Gallery, backed by the city’s leading philanthropists, eventually pulled out two years ago after protests that their intention was to turn the decrepit institution into a “wine and cheese” place. The project fell through, while under leaky roofs with peeling plaster, a set of people certainly felt they had gained a moral victory, oblivious perhaps to a greater loss. That, then, is the sad reality of India’s squandered cultural resources and undersold historical inheritance—in the Sistine Chapel or at the Louvre, it is the want of room that spurs an urge to walk out. In India, home to the most phenomenal of wonders, the question, given the state of our museums, is whether, in the first place, most of us would even consider walking in.

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