The first thing that strikes you when you start driving out of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is how orderly everything seems. Even the trees grow, neatly spaced, in a straight line. That impression is reinforced by everything you encounter. Well, fair enough, one thinks, after all, much of Holland is reclaimed land, and planned construction allows one to impose a linear order on nature.
But what accounts for the people here? As far as one sees and hears and reads, it is the same mad human race that inhabits this space, the one that drives badly elsewhere; will not stand in queues; talks loudly and violates rules; spits, urinates and defecates in public spaces; and evades tax. What makes them so well-behaved here? (Rude, but well-behaved!) I don’t know, but it should be a wonder of the world.
We sat at the window everyday and watched Leiden file by, in perfect order. Traffic is orderly, trains are orderly, people are orderly. (You get the picture.)
And we remembered Ranganathan Street and its chaos. The mad traffic of humans, cows and cars at the entrance of Colaba market. The craziness of trying to get on or off a plane or train in India. Spitting at no-spitting signs. Sticking posters over do-not-stick warnings. Men urinating everywhere unless there is the picture of a god, goddess or saint (the origins of image worship?) before them. “Queues” pressed abreast a teller’s counter. And held our heads in our hands at the memory.
Why do we preen at our bad behaviour? Indeed, why do most humans defend really bad behaviour by using words like: spontaneous, free, open, natural… what is natural about lack of consideration or lack of civic sense? Sometimes we also romanticize it: this is how we are, the world marvels at our functioning chaos, our chaos is colourful, being in India is about experiencing heat, dust and dirt.
It makes me cringe. It makes me sad. It makes me want to step out and try to change things.
One of the things I really want to change is the way we run our museums. The Dutch love their museums and why not, they are everywhere, you can enter free on certain days, they are well laid out and organized and you can actually learn something while having fun.
There are some very obvious problems with museums in India: lack of resources, lack of skilled workers, low priority status in the face of other issues and a public that will neither pay willingly nor take care of existing resources. I have visited the Colombo Museum twice, and it has been a few years now so it could have changed, but to get to the most amazing part of their collection (in my view of course)—their bronzes—you had to walk far into the back, past some very dull exhibits of boats and bats. Contrast that to the Rijksmuseum that we visited a few weeks ago: it is undergoing huge repairs and renovation but instead of shunting a few works into a tent or basement, they have taken the trouble to renovate one wing and curate a smaller collection of masterpieces that they show with the same care and attention to detail as if it were their entire permanent collection. The result: a wonderful, learning experience for the hundreds who walk through everyday.
I have visited some amazing museums in South Asia and they deserve a mention here if only to show that we could do as well as anyone if we cared enough. In no particular order:
- Lok Virsa, Islamabad, showcases the folk cultures of Pakistan. It is user-friendly, entertaining and teaches without inducing sleep. The staff are very welcoming, especially if you are an Indian.
- Dakshina Chitra, Chennai, recreates the art, architecture and material culture of South India on a sprawling (and sadly still shade-less) campus. Each reconstructed house is furnished in traditional style, down to the line of family photographs. You become interested in spite of yourself and the heat.
- The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is the first museum I visited that I really enjoyed walking through. This was seventeen years ago and there wasn’t enough text to explain the art, but it was still a good experience because the exhibited works were well-arranged and there was enough light to look at them everywhere.
- Chennai’s newly re-done bronze gallery is fabulous. Where the other sections are still like dressed up warehouses galleys, the bronze gallery shows what the Museum staff are capable of if someone cared enough to support them.
- Victoria Memorial, Calcutta, where I first noticed paintings with interest because they were so beautifully laid out that they looked even more beautiful.
- Dinkar Kelkar Museum, Pune, whose collection of everyday objects is exquisite. I learnt to notice beauty in small things by seeing how Dinkar Kelkar saw.
- New Delhi’s Railway Museum and Dolls’ Museum are also remarkable little treasures.
I want to stress that the problem is not with the exhibits. There are gorgeous and fascinating objects in the collections of the Calcutta Museum (Asiatic Society), in the Archaeological Survey’s museum in Delhi and in the Museum in Bombay (which has been recently redone, I hear). But when will we learn to enjoy them? And cherish them?
Who in their right mind would deny that India’s, South Asia’s civilization and arts are rare in their antiquity and their excellence? Not Indians, who are justifiably proud of this inheritance. When however, I see how the Dutch (and the Belgians) cherish and showcase every small aspect of their culture (art, musical instruments, chocolates, posters, stamps, trains, etc.), I am saddened and moved to act on our behalf.
We have so much to show and showcase, even conceding to cultural studies scholars that all showcasing is problematic. I want to be part of an effort to showcase well. And I want to be part of an effort to make us take a real interest in our own heritage. I worry that what we are getting left with is the stuff that was meant for the garbage dump—puberty and widowhood rituals played out over three to five days in all Sun TV serials, for instance. We are losing our appreciation of our own textiles, our understanding of our iconography and architecture, our taste for our own food and our embrace of our own inner diversity.
That is another striking comparison, by the way. Indians are constantly negotiating the politics of our diversity. It is interesting to watch how the Dutch, like other Europeans, are learning to see themselves as not culturally homogeneous. This is the beginning of an interesting journey for them, and one that is slightly further along in the US. From India’s point of view, their current politics is our ancient and continuing history. Stratification, hierarchy and ethnic diversity have been a part of every period in every South Asian region’s history.
The mirror shows you your face and when you point at someone, your fingers point back at you! That travel teaches you a lot, goes without saying. When you travel widely and spend time outside your home, you know that travel—like any other form of education—ultimately teaches you more about yourself than anything outside of you. From the vantage point of Leiden Centraal, the clearest view was the one closest to home for me—and maybe in some way, for you too?