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Independence Day: History doesn’t happen, it is shaped by us

The ‘March To Freedom’ exhibit at Kolkata’s Indian Museum provokes curiosity and tries to tell a story through objects from the vast collection of DAG

The handwritten postcards at the Indian Museum in Kolkata record moments from ordinary lives.
The handwritten postcards at the Indian Museum in Kolkata record moments from ordinary lives. (Sandip Roy)

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My late grandfather’s account of 15th August is rather funny. A bunch of village kids with no money or resources stole ‘gamchas’ (traditional cotton towels) and hoisted them on a bunch of sticks and ran through the rice fields overjoyed about a free India.”

“My grandmother’s father was in the police but he still took part in the swadeshi movement. On 15th August people went around their neighbourhood announcing that the country had become independent.”

“In 1947 my granddad was born. My grandfather’s father used to work for the British people. He used to design rifles for the police. During that time he worked hard.”

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“We were never a rich family. But my grandpa bought a transistor with his salary which was too costly for him to afford. I remember him telling me with a lot of pride that in the same year he and my grandma did not buy any new clothes. But they wanted to hear the joy and declaration of independence.”

The handwritten little yellow postcards strewn on a table at the Indian Museum in Kolkata, the oldest in the country, made me wistful. I grew up with my grandparents, even my great-grandmother, but never thought to ask them what they had done on 15 August 1947. There was family lore about the great-aunt who had tasted the policeman’s baton. My mother would tell stories of families drawing the curtains and huddling around the radio to hear Subhas Bose announce “Aami Subhas bolchhi (This is Subhas speaking).”

But for me, the story of Indian independence largely existed in a parade of dates and events—Simon Commissions, Wavell Plans and Mahatma Gandhi satyagrahas. I had no place in that story.

The exhibit March To Freedom at the Indian Museum feels different. It actually encourages visitors to take part in the march to freedom, writing their (or their grandparents’) memories on yellow postcards. Another table has a list of pivotal events—Indigo Revolt, Santhal Rebellion, Quit India Movement and so on. Visitors are asked to classify them as they see fit—war/revolt/riot/movement. “I am having to unlearn a lot of things,” says anthropology student (and Saadat Hasan Manto fan) Disha Subramaniam. “I thought the story was about Indians vs Britishers. But it’s more complicated. There’s the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch. There were events like the Santhal Rebellion which I never read about in school.”

We are used to thinking of museums as providing answers, with the certainty of facts—seventh century sandstone, 11th century bronze, silver gelatin print on paper, 1940. “I do acknowledge that we go to museums for answers but museums are not just a storehouse of information,” exhibition curator Mrinalini Venkateswaran tells me. “They are also about provoking wonder and curiosity. If you actually think about the Hindi/Urdu word for museum, it is ajaaeb ghar, a wonder house. A museum ought to be a place that provokes curiosity and wonder.”

But very little in my upbringing encouraged curiosity. You were told to stick to the syllabus, follow the rules and not ask too many questions. Curiosity, we were warned, had killed the cat. And the museum was the place which displayed its stuffed body, complete with its Latin name, year of demise and taxidermist’s information. You absorbed the information laid out, admired the taxidermy, but did not wonder about the kind of cat it might have been. Or why it merited a place in the museum.

March To Freedom tries to tell a story through objects from the vast collection of DAG, one of India’s leading independent galleries. But it is also curious about the past, sometimes questioning the very objects being displayed. There’s a marvellous set of enamelled metal collectible figures from the Delhi Durbar of 1903, made by William Britain, a clockmaker who went into the toy soldier business in London. Lord and Lady Curzon ride on gorgeous caparisoned elephants, followed by the nizam of Hyderabad and the maharaja of Bikaner, while bullocks pull the silver cannon of Baroda. But the show asks the viewer: “Is this one reason why foreigners still think of India as the land of maharajas and elephants, as though nothing has changed since the British Raj?… Who do you think buys such figures? Would you?”

The section on the figures who shaped the freedom movement has, as Venkateswaran puts it, “the usual suspects”—Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji—but there is also a large portrait of B.R. Ambedkar and an 1805 engraving of Tipu Sultan, a far more contested nationalist figure these days. There’s a whole wall of brightly coloured serigraphs of Gandhi with inspirational quotes. But on the opposite wall the cartoons of Chittaprosad (whose works were burnt by the British colonial government) ask mocking pointed questions of Gandhi and Nehru. “I wasn’t explicitly thinking of those two groups (of pictures) in conversation with each other,” says Venkateswaran. “But that’s what’s nice about exhibitions. We can create connections in our own heads when we visit them.”

Most provocatively, the exhibition asks the visitor who they think might be missing. It wonders about the artwork that represented the Santhal revolt, the role of Dalits and women. In an essay in the catalogue, Maroona Murmu, professor of history at Jadavpur University in Kolkata, writes that in Dalit nationalist consciousness the 1857 war of independence was triggered by the “untouchable ‘Bhangi Matadin Hela’ who, after being refused water by Mangal Pandey, retaliated by asking him what happened to his Brahmanism and Hinduism when he bit the cartridges of the Enfield rifle” (greased with cow/pig fat). Mangal Pandey himself shows up in a small, brightly coloured 1910 offset print with his rifle pointed at a cowering company soldier. It’s not great art, and it’s unclear who made these prints and why, admits Venkateswaran, but she says it’s one of the few examples of artwork that offers an “Indian view of the events of 1857”. In contrast, there’s a huge engraving of The Relief Of Lucknow & Triumphant Meeting of Havelock, Outram & Sir Colin Campbell, November 1857, marking the moment when the siege of the British Residency of Lucknow was lifted. The white figures are at the centre, heroic on horseback. The Indians are crowded around the edges, many in gestures of supplication, arms outstretched.

Venkateswaran says “there is a baseline where most of us look at a photograph or a picture and think okay, this is what it is, but I hope this encourages one to question that. One begins to see that art is not necessarily true.”

Or, as Disha Subramaniam put it, we can “unlearn a lot of things”.

Our approach to the independence story has been to basically flip the good guys and the bad guys. The terrorists of British times became freedom fighters in our retelling but the story still retained an Amar Chitra Katha linear simplicity. An old poster of a Shaheed Bhagat Singh biopic starring Shammi Kapoor, which says “this is the story which everyone knows, this is the character which everyone respects”, might well have been describing the history- book version of the independence movement.

The march to freedom was not quite so linear or clear-cut. A section on imperial monuments reminds us that the courts, jails and secretariats from which India was administered were also the places from where Indians challenged the authorities. A series of brightly coloured railway posters of Shimla, Sarnath and Jodhpur show how the British were trying to shape and sell an idea of exotic and colourful India. But the posters do not tell us that the railways were not really constructed to make it easier for Indians to visit the Mehrangarh fort or go on pilgrimage to Sarnath. They were built to make it convenient to ship raw materials to factories in England.

It’s a reminder, Venkateswaran says, “that history is not just a thing that happens. It’s a thing that we shape.” And the way we shape it, and then reshape it, reminds us, as the exhibition does, that just as our past was not inevitable, neither is our future.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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