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Curzon and Indian history June 22, 2006

Posted by Sharath Rao in history, india.

On a topic I have never really blogged before – Indian history ! Inspired from an article I read about the ten things he hates about India – here.

This is by a Frenchman who has been in India for the last 30 years – yeah, 5 years older than I am ! So I guess its worth a read – not that there is much substantially new. Only one point really caught my attention –

Though a better understanding of the history of the subcontinent could be one of the keys to disentangle difficult problems such as the Kashmir issue, today nobody can access primary sources. They are locked away in the vaults of the Nehru Memorial Library or the almirahs of South Block.All those who have tried to access historical documents since India’s independence will tell you that till the end of babudom, one bureaucrat or another will ensure that you do not access the dusty files. Without fail, you will be courteously informed that India’s security and integrity will be endangered if these precious documents are opened to the public. It is sad that Indians are not entitled to study their past (though they can always visit archives in the West to know more about India!)

I agree with both the points –

(a) It is perhaps 300 years of colonialism which means we are really paranoid about losing it ! ( I dont know what ‘it’ means )

(b) The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston that I visited last May just before I left Boston has an unbelievable collection of Indian art – a 40 feet long corridor with Indian paintings on both sides and about a 1500 sq. feet size room with life size stone statues from another era.

A few of pictures here.

The five-headed Shiva A wardrobe from the Mughal Era

Its interesting how half-way across the globe one would find symbols and relics of my country’s heritage. Did my blood boil ? Was I enraged at the Kohinoor diamond not being returned and such like ? Not at all – what a misplaced sense of patriotism that would be ! Going by our own sense of history and record of preserving it, we would have done a really bad job at preserving many of these. With a little exaggeration, heritage preservation – thats one thing that we should be outsourcing to more responsible pair of hands wherever they are.

The defence to this I oft hear is that India is a poor country and has more things to worry about like feeding its own people. Reasonable or not, to which I say, very well, so lets not be in a hurry to have all our treasures back to restore our misplaced sense of pride. Lets get to a point where we start caring about these things. Afterall no matter which museum in the world the Kohinoor is exhibited, it will always an Indian diamond.

Think about it – one man who arguably did the most towards preserving India’s past was not an Indian – Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India in the beginning of the last century. ( its a different thing that he presided over the division of Bengal along religious lines – might as well be the grandfather of the Bangladeshi nation ).

Here is an extract from an Indian government website.

Lord Curzon, who was then the Viceroy of India, placed the question of setting up a ‘stately’ memorial for Queen Victoria, on her death in January 1901 to the public. The princes and people of India responded generously to his appeal for funds and Lord Curzon derived the total cost of construction of this monument amounting to one crore, five lakhs of rupees (Rs. 1,05,00,000) from their voluntary subscriptions. The Prince of Wales, King George V, laid the foundation stone on January 4, 1906 and it was formally opened to the public in 1921.

I had no idea about the context in which the Victoria Memorial was built. More on Curzon from an independent source here.

Interestingly, but for Lord Curzon’s insistence on marrying European traditions with Indian, Edwin Lutyens’ pigheadedness would have meant that New Delhi would have been dotted with European architecture style buildings ( its debatable if that would have been bad ). Lutyens, for all his brilliance, had no respect for ancient or medieval Indian architecture and called Fatehpur Sikri “the work of monkeys” !

But for having born a few 100 years too late, Akhbar or Shahjahan would have had him beheaded !



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