When he steps out of Rashtrapati Bhawan, Pranab Mukherjee will leave behind one legacy that not many Presidents before him can match. It includes a high-tech storytelling museum, books on Rashtrapati Bhawan including one on birds shot by his additional secretary, paintings and in-residence programmes that allowed celebrities and common people alike to get a feel of the complex, and revival or revamp of many historical practices.
The museum, which was opened in August 2014, is an interactive experience of the freedom struggle and India’s recent history. The venue too is steeped in history — the museum has been established in an erstwhile stable that housed horses and the garages where the ceremonial coaches were parked. It is a museum that tells stories through sound-light-video animations, and showcases furniture designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Viceroy’s Residence, as Rashtrapati Bhawan was designated to be when it was built. It has a simulated battlefield with arms mounted on warriors, ceremonial coaches, vintage cars, photographs and memorabilia of the President’s Body Guard, paintings of the 19th century, sketches and gifts received by successive Presidents from national and foreign dignitaries.
Phase II of the 10,000-square-metre museum depicts the story of the planning and construction of Rashtrapati Bhawan, the British Viceroys who occupied the building until 1947, their reaction towards the freedom movement, the transfer of power, the formation of the republic, the life and work of 13 Presidents of India since 1950, life inside Rashtrapati Bhawan, the environment of the campus, the people working here, important visitors etc. It also has an art gallery for temporary exhibitions where works of several contemporary artists have been showcased.
In 2014, a book was released on the birds that visit Rashtrapati Bhawan, with photos shot entirely within the 330-acre presidential estate and a brief description of their habit and habitat. Over 113 avian varieties, half of which are migratory species, were identified in the extensive lawns, including the Mughal Garden, Herbal Garden, Cactus Garden, the Dallikhana (nursery) and the duck pond near it. All photographs used in the book were from the personal collection of additional secretary Thomas Mathew. This is one of a series of books unveiled during Mukherjee’s tenure on life on the Rashtrapati Bhawan campus.
Mukherjee also revived the presidential buggy, a tradition that had been discontinued over 20 years ago. Ever since the beginning of his tenure, he was using the buggy largely to move around the Rashtrapati Bhavan campus. Since 2014, the buggy has occasionally replaced the limousine as the President’s vehicle for important journeys like those to Parliament at the start of the budget session and the Beating Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk.
Many rooms of the 340-room building had fallen into disuse with furniture and utensils stacked there. All of these were restored to their former look as far as possible and some of the carpets and seating arrangements were used for a new ceremonial hall, which was built as an alternative venue for the “At Home” function should rain hamper it in the traditional venue of Mughal Gardens.
The Change of Guard ceremony, originally started at Rashtrapati Bhawan in 2007, was revamped along the lines of the equivalent tourist attraction at Buckingham Palace. It can be viewed every Saturday. Change of Guard is a military tradition whose origins are lost in antiquity. From time immemorial, guards and sentries at palaces, forts and defence establishments change periodically to enable a fresh body of troops to take charge.
Mukherjee’s legacy of reviving history, in fact, extends beyond the Presidential estate. In September last year, Rashtrapati Ashiana in Dehradun, once developed as a summer retreat for President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, was restored when Mukherjee inaugurated a renovated building and spent the night there. It was the first time in 18 years that the first citizen stayed in the building, earlier known as the Commandant’s Bungalow, built in 1920 at what the a summer camp in Dehradun for horses used by the President’s Body Guard. The last President to have stayed there was K R Narayanan in March 1998.