For some years now, Rashtrapati Bhavan has started emerging from its imperial fastness. First, it opened its doors to visitors, allowing them to tour part of the massive, 340-room structure. Then, it decided to host artists-in-residence, who could float among the presidential tulips and paint or compose. Earlier this year, a museum was inaugurated in what had once been the stables of the estate. Now, it will yield one more of its secrets to the public. On his birthday, President Pranab Mukherjee will release online a selection of the art works that the building holds.
The art collection promises to be a visual map of the building’s history, tracing its transition from viceroy’s house to the emblem of a modern republic. Alongside the stodgy portraits of viceroys, governors and royals, there will be Company era portraits and etchings. Six decades of presidential history have also accrued portraits of national leaders and presidents, as well as modern Indian art and antiquities. Then there are French portraits, Chinese paintings and other sculptures that form part of this storied collection. A history of gifts and gestures, of the choices and aesthetics of the Indian state, may be discerned in it.
These steps to open up mark an important change to the idea of Rashtrapati Bhavan. In its scale and structure, the building was meant to intimidate and keep a chaotic public at bay. Museums and art collections help transform it from the remote preserve of power into something more democratic — a piece of collective heritage to be curated and shared. A welcome start has been made, but this process could go further. How about cataloguing all the art works instead of uploading a selection, or putting them on display in the museum? In a country where public access to art is woefully limited, Rashtrapati Bhavan could set a refreshing example.