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Why the Rashtrapati Bhavan photo archive is the nation’s family album

The Rashtrapati Bhavan photo library provides rare glimpses into the multifaceted personalities of our presidents, and of lost time


April 4, 2021 6:30:20 am
Times change, as other presidents come and leave their mark.

Written by Ashish Mehta

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The recital is over but the echoes of the sitar strains might still be in the air. Pandit Ravi Shankar has bent forward to listen intently to what President Rajendra Prasad is saying. The atmosphere is relaxed, both are sitting on the floor. Fellow musicians are all ears; some children are trying to follow the conversation. It is a July evening of 1953, and the dashing musician, all of 33, has dreams but no clue of the glories that await him. It is one of the countless images tailor-made for a collective nostalgic trip.

It is one of nearly five lakh images in the photo library of the Rashtrapati Bhavan. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this collection leaves one speechless. In physical photographs in large and heavy registers, in negatives tucked in small envelopes inside shelves of catalogue boxes, and in scanned images stored in multiple hard-drives, this is a composite biography of the heads of the nation, and their magnificent residence.

We all have seen some of them, from formal functions — swearing-in ceremonies, Republic Day parades, official visits and banquets. But for each published image, there must be a dozen others that have led a quiet, monastic existence in a corner of this grand building. Work has started to place more of them in the public domain, so that everybody can savour some portions of what is after all our nation’s family album. These are chapters in a pictorial history, capturing myriad moods, moments and memories of the presidency, formal and informal portraits in the landscapes well-known as well as exotic.
The photo archive, notwithstanding limitations of technology and logistics and the assumed focus on the formal aspects, offers such glimpses of the former presidents that make them more human, and enrich their portrayal in the nation’s collective memory.

And what riches await us in it… The images that bring out lesser-known aspects of the presidential persona. Joyous, sombre, pensive, lost in a book, spending time with family after a hectic official schedule, trying out gardening, lost in thoughts amid official itinerary and sightseeing abroad.

What was Governor-General C Rajagopalachari, half bent on the walking stick, saying that had left Lady Mountbatten grinning, while Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, too couldn’t help but smile while his daughter Maniben looked on as they took a leisurely stroll in the Mughal Gardens? The sunlight is unusually bright for a February noon but the winter of 1949 must have been severe enough to keep themselves wrapped in shawls. What was passing through the mind of Rajaji, the “conscience keeper” of the Mahatma, when he removed his chappals, lay down on a mattress, held a musket rifle and took aim, with helpful instructions from the assembled Indian Army officers, at the musketry range in the Delhi Cantonment on a June afternoon the same year? Playing a shot at a game of billiards, he has the poise of a professional player, notwithstanding his angavastram. Giani Zail Singh (with former world billiards champion Michael Ferreira) and R Venkataraman, too, in their times as presidents, would come to this billiards room and play a shot or two.

As the nation moves from the elation of Independence to a world weary coming to terms with human frailties, Rajendra Prasad looms large as the patriarch of the family. When he assumes office, he is a sprightly 63, but as the pages of the album turn, the bright smile starts getting tinged with fatigue, wrinkles begin to appear, and so does a walking stick. The joie de vivre, however, does not fade. When he is visiting rural India, if a plough is at hand, he is ready to dig the earth. If there is a stream or seashore, he cannot resist taking a dip. He performs puja in the President’s Estate to launch the annual Van Mahotsav in 1954 and also performs a havan indoors, joined by the family on another occasion.

The atmosphere is relaxed as he administers the oath of office for the members of the new council of ministers in 1957. Only much later will we see the grand spectacle; this was a different time. They are sitting around a small table, the president is reading out the text from a single page held close, the legendary legal luminary AK Sen, standing, is taking oath. Abul Kalam Azad is all attention while Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is making a witty remark to Govind Ballabh Pant, who gives an appreciative smile.

Different times, indeed, when the president was given farewell by a mammoth crowd in Connaught Place, while on his way to the railway station in a horse-driven carriage. A special train was arranged to take him to Sadaqat Ashram, Patna, where he stayed after retirement.

Times change, as other presidents come and leave their mark. Monochrome gives way to colour as Shankar Dayal Sharma, almost always full of cheer, takes oath. Decades pass, each leaving its mark on those faces, which remain frozen in time, in collective memory. The Dalai Lama, who makes regular goodwill visits to the Rashtrapati Bhavan, evolves from a young monk to a global spiritual leader.

Life adds its own colours. An image has the possibilities of hindsight that personages in it do not have. As APJ Abdul Kalam receives the Bharat Ratna from KR Narayanan in 1998, he does not know that one day he would be on the other side. Just as the young sitar player had no inkling that he would be receiving the nation’s highest civilian honour in this same building, 46 years later.

Ashish Mehta is a consultant to the President’s Secretariat for a visual history project

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