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Ganga Devi’s Left The Building

Destruction of her murals shows the rot in the museum.

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The mindless destruction of Ganga Devi’s extraordinary last works at the Crafts Museum is terribly sad. It highlights the caste system between art and craft, the indifference to the creative integrity of a craftsperson’s vision. The quoted reaction of a Crafts Museum official, “Don’t worry, I’ll get another kohbar ghar painted” shows that, even for someone who claims to have worked there for 30 years, one piece of craft is much like another. So Ganga Devi is no more, let’s get Sita Devi or Champa Devi or Ambika Devi.

It’s all Madhubani after all, so what’s the difference? There was an eerily similar response when rumours of the transformation of the Crafts Museum into a Hastkala Academy evoked a public outcry. “Why the fuss? Nothing much happens in the Craft Museum,” was one bureaucrat’s reaction.

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Typical is the lack of communication and consultation. Bureaucrats naturally cannot be experts in everything. They need inputs from specialists. Earlier, there was always a process of consultation. When new schemes were being planned, when changes in an established institution or practice were contemplated, when programmes needed evaluation, a committee or working group would be set up, consisting of a cross-section of experts — representative, knowledgeable, and hopefully objective. If there was occasionally too much talk and not enough action, there was at least informed debate.

These days, this interaction with civil society is simply not happening. Ad hoc decisions are taken and no one knows how and why.

Occasionally there’s a political agenda but often (as in the case of the Ganga Devi murals, I suspect) the people involved are neither wilfully wicked, nor have axes to grind. They simply don’t know much about the matter and take knee-jerk decisions without asking anyone or thinking them through. Whether it’s building a six-storey glass and concrete building next to a heritage site, changing handloom policy, withdrawing Delhi’s bid to be a Unesco Heritage City, deciding who is to head a prestigious cultural institution, or even renaming a road, neither legalities nor long-term implications are considered. Things are decided by a few individuals who then become defensive and surprised at the ensuing outcry. Not rolling back the decision becomes a matter of prestige.

To return to the Ganga Devi murals, the present head says the decision was taken before her tenure, and the former director, Ruchira Ghose, says that though the space certainly needed major repairs, the destruction of the artworks was done after she left. Since I myself was on the museum rejuvenation committee previously, I can vouch that though we all agreed that the building urgently needed restoration and upgrading, destroying existing parts of the collections was nowhere on the agenda. The murals could have been restored. Intach performs miracles. There is a paradox here, however. The cost of proper professional restoration is considerably more than a Madhubani craftswoman would receive for an original painting. Restoration is seen as a 21st-century technical skill, Madhubani, a rural “handicraft”. No surprise it was decided to simply paint over the pieces. Unfortunately, we were not consulted. The last meeting I attended was in mid-2014.

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At that time, slabs of plaster were falling dangerously from ceilings supported by wooden struts, the godowns which housed the priceless reserve collections were seeping damp and mildew, the galleries had no temperature or humidity controls.

We were all ecstatic that the long-delayed funding had finally come through, and that the museum would be brought to international standards.
In the last six months, media reports and rumours about the future of the Crafts Museum and its amalgamation into a Hastkala Academy began circulating. No one in the sector was informed or consulted. Ministry officials were tight-lipped, saying only that “the status of the Crafts Museum would remain unchanged”. Why can’t we know what’s planned for its future?

When the prime minister talks of Make in India and Skill India, he should rcall those amazing undervalued skills we already have. Let’s not demolish them in our haste to acquire new ones.

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The writer is chairperson, Dastkar Society for Crafts & Craftspeople

First published on: 12-09-2015 at 12:42:36 am
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