The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, June 15, 2003
'Art and Soul

Controversy dogs IIAS again
B.N. Goswamy

An artist’s view of Rashtrapati Nivas at Shimla
An artist’s view of Rashtrapati Nivas at Shimla

I would be the first person to agree that Rashtrapati Nivas at Shimla, the former Viceregal Lodge, is a fine monument, part of the vast architectural heritage of our land. I would also agree that every effort should be made to ensure that it retains its integrity and its character, and continues to evoke, through its grandeur as a structure and its location at the magnificent spot chosen for it, a period, a vision. It is not an ‘ancient’ monument, being no more than a century and a quarter old: but heritage of this kind, one recognises, is part of that "capital of irreplaceable spiritual, cultural, social and economic values", which every document on conservation policy everywhere in the civilised world seems to uphold and proclaim. Precisely for this reason, I would take up issue with all those who have, for years, been busy turning the monument into an arena of sorts, a testing ground for vague ideas, or – worse – for fighting battles, political or personal. Things were quiet for a while, but there are fresh developments. Around the fine-dressed stone of the building, its stately corridors, the imposing three-storeyed ceiling of its central part, the priceless wood-panelling, can be heard once again the strident footsteps of controversy. The highest court in the land seems to have decided that the building be vacated of its present use by the end of the year. And there are angry, animated protests.

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There is a history to all this: not only to the structure, but also to its embattled status. For nearly 40 years now, Rashtrapati Nivas has been home to one of the most prestigious, influential, intellectual and cultural centres in the land: the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS). But that institute has always had to fend off its detractors. The fact that it was the President of India - whose summer residence the Viceregal Lodge naturally became when we attained Independence – who decided to gift the entire estate to the nation for founding in it that Institute, is now nearly forgotten. It certainly did not keep some people from casting upon it covetous eyes, and all manner of ideas were floated over the years: turn it into the residence again of some high dignitary of state, for instance; convert it into a money-spinning hotel; locate inside it a period museum. It was as if the place were too good for locating in it simply a place of learning, a mere institute. The stated and official reason now for asking the institute to vacate the estate, however, is that the structure of this monument of national importance is endangered by its present use. The Archaeological Survey of India is somewhere in the picture, as is the Department of Culture. An alternative site for relocating the Institute – in dusty, characterless Ghaziabad, noisy neighbour to Delhi – is being proposed.

Obviously, there are many layers to the matter, some of them invisible to the naked eye. But, artlessly seen, the situation can be viewed from varying angles, the foremost being the safety and preservation of the monument. Legitimately, questions were raised in this respect in earlier years. There were conservation concerns when the building was in ‘wet use’, as they say; signs of disrepair were appearing; some parts of the building needed to be strengthened, or refurbished. For this reason, experts were called in; the Archaeological Survey of India was involved; recommendations were made. A plan of action was decided upon. Consequently, modifications were duly introduced in the use of the building, and much work was undertaken. This work is still in progress, and apparently the institute has been offering every possible assistance, or co-operation, to the experts employed by the Central Government for this purpose. What then, one might ask, are the issues? If the current experts are not expert enough, the obvious answer is to change them, and call in the very best available, from abroad, if necessary. If the intent is to empty the building out completely and forever, and keep it after full ‘restoration’ as a standing monument, not in use, the problems will only mount, for, any conservation expert will tell you that when structures such as these are not in use, they begin rapidly, perilously, to decay. If a vague thought is brewing somewhere that the building should be turned into a museum of sorts, a tourist attraction, who will guarantee that such use will be more conducive to the safety of the structure than its present use as the home of the IIAS? And in any case, what will the museum house? Where are all those period objects and artefacts and fixtures which a museum such as that should have? Clearly, the answer to the situation lies in making the institute more responsible, should that be called for, rather than asking it to pack up and leave. The most stringent of conditions for its use need to be laid down, the most exacting supervision exercised. The bathwater needs to be thrown out, not the baby. And one needs to remind oneself that all over the world great universities and museums and institutes continue to be housed in, and function from, structures that are far older, far more steeped in history, than the Viceregal Lodge/Rashtrapati Nivas is. It is care, and conservation, that govern the matter rather than who is in occupation.

To speak of other, but closely related, things. There are all those seething, bristling questions about the future of the institute. What will, if it is sent out from here, happen to its carefully nurtured ethos? By how many years will it be set back? Where will it be functioning from in the years of wilderness in which babus will scurry about for funds and architects and contractors drag their leaden feet? But then, in this land of ours, who cares, about higher learning, about a mere institute?

Light in the tunnel?

Or perhaps one would be proven wrong. For in this very land of ours there are also people who care perhaps about higher learning, about institutes of this kind: a President who is the most distinguished of scientists; a Prime Minister who is a man of letters. And perhaps it is they who will intervene by doing what it takes: legislative action, executive order, or whatever. The gravity of the matter certainly deserves it.