Controversy dogs IIAS again
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.
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.