Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Gallery finds few visitors

Portrait of neglect

The priceless pictorial depictions of the freedom movement are lying uncared for in the National Gallery of Portraits in Chandigarh. Aditi Tandon reports

The National Gallery of Portraits, Chandigarh, has been getting the attention due to it only in Indiaís annual tourism guide. Oblivious of its present condition, editors of this tourism manual have continued to accord the Gallery a prestigious slot year after year.

A storehouse of treasure lies forgotten
A storehouse of treasure lies forgotten 


The Great Revolt (1857 to 1859)
The Indian National Congress, the Extremists and the Home Rule Movement (1875 to 1914; 1914 to 1919)
The Black Law and Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (1919 to 1920)
Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movement (1921 to 1927)
Towards complete Independence
(1928 to 1930]
Civil Disobedience Movement
(1930 to 1934)
Salt Satyagraha (1930 to 1934)
Congress Government in provinces
(1935 to 1939)
Quit India Movement (1939 to 1945)
Struggle in Assemblies and Cabinet
Mission Plan (1946)
Partition and Independence (1947)
The Republic is born (1950)

And why should they not? The Gallery, after all, was conceptualised as a national treasurehouse of vignettes on the reawakening of India ó from the First War of Independence in 1857 to the attainment of freedom in 1947. It is one of the three National Galleries (the other two are in Delhi and Calcutta) enriched with 1000 portraits and 100 panels piecing together Indiaís epic struggle for freedom.

Its pictorial section, which has diminished in appeal since it came up three decades ago, displays 12 landmark events, including the First War of Independence, the Home Rule Movement and the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, which changed Indiaís destiny. No fresh sections have been added over the past two decades nor any effort made to maintain the faded write-ups and subtitles beside each displayed panel.

The Gallery, which is located in the basement of the Central State Library building in Sector 17, has some rare pictures. It has captured the moment when Indian temples were thrown open to untouchables; and the cell where Vir Savarkar was kept as a political prisoner after his conviction in the Nasik Conspiracy Case. It shows Chandrashekhar Azad with Bhagwati Charan, whose house was a haven for revolutionaries; original handwritten text of the poem which Sarojini Naidu wrote after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and rare glimpses into the life of Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, who abandoned the riches of royalty to serve Mahatma Gandhi as a private secretary for 16 years. She became the first Health Minister of Independent India and was founder of the Indian Council for Child Welfare. The authorities have done little to preserve the treasures. Plans to expand the Gallery too have been put on hold. Instead, the phased growth of the Central State Library poses a threat to the Galleryís survival.

The library authorities have been pressing for the relocation of the Gallery. Last year, the portraits were on the verge of being shifted but some freedom fighters prevailed upon the UT Administration and prevented the situation from turning ugly.


The Maharajas of India
Glimpses from Gandhiís life
The birth of the Congress
The Gadar Party (1914)
Kamagata Maru (1914)
The Rowlatt Act and its opposition (1919)
Guru ka Bagh Morcha (1922)
Bardoli Satyagraha (1928)
The Simon Commission and Punjab (1928)
Lahore Convention and Call for Purna Swarj


Vallathol Narayana Menon
: The romantic poet of Kerala who wrote against caste and tyranny, founded Kerala Kalamandalam, revived Kathakali and translated the Rigveda into Malyalam.
Henry Louis Vivian Derozio
: Began as a teacher in Hindu College and went on to awaken Bengal with his radical views. He was
forced to resign.

Kumaran Asan
: Inspired by Narayan Guru, the social reformer of Kerala, Asan wrote several literary pieces like The Meditation of Sita and Fallen Flowers.
Michael Madhusudan Dutta
: Wrote dramas in Bengal

The then DPI, Colleges, Dalip Kumar, had this to say: "The gallery has poor visitation. We had better plans for the space occupied by portraits. As such, one canít keep harping on Independence." Head of the Central State Library K.C. Ramola was softer. She said, "Recently, we opened an American Center counter. We are still expanding. As for the Gallery, it makes sense to install the portraits at a place where experts could take care of them. There have been proposals to shift the Gallery to Government Museum in Sector 10 but the Director says there is no space." It is another matter that three new sections have been added to the Museum in the past three years, and the space allocated to these was not considered fit for the portraits of freedom fighters. Even today, Director of the Museum V.N. Singh can at best offer a window display of select portraits.

Back in the Library, a magazine section was added to the basement some time ago and this move was not seen as an encroachment on the space meant for the Gallery. And, the Library authorities are still demanding the relocation of the Gallery.

Former Chief Commissioner of Chandigarh T.N. Chaturvediís vision for the Gallery was to make it a one-stop shop for those interested in the history of Indian freedom movement.

When the Gallery opened in Chandigarh in 1977, it had 125
blow-ups on path-breaking events that changed the course of Indiaís history, 13 busts, two ceramic murals and eight illumined glass box tableaux. There was also a music system, which is no longer operational, for audio effects and patriotic songs.

Among other novel displays was a section on Punjab before the Partition and its contribution to Indiaís freedom; rare portraits of Bhagat Singh; 1300 rare reference books; and four watercolour paintings of Ranada Ukil on the consuming fire of communalism. The paintings which had been earlier mounted at the entrance are hard to locate now. And, not to mention the unattractive entrance, which is obstructed by haphazardly parked vehicles. Des Raj Arya, a former librarian at the Gallery, poignantly recalls, "The UT Administration kept reducing staff of the Gallery. They even abolished the post of Education Officer (Museum) who was earlier responsible for maintaining the Gallery.

The last in charge was the late Suvarcha Paul, who worked hard to maintain the Galleryís popularity by ensuring that its film section was up to date and the guided tours for government school students did not become mere formalities."

Now, the visitorsí book has much to say about the state of the Gallery. While foreigners rue the fact that the timings of the Gallery donít conform to those mentioned in the India annual guide (9 am to 5 pm as against the actual 10 to 1.30 pm and 2 to 5.30 pm), other visitors lament poor lighting and an outdated film section. Even students and teachers of government school who visit the Gallery on guided tours do not hesitate to mention the decline in its standards.

Says a teacher, "The video cassettes they show are of poor quality. They should get VCDs or DVDs of patriotic films and should make the Gallery vibrant by improving its ambience. Given a choice, we would never come here but we are under pressure from the UT Education Department which conducts these so-called guided tours."

Equally frustrated are the students pursuing PhDs on topics related to the freedom movement. Says one, "What is the use of stocking 1600 books when you cannot provide a single photocopier in the Gallery." The display too is not up to the mark. Several panels and portraits are hidden behind racks and the 12 sections on history seem lost in the maze of unplanned displays. Captions of many pictures are worn out and need replacement.

Sad as the state of affairs is, it would be relevant to recall how the then Union Defence Minister, Jagjivan Ram, who inaugurated the Gallery, had termed the beginning as "modest" and affirmed hope in the Galleryís phased growth.

Whatever little growth the Gallery saw was up to the late 1990s after which the post of Education Officer (Museum) was abolished and the staff in the maintenance section was downsized. The Gallery, which started out with a team comprising a librarian, three attendants, a clerk and a peon, now has one part-time librarian and two attendants, who are not fully aware of the significance of the displays inside the gallery.

Although the present part-time librarian makes efforts to ensure the visitors donít leave the Gallery dejected, she admits her limitations. "We are not trained for such tasks. Maintaining the Gallery is an expertís job and I am no expert."

Ironically, the initial plan was to expand the Gallery and add to it a section covering the century preceding the Great Revolt. But that was not to be. Expansion of the gallery remained out of question and preservation of its current form also took a backseat. After Suvarcha Paul, no technical hand was appointed.

Small wonder then that the Gallery, in its present shape, looks more like a sorry remnant of the past than a vibrant torchbearer for the future. With the Central State Library opening a magazine section in the space meant for portraits, little is left of what can be called a "sensitive, relevant display of portraits specific to the era of Independence."

The captions (which are unattractive anyways) of several rare photographs are hidden behind rows of steel racks and in need of decent reprints. Many of the sections, including the one on Maharajas of India, are difficult to view due to the haphazard arrangement of furniture and dim lighting.

In a situation as grim as this, it is tough to envision a future for the National Gallery of Portraits, which is searching for takers.