Sinlung /
09 October 2010

New World Fairground And a Colonial Hangover

By Aveek Sen

Athletes at the Commonwealth Games Village.

New Delhi, Oct 9 : The air is changing in Delhi. I got off the gleaming new HOHO (Hop On, Hop Off) bus, ushered out by a liveried Commonwealth Games volunteer from the Northeast (perhaps ‘hoho’ meant something else to him).

I found myself in front of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in the middle of Lutyens’s Delhi. It was lovely to linger on the pavement with its pruned hedges and feel that nip in the air. This must be how Lady Mountbatten felt on a fine morning in Delhi with nothing particular to do.

Suddenly, I sensed a collective, uniformed gaze fixed on me. There were as many policemen at the NGMA’s Gate No. 3 as there were at the main entrance to the Jama Masjid on the day of the verdict.

One policeman walked up to me and asked if I was waiting for somebody. No, I said, quickly switching from lingering to purposive, I want to go into the museum.

As I walked across the garden towards the New Wing, there were tribal dancers leaping into the air while playing their drums to sarkari malis crouching on the grass with their backs to them, a gaggle of volunteers in their Reebok gear, and a couple of press photographers. In their regulation tribal wear (satin dhoti, sequined jacket, headgear and makeup), they looked like shreds of the laser-and-helium opening ceremony, ballooned out of a fantastical India and dropped into the light of common day.

After another round of security checks, I got to the first of the many exhibitions inside. It was of Company paintings from the museum’s collection and, in a few minutes, I found exact counterparts among the paintings of the policemen, malis and dancers who were outside, down to the last detail of expression and attire.

Looking at the faces and persons of these colonial subalterns hanging in the museum, with their docile eyes and bowed heads, the vague discomfort I’d been feeling over the last few days became clearer to me.

In a city made and remade for wealth, spectacle, protocol and power, a certain, seemingly timeless, form of servility comes naturally to the ordinary (and less than ordinary) hordes who serve Delhi’s unending flow of important people with capitally insecure egos.

The staff in my guesthouse, the drivers who take me round the city, the security men who guard all day and night the many gates of this neurotically gated city, the odd-jobs men who shuffle about in vast numbers in libraries, museums, embassies, secretariats and ministries —all seem to use, especially when spoken to in English, that little word, “sir”, in tones and gestures I have seldom encountered in any other Indian city.

Standing amid the art and architecture, with the drumming and dancing going on outside, the grandest of vistas and avenues opening up all around, and the roofs of the state-of-the-art Games venues showing above the treetops like distant peaks, I realised how much of Delhi was built and rebuilt to make people feel physically small in relation to heights and distances that create their own structures of dream-like inaccessibility.

During an event like the Commonwealth Games, therefore, a strange contradiction, at once architectural and political, begins to dog the city. Delhi is left with the unenviable task of having to create a festive, welcoming, fairground spirit within a physical and cultural infrastructure that is founded on inequality and exclusion — on keeping people out rather than letting them in.

As you speed down a wonderful new road or flyover, you are invited to look endlessly ahead. But if you look left or right, colourful screens of plex might prevent you from seeing what you are not meant to see.

At its most spruced up and modernised, and with something like the Metro providing high-calibre (though not low-cost) mobility, today’s Delhi cannot quite decide what to do with its feudal and imperial past when trying to project itself to the world as a 21st-century democracy. And trying to do this in the name of an archaic and politically dodgy piece of fiction like the Commonwealth doesn’t help.

Watching the Prince and the President sitting together, like Prospero and Miranda, above the stream of nations and territories processing merrily below them, some with names that are more flavours than names (Antigua & Barbuda, St Vincent & the Grenadines, Tristan da Cunha, Turks & Caicos Islands), I found myself slipping into a sort of pre-political-correctness, a New World stupor: even the parading of the Hottentot Venus wouldn’t have surprised me then.

Yet, this merriment was also, and as delightfully, about cheering India’s emergence into the post-everything world, watched over by the global balloon that was at once Tree of Knowledge and Mushroom Cloud.

Inside the NGMA, as I explored the labyrinth of art —good, bad and indifferent —hung pell-mell to tell the story of Indian modernism, I slowly began to feel strange presences around me.

Flocks of dressed-up “tribals” had entered the gallery, looking unreal, exhausted and lost. Bored with the lack of audiences and sweating in their costumes, they wandered listlessly among the Benode Beharis, Sher-Gils and Ravi Vermas. I asked one group where they were from, as we stood surrounded by immense painted posters of Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Nutan and Vyjayanthimala.

“Konkani, Konkani!” they giggled at me, before a guard came and whisked them away in a trice.

But I met them again at the entrance to Charles Correa’s Crafts Museum in Pragati Maidan. This time, they were standing so still in the twilight among the terracotta statues and Bishnupuri horses that I wondered for a moment if they were a diorama. They had been brought in to decorate the reception being hosted by the Australians around an exhibition of clothes and textiles, called Power Clothes of the Commonwealth, put together during the Melbourne Games.

It showed Queen Victoria’s diamond-jubilee gloves and the khadi blanket gifted to Reginald Reynolds by Gandhi. Draped around tailor’s dummies were a shawl worn by Gandhi, a jacket worn by Nehru, and Nelson Mandela’s Madiba shirt next to a Zulu king’s headdress.

The way out was through a courtyard with a fake, unmanned paan-bidi shop in one corner and craftsmen selling their stuff in sheds that were part of an abandoned model village.

I wondered what to do if I met the living diorama again. I had avoided meeting their eyes while coming in, feeling embarrassed for myself and for them. Should I smile at them this time — or keep pretending they did not exist?

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