New Delhi, India
September 25, 2011
I visited Gandhi Smriti on my own. Just inside the entrance, a helpful lady at the Information counter told me that there is no entrance fee, and that cameras are allowed all across the complex. She also gave me a brief outline of what’s to be seen here, and the fact that the museum staff go on lunch from 1.30 to 2.30. That seemed like a useless piece of information, but it actually has a bearing on what you’ll see, because there’s a major section here that’s best seen when there are staff members around to guide you.
On the ground floor, the large part of the museum is taken up by galleries that contain photos of Gandhi and his associates, and Gandhi’s quotes on just about everything: the emancipation of women; rural development; the improvement of the harijan (‘lower’ castes or so-called ‘untouchables’), primary education, self-rule for India, love and peace and equality for all, and plenty more. Gandhi seemed to have a decided opinion on everything under the sun. Most of it makes a lot of sense, but after going through one gallery after another, all of them filled with platitudes pouring from the mouth of this man, I began feeling rather sick of him. Fortunately, there were the occasional interesting interludes. For instance, there is a description of Gandhi’s last day alive: what time he woke, what he ate, how his day was scheduled, how he went out, leaning on the shoulders of his two grand-nieces (whom he called his ‘walking sticks’!) to attend a prayer meeting that was being organised on the back lawn of Birla House… and how his assassin, Nathuram Godse, came up, pretending to bend and do a namaste, while whipping out a Beretta and firing point-blank at Gandhi. Okay, maybe a little too gory for most people (there are some accompanying photos too, all in black and white), but it was different from the rest.
Other interesting parts of this display were the exhibits on photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, who both took some brilliant photographs of India and Gandhi. While on the subject: there’s also a brief section on depictions of Gandhi in paintings: several Indian painters, including the brilliant Jamini Roy, have made paintings of Gandhi.
Beyond that, and overlooking the front of Birla House, is a small wood-panelled auditorium on which they constantly run (except between 1.30 and 2.30) a film on Gandhi. The film is run alternately in Hindi and in English, but after sitting and watching it for a while, I got bored – it seemed to me to be pretty much a repeat of all that I’d seen and read in the displays.
On the ground floor, too, are the rooms Gandhi occupied when he stayed at Birla House. They’re maintained in the same simple style that he adopted, and some of his possessions – his spectacles and spectacle case, cutlery, and so on – is on display in a glass case.
Probably the best part of the Gandhi Smriti is the digital museum on the first floor. Once I’d finished with the galleries on the ground floor, I went upstairs, and was greeted by a docent who wanted to know if I was on my own, or if somebody would be joining me. Within moments, another docent – one of several, each of them escorting individual visitors or groups – had begun to take me around the digital museum. This is an unusual (at least for India) gallery, because it interprets Gandhi, his times, everything that is associated with Gandhi – through installation art. There is, for example, a large wheel (symbolic of the ‘spinning wheel’ that Gandhi used to spin thread, to signify his oneness with India’s toiling millions). The wheel is spokeless and made of metal – but all you have to do is flutter a hand inside it, and the strains of one of Gandhi’s favourite Hindu hymns, Raghupati raaghav Raja Ram, burst forth. There are other spinning wheels, in different shapes, colours, and sizes, which can actually be turned using a handle to do so – and which activate a Gandhi-related slideshow on a nearby wall. There is a set of 6" high dolls, each painted to resemble a specific person, standing around a large square. The docent with me showed me how this works: you pick up any doll and place it briefly on the centre of the square to see a slideshow about who that person was (in my case, it turned out to be M A Jinnah, Pakistan’s first president), how that person was associated with Gandhi, and what he/she had to say about Gandhi.
There are other things – a xylophone, for instance, which, when lightly banged with its mallet, produces (all on its own) another rendition of Raghupati raaghav Raja Ram. There are beautifully embroidered handicraft wall-hangings to symbolise Gandhi’s love for handloom and handicraft (he was, by his own admission, against the all-embracing love for machinery, and felt that it would eventually wipe out indigenous crafts). There is even a small replica of a train engine – you get inside it, and on a screen in front is an animation, beginning with a map of the important places Gandhi visited in India. Move a gear, and an animated train chugs off to the place in question, and you’re subjected to (treated to? Depends on how you see it) a slideshow on how Gandhi was connected with that place.
The docents at the digital museum are bilingual and can conduct you around in either English or Hindi. They don’t need to be tipped.
Once you come downstairs from the digital museum, you can see the (rather dusty and moth-eaten) ‘dioramas’ depicting scenes from Gandhi’s life – these are in the gallery next door to the exit. After leaving the building, you can go round the back, where a path (with Gandhi’s footsteps marked on it) retraces the route he took to his death. This path ends at the Martyr’s Column, a small stone pavilion that marks exactly where Gandhi was killed. Beyond that is a slightly larger pavilion, painted in a beautifully Buddhist-Tibetan style, of Gandhi and his life.
If Gandhi fascinates you, do see this memorial. I thought it interesting in some ways, but the bulk of the displays – those boring and often repetitive photos, dioramas and text about Gandhi, making him out to be a saint – are tedious, and give what is obviously a very one-sided view of the man. (In this respect, I much preferred the Jawaharlal Nehru museum at Teen Murti Bhawan; it gives a good glimpse into the man, not just the statesman). Other than the restored rooms, the Martyr’s path and Column, and the digital museum – which does have its drawbacks and can be repetitive – there isn’t that much here to see if you aren’t a Gandhi buff.
From journal Delhi: Some Museums, Some Memorials