Heritage preserved, heritage polluted
- Shanta Serbjeet Singh, New Delhi
e-mail: shanta.serbjeetsingh@gmail.com

January 1, 2010

First, the good news.  After all, this is a season of good cheer and hope!  So, let me begin with the sense of relief I experienced at the recent news that measures that could have been taken decades ago, were finally taken.  The Ministry of Culture, headed by none other than the Prime Minister of India, announced that the 15 World Heritage sites of Delhi will now have a single entry ticket in common with 99 other monuments in the charge of the Archaeological Survey of India.  A common window will also issue a special entry ticket for the Taj Mahal.  Tickets will be valid for a year for single use and unused tickets can be re-validated.  While I, like the rest of India await major changes such as judicial and police reforms, how can I make light of a step that may not appear earth shaking in itself but does portent a new awakening in the corridors of Shastri Bhavan and is so very much the right direction! After all, I must have rued the problem, in my writings, of visiting Delhi heritage sites, and the larger one of their protection, more times than I can remember.  While the National Museum would have one set of opening and closing timings, the National Gallery would have another and the Crafts Museum yet another and all of them would have different days for the weekly off! All these irritants are now over.

But then comes the shocker that happened last week.  Despite hard-working organizations like the Indian National Trust for Culture and Heritage (INTACH) and the fact that there is a higher level of consciousness today in urban India about the value of heritage in a nation’s life, last week’s incident made everyone’s hair rise an inch.This was the report that Mirza Ghalib’s haveli in Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk, a state-run museum, is being used for private functions like weddings and mundans!

There are many historic structures all over  Delhi crying to be restored and made accessible to the city.For instance, Syed Ahmed Khan’s haveli or the house where Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru got married...or...or...  But unless the Ministry of Culture issues an ordinance,  simply taking over these buildings, after paying compensation to one owner who can be identified or unless they have an Uma Sharma kind of petitioner, this will not happen, not at least in the foreseeable future. I have been personally witness to the fight that Uma waged over the past two decades in getting the haveli of Ghalib out of the clutches of tinsmiths and tailors, rag pickers and paanwalas. She set up a committee to lobby in right earnest and brought in all her friends, from city worthies like now Orissa Governor Murli Bhandare and Abid Hussain to power bureaucrats such as Foreign Service’s major domo Pavan K Varma, a well known author and Ghalib specialist.  Uma’s soirees are well known in Delhi but wining and dining at least a score of people at each committee meeting at her home must be a first of its kind!  Finally, she received the  backing of Sheila Dixit, Delhi’s indefatigable Chief Minister. Dixit cut the endless skeins of red tape surrounding the property, sanctioned alternative housing to the owner,  and then, one fine day, around seven years ago, we all trooped into Ballimaran’s crowded galis to watch the launch of a small museum in Ghalib’s name in his 19th century home.

Imagine the shock, then, to find that the government’s own watchman has since been letting out the property for illicit merrymaking and moonlighting!  Ironically, the news broke in the very week when Uma annually stages a candle light parade from Town Hall to the Ghalib haveli.  This year, she had brought Gulzar Saheb and Pavan Varma, now our ambassador in Bhutan, to head the delegation comprising other members of her Save Ghalib Committee. 

Priya Kanungo, a singer who has also been a colleague at The Economic Times, is now ready to join Yale for a semester of teaching Hindustani Classical Music.  She asks me for some advice on what to focus on in her lectures.  I remind her that Hindustani gayan is no longer a mystery to American rasikas. After all, this year itself the Guggenheim Museum in New York has celebrated the purest and most intense form of Hindustani classical music, by hosting a month long exhibition and live concerts of the savant, mathematician-musician, La Monte Young and his wife, the laser lighting expert, Marian Zazeela.It was called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia.

Of it, New Yorker critic Alex Ross said it was a “transcendent” experience.  The New York Times wrote: “'The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989' at the Guggenheim Museum is a strange show, mostly good-strange, often beautiful-strange, and for sure long overdue.…As for Mr. Young, he and his “Dream House,” with a 24/7 drone and trippy lighting by Marian Zazeela, have long since become underground institutions. First installed as a permanent environment in his Manhattan home in 1962, then used for performances with his teacher, the Hindustani raga vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and now reconstituted at the Guggenheim, “Dream House” forms a natural bridge to the conceptual and performance art that brings the show to a close."

Priya, you shouldn't find yourself too much at sea!


Shanta Serbjeet Singh, for twenty-five years, columnist, critic and media analyst for The Hindustan Times, The Economic Times and The Times of India, India's most important mainstream English dailies, is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier Government cultural institution of India in 2000 and the same from Delhi Govt.'s Sahitya Kala Parishad in 2003 for her contribution to the field of culture.

She is on the Central Audition Board of Doordarshan, India's national television, as well as the selection committees of several prestigious government bodies involved in culture such as The Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Department of Culture. She was a member of the Tenth Five Year Plan Committee for Cultural Policy and of the First National Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture.

Singh has authored several best selling books on Indian arts such as 'Indian Dance: The Ultimate Metaphor,' 'The 50th Milestone: A Feminine Critique,' 'Nanak, The Guru' and 'America and You' (22 editions).

As elected Chairperson of APPAN (The Asia-Pacific Performing Arts Network) for the past nine years, she has individually organized and helped her team of eminent artistes to organize eight international symposiums and festivals in several Asian countries and in the United States. APPAN, set up in 1999 by UNESCO, has, with the collaboration of UNESCO, pioneered the concept of delivering stress therapy, in particular in disaster-prone situations such as the tsunami and earthquake victims. The pilot project of this series was done under her leadership in four Asian countries after the tsunami of 2005 and another for the cyclone affected of Myanmar in 2008. Singh is the founder-Secretary of The World Culture Forum -India and Director of WCF-India's first Global WCF to be held in New Delhi in 2011.