Sunday, February 21, 2010

Quibbling over Kipling

The BBC News today carried an article about Rudyard Kipling and his ambivalent Indian legacy. It was accompanied by an audio clip of the journalist in conversation with Kipling’s biographer Andrew Lycett and the Indian novelist Arvind Adiga on the subject.

The article was spurred by the reluctance shown by Mumbai Municipal authorities in converting the bungalow in which Kipling was born into a museum in his honour. Yes, Kipling was an imperialist. But he also introduced India as a legitimate subject for English literature. Shouldn't that be acknowledged?

Adiga’s response is quite apt: most Indians think of Jeffery Archer when they think of English authors. They don’t think Kipling. The general Indian reader is neither very discerning nor very political. Besides, the India that Kipling wrote about – a world of forests, animals, villages and mysticism – is fast disappearing. So Indians simply don't spend that much time thinking about Kipling and his connections.

I tend to agree with Adiga. The Raj lives on in the minds of Britons much more than it does in the minds of Indians. For most of them, the matter is simple: Raj was something that happened in the past, it was taken care of by our grandfathers (with great dignity may we add), so what is the next Bollywood film release please…

And yet, there are two very good reasons why the bungalow shouldn’t be converted into a museum dedicated to Kipling.

First, we Indians make the tackiest museums ever. As the former editor of the Around Town section of Time Out Mumbai, you can take it from me in written. Kipling would squirm inside his grave at the offerings of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation in his honour.

Second, the bungalow in question lies in the heart of the leafy compound of Sir JJ School of Arts, an institution associated with some of the greatest Indian artists. A Kipling museum will sit there completely without context. His connection to that bungalow is tenuous: he lived there for a few years in his childhood. On the contrary, the connection that many Mumbai artists have with the institution is far deeper and meaningful. If the bungalow has to be converted into a museum – how about a public space for Mumbai artists?

As for Kipling, we can put a plaque: Also, Kipling was born here.

Here's a wonderful travel piece by AA Gill on how if you are searching for the Raj, don't go to India.


Girish Shahane said...

There is a plaque already, if I'm not mistaken.
J.J. opened in 1857, Rudyard Kipling was born a mere 8 years later. I believe the bungalow that now is called the Dean's, had not yet been built in 1865, something the article fails to mention.

globalbabble said...

Amazing! Why should it be turned into a museum in Kipling's honour, I can't understand. A plaque is more than enough, and that has been placed.

I am sure there was other ways of commemorating Kipling's connections to India, but turning that bungalow into a museum doesn't make sense to me.

Girish Shahane said...

I agree; I don't think anybody seriously wanted to turn it into a Kipling museum, it sounds very much like a manufactured controversy.

jaimit said...

We really don’t know how make a museum more accessible to pleb. Though I haven’t been to too many aboard to know if this is exclusively endemic to us. I have taken my daughter many times to the Prince of Wales museum. This is in spite of the fact that there is very little explanation of the exhibits, hardly any place to sit and a really sad canteen and an uninterestingly useless souvenir shop. Museums are tiring especially with kids and you need data to explain what the stuff displayed is all about. And I don’t think that the kipling museum would have added to anything in Mumbai.
But still, the prince of wales museum still is one of my favourite places in Mumbai.

globalbabble said...

Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vaastu Sangrahalaya is one my favourite places in Mumbai too, especially the sculpture gallery. Have spent many hours there and wrote several articles on it. And yes, it could do with a lot of improvements. But at least it has a certain spirit.

Museum abroad are absolutely fabulous. They are bright and sparkling and make a huge effort to reach out to people. To the extent, that I sometimes feel it is too much.