OFF THE BEATEN PATH IN DELHI
The sari in a display window is disturbing. It is a simple rust-coloured cotton garment, but on it are splashes of blood, some of them dark blotches, others smudged stains on the fabric. This is a palette of vengeance and retribution, which although now thirty-four years into the past still evokes shock.
This was a garment once worn by India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi on October 31st 1984, the day she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. In June of that year, she had ordered the military invasion of the Golden Temple, the Sikh holy-of-holies in Amritsar, to flush out Sikh extremists demanding an independent state of Khalistan. An act that would cost Mrs. Gandhi her life.
Today I’m in the house where she once lived,1 Saftarjung Road, located on a quiet tree-lined avenue in the heart of New Delhi. Now a museum, the house is open to the public, but it is off the usual tourist trail, and the only visitors today are a group of school children on a field trip. They listen intently without fidgeting to their teacher as she takes them from room to room.
Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma) was a strong, but controversial personality. The daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawarhlal Nehru, she was born into a dynastic family of political leaders. Accused of corruption and opposition from opposing parties, she countered this by declaring a state of emergency thereby suspending civil rights and granting her government unlimited powers of arrest and conviction without due process of trial.
Today, it isn’t just the display of newspaper clippings of the years she was in power, that holds my attention, but the words of an eerily prophetic speech she delivered on October 30th 1984, just one day before she was killed. “I am here today, I may not be here tomorrow...I do not care if I live or die...I am proud that I have spent the whole of my life in service to my people...when I die every drop of my blood will invigorate India...” Noble words, but it didn’t invigorate the country. Quite the reverse. It provoked a storm of save reprisal against the Sikh community.
I move on to look at her family’s photographs –black and white shots of Indira as child and teenager, and then later, with her husband Feroze Gandhi and her late sons –Sanjay, and Rajiv Gandhi, with the latter’s wife Sonia and their two attractive children. Such seemingly normal, happy family moments. But beneath lies the darker truth. Not for them was the cloak of ordinariness; they were larger than life personalities who lived and died in the cruel glare of political intrigue and malevolence.
A crystal glass-covered pathway leads to the gate where the Prime Minister met her death and although I was never an admirer of Mrs. Gandhi and her ruthless disregard for democratic principles, I am grudgingly impressed by a woman who, rightly or wrongly, stood by her beliefs despite fierce opposition and who, in doing so, paid the ultimate price for her draconian policies.
Also off the usual tourist route is a completely different attraction: the National Crafts Museum. Today, the only visitors at the ticket office are a young couple with a baby who regards me with round-eyed solemnity over her mother’s shoulder and a group of elderly citizens chatting to one another in Gujarati.
At the entrance I’m pleasantly surprised by a display of terracotta Bankura horses from West Bengal–giant versions of the small brass ones on my living room mantelpiece at home. Leading off a courtyard with a sacred Tulsi (basil) plant at its centre, is a honeycomb of galleries that display textiles, paintings and sculptures, all of which are as diverse and colorful as India itself.
Interesting as the galleries are, it’s the adjoining outdoor Village complex that rivets my attention. Sprawled across four acres are fifteen traditional tribal dwellings each as distinctive as the tribal occupants themselves. They range from slate-roofed stone houses in mountainous Kulu in the north to the rarely seen Toda tribal huts in the Nilgiri hills of the south, and from a round Banni home in Gujarat in the west to a Nagaland Konyak men’s house in the far east of the subcontinent.
Many walls are adorned with intricate artwork– elaborate designs and colorful paintings of people and animals going about their daily tasks or enjoying special celebrations. There are some homely touches: a farmer’s wooden plough, a cooking pot on a stack of firewood in front of a family hut, and a decorative stone peacock in a whitewashed room.
Live performances also take place here and strains of music lure me to a courtyard where a turbaned singer is belting out a lively Rajasthani folk song accompanied by castanets, a harmonium and a dholak (drum). In an adjacent area, crafters demonstrate their skill and offer embroidered shawls, wood carvings, paintings and jewelry for sale. I buy a miniature marble bowl inlaid with mother-of-pearl lotus flowers.
On my way out, I see a crowd of foreign visitors at the ticket office. Perhaps the Crafts Museum isn’t that far off the tourist trail after all!
IF YOU GO:
For more information: http://nationalcraftsmuseum.nic.in/ and https://www.indianholiday.com/best-of-india/museums-art-galleries/cafts-museum.html
Location: Bhairon Road, Pragati Maidan, New Delhi.
Galleries 10am to 5pm (Monday closed)
By Margaret Deefholts except as indicated otherwise.
1. Indira Gandhi’s blood-stained sari,
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