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December 29, 2016

Why India’s Uninspired Museum Cafes Need A Facelift

Text by Madhu Jain

Imagine gala evenings and fundraisers with liveried waiters serving wine in proper wine glasses at the inner courtyard of the National Museum in Delhi

It was always with a bit of a smirky smile — the larger part insolence, the smaller one indulgence — that my friends and relatives greeted me. They couldn’t rein in their condescending glances as they gave me the once-over on social occasions. My blouses didn’t match my generally faded and mostly handloom saris. My Kolhapuri chappals on my pedicure-free feet had given more than their share of mileage. And my huge earrings, which resembled dinner gongs, usually elicited clucking sounds of matronly disapproval. You see, I have long believed, and still do, that if you are never in fashion, you never really fall out of it. In other words, if you are not in the spotlight, you can never be banished from it. Nor will you be a slave to the mavens.

Perhaps, I was uninspired or just too lazy to join the herd and follow the dictates coming at us from the pulpits of the arbiters of taste. In my distant youth I ignored the matchy-matchy firmans. Nor did I obey those telling us to blindly follow trends. For many friends and colleagues, blending in and falling in line was de rigueur. It was usually all about Eve in the last century and a tiny slice of this one, although Adam was not far behind. The idea was to stand out, stand taller, but not too tall or way-out. Individuation, the much-touted word first emanating from psychoanalysts and psychotherapists, had not yet percolated to the vox populi, aam admi if you will.

All About Me
Today, it is all about the I. I am not venturing into psychobabble land and egotistical terrain; the drift of this column is the gradual ascension of the individual — the Me asserting itself against the rest. We are moving towards becoming more confident of what we like, or dislike. Whether it has to do with our tastes in fashion, lifestyle, music, books, the arts, interior decor, architecture or food; or, deeper concerns about beliefs, gender roles, relationships and even philosophy. In a phrase: going against the grain.

The new glittering watering hole of the socially- and aesthetically-inclined elite (the tastemakers) is Bikaner House, located near India Gate. Once known as Bikaner Bus Stop, the former palace of the Maharaja of Bikaner which belongs to the Rajasthan government, has been elegantly restored by Abha Narain Lambah (yes, the one who transformed the Royal Opera House in Mumbai). It has become a cultural and commercial hub. The initiative, taken by Rajasthan’s chief minister Vasundhara Raje, egged on by the indefatigable publisher Malvika Singh, has become the perfect launch pad for books, boutiques and fashion shows; Rohit Bal’s finale show took place here this summer. Rohit Khattar’s imaginatively designed restaurant Chor Bizarre (Kashmiri cuisine) is an added attraction.

A willing suspension of disbelief was necessary before I could take in the fact that Bikaner House was, indeed, government property. Quite a 180-degree turn from the stereotypical government buildings, some of them also former palaces near India Gate. The fact that it is not GOI, but rather a Government of Rajasthan property, makes the frog-to-prince metamorphosis possible. And, I am not just talking about the architecture or interior decor.

Museums To Linger In
The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), the former palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur with its lovely old-world facade, and the imposing National Museum have character. But they tilt towards the dowdy.

The ineffable stamp of babu-dom and the stench that lingers in some areas of the buildings prevent them from becoming world-class museums — the kind to which visitors, both Indian and international, would be drawn, like bears to honey. Objets d’art are not solely responsible for bringing in hordes, or for seducing them to linger and lighten their wallets. Imaginative landscaping, cafes and restaurants with inviting food and ambience go a long way in making museums and public places less dour and more appealing. Whatever goes by the name of cafe or restaurant in some of our museums is embarrassingly abysmal: wet floors and sloppily ladled out food and horrendous tableware.

We should imbibe the spirit of international museums (New York’s Metropolitan Museum, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Louvre in Paris, among others) in both senses of the word. Our National Museum has a wonderful inner, circular courtyard. Imagine gala evenings and fundraiserswith liveried waiters serving wine in proper wine glasses and sophisticated nibbles. Outsourced, of course. But, I am dreaming. GOI would not allow this, despite the cachet and revenue it would bring in.

Alas, I have had too many encounters of the dispiriting kind in our showcase museums. During several receptions (sometimes dishonestly called high teas) members of the staff rushed to fill their own plates with overfried pakodas before most of the guests could. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to let the museum staff eat before the guests arrive. Just like they do in the British television dramas like Downton Abbey.

However, the National Museum, despite its horrible canteen euphemistically called a cafe, is on its way to throwing the yoke off the stereotype of dowdiness. The new Bronze Gallery is a pleasure to linger in, with intent. The gallery housing miniatures is in the middle of a makeover.

The emergence of other languages, and voices, has begun to erode the established hierarchy in literature and cinema. Recent Marathi films have outshone Hindi ones. Naveen Kishore’s Seagull Books is the trailblazer. However, new publishing houses like Speaking Tiger, headed by Ravi Singh, are bringing out new translations of vibrant Indian as well as international writing. Anglo-Saxon literature and mainstream Hindi films have competitive company.

We are discarding a few entrenched stereotypes. But are we also creating new ones. I wonder if the nurturing father not hiding his maternal instincts now being shown in ads will become a new stereotype — wishful thinking.

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