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Remodeling Nehru’s house

In the three years since I did a little of my dissertation research there, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML) in New Delhi has become the subject of controversy over plans to remodel the museum or its surrounding grounds.

As much as I like NMML, I grant that the museum could use a good remodeling. It is housed in Teen Murti Bhawan, a British-era mansion that was originally built as the Commander-in-Chief’s house before independence, and after independence served as the official residence of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. After Nehru’s death in 1964, the house was converted into a museum rather than serving as the official residence of subsequent Prime Ministers.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

Backside of Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bottom floor of the house has exhibits about Nehru’s life and the independence movement. It is a standard textbook-style narrative, and it is quite unengagingly presented with black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text in English and Hindi. The upper floor has some preserved rooms, including Nehru’s office and the bedroom where he died. The rooms are certainly interesting too look at, but they are not in the best of condition. I remember seeing water damage on the ceiling in one or two of them.

View of Nehrus office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

View of Nehru’s office in Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

The bedroom that Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi used when she stayed at Teen Murti Bhawan.

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l'oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum

Surreal Lok Sabha replica, with trompe-l’oeil walls, mannequins of MPs, and spots on the benches for real people to sit too. I really hope this is preserved in any remodeling of the museum.

The house is located on a large landscaped estate, which also includes a research library, a planetarium, and a medieval hunting lodge that was incorporated into the site plan when the mansion was built.

SLV-3, India's first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

SLV-3, India’s first satellite launcher, on display next to the planetarium at Teen Murti.

Proposals to remodel NMML go in two different directions. One direction is modernizing the existing displays but keeping the nationalistic, Nehru-centered narrative intact. This is outlined in a document posted on the NMML website, “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” from September 2015. The black-and-white photographs and hard-to-read text will go, to be replaced by touchscreens.

The other direction for remodeling the museum is completely overhauling it to honor all prime ministers, not just Nehru. This seems to be favored by the current ruling party, the BJP, which has made it a point to play down the legacy of Nehru.

From what I can tell, the proposals have reached a compromise of sorts, with Teen Murti Bhawan set to stay as it is and a national prime ministers museum to be built somewhere else on the estate.

These proposals to remodel Nehru’s house are at their heart political, but I would like to look at them from a historical perspective—or rather a historiographical perspective, which means how history is interpreted.

I don’t know enough about the national prime ministers museum proposal to comment on it, but from studying the “New Design Plan for the Nehru Museum,” I feel that it has missed an opportunity to reinterpret Nehru and his legacy in an appropriately critical light. As is it now, there is no room in Indian popular discourse for a critical discussion of Nehru. He can be either all good or all bad, and the debates about remodeling NMML fall into these predictable ruts.

Like every leader in the history of this planet, Nehru left a mixed legacy. This legacy should be open for interpretation, but it shouldn’t be inevitably polarized. Like many leaders of his time, Nehru promoted industrial growth and democratization at the expense of minority communities. He proudly trumpeted anti-colonialism but refused to criticize Soviet interventions in eastern Europe. He claimed to believe in democracy and self-determination but took a firm line on Kashmir and brutally suppressed an insurgency in Nagaland. This ambiguity in Nehru’s legacy needs to be taken seriously, not papered over by heroizing or villainizing narratives.

But isn’t it inevitable that a museum dedicated to one man’s legacy would portray him as a hero? I argue that it is not. As an example to the contrary, consider the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, USA. As president of the United States from 1963 to 1969, Johnson had as mixed a legacy as Nehru. He promoted civil rights legislation and social welfare programs known as the Great Society. But he also escalated the the American war in Vietnam, a war that left over a million people dead. The LBJ Library does not softpedal Johnson’s role in escalating the war.

The same approach can and should be taken for a remodeling of NMML. Nehru’s contested legacy should be acknowledged and explored in the museum dedicated to him.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President and First Lady Johnson in Washington, DC, March 1966.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

The Little Big History

What stories matter in history? If you had posed this question to a historian in the United States or Europe a hundred years ago, he probably would have told you in a roundabout way that only the experiences of white men mattered—more specifically, powerful white men. Historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost to a man (and they were all men), only studied the lives of kings, prime ministers, presidents, senators, and generals; or great artists, great thinkers, great industrialists, and great inventors. These historians didn’t pay any attention to the common man and woman, because these people simply didn’t matter in their worldview.

This sort of thinking about history seems silly and old-fashioned now, as well it should. All people are a part of history, not just the white and powerful, and their stories deserve to be told too. One outcome of this contemporary understanding of history is a profusion of books, movies, and museums about minority experiences—for example, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Museum of Chinese in America, Roots, and Hidden Figures. Another outcome is the rise in popularity of genealogical or family history research. If all people’s experiences are a part of history, then one’s ancestors are a legitimate subject of research, even if they were not powerful or influential.

Even though they are studying the past, family history buffs don’t really have the same objectives as historians. The job of a historian is to ask questions about the past—not only what happened, but why. (“History” comes from a Greek word meaning inquiry. The discipline of history is not, and has never been, just about facts.) Historians need to make connections from event to event, to understand why something was important. For family history researchers, significance is a given: this person is my ancestor, therefore he or she is important. Because family history isn’t exactly history as historians understand it, I prefer to use the term family heritage instead.

There is a genre of historical writing that discusses people who may not have been important in their own time, but their experiences can be used to draw broader lessons about the period in which they lived. This is known as microhistory. When written well, microhistories can be good reads that teach you about much more than the small event that is their main subject matter. (That not all microhistories are this well-written is not a valid reason for condemning the genre as a whole, as some of my classmates did in grad school.)

One excellent microhistory is Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, by Scott Reynolds Nelson. The author takes a well-known but little-understood folk song and uses it to discuss convict labor and industrialization in the post-Civil War American South. The results of archival research are interspersed with accounts of the author’s travels to the places where John Henry lived, worked, and died. I have read more books about convict labor than I would care to count, but this is the only one I keep thinking about long after I read it.

Another great microhistory wasn’t even written by a historian, and it is on its face a creative nonfiction biography. But Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is about more than just one man’s sensational life story. Hillenbrand uses Louis Zamperini’s experience of capture and imprisonment by the Japanese to illustrate the experiences of thousands of Allied prisoners of war in the Pacific Theater.

Can family heritage buffs learn something from the microhistory genre? I hope they can. If I were not a member of my own family, I wouldn’t care about the stories of, say, my Austrian immigrant ancestors who settled in Colorado a hundred years ago. But I would be interested to know how their experiences of migration, acculturation, and ultimately assimilation reflected broader trends in the lives of European immigrants in rural America at the turn of the twentieth century.

(Header picture: B-24 Liberator bomber in flight over Montgomery, AL. USAF photo from Wikipedia.)

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A Not-so-great Great Man History of Jaipur

Jadunath Sarkar and Raghubir Sinh (ed.), A History of Jaipur, c. 1503-1938 (1984; repr. Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2009).


In the 1930s, the Maharaja of Jaipur State, Sawai Man Singh II, commissioned well-known Indian historian Jadunath Sarkar to write an official history of his state and his own ruling family, the Kacchawaha Rajputs. In undertaking this commission, Sarkar had access to the official records of Jaipur State, which had never been used by historians before. By 1940, Sarkar had finished his manuscript, but because of opposition by the nobles of Jaipur State (who generally come across negatively in the narrative), publication of the book had to be shelved indefinitely. It was not until more than forty years later, in 1984, that Sarkar’s book finally saw the light of day. By this time, the author and the commissioning Maharaja had both passed away. Sovereign Jaipur State also was no more; now it was just a district in the state of Rajasthan. Sarkar’s History of Jaipur was eventually published in a very different world than the one in which it was written.

I had been hearing about A History of Jaipur for a while when I finally got my hands on a copy recently and excitedly started reading it. My excitement did not last long, though. After the first few chapters, I had gotten thoroughly bored, and it ultimately took me more than a month to slog through the book. Had I known a little more about the context of the book and the background of its author, I would have been better prepared for the disappointment.

The most disappointing aspect of the book was that the title did not accurately reflect the contents. It isn’t A History of Jaipur; it is actually A History of the Rulers of Jaipur. Most of the book is just a dynastic history of the Kacchawaha house, from the early sixteenth century to Man Singh II. The narrative follows the Raja wherever he goes. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Man Singh I, Mirza Raja Jai Singh I, and Ram Singh I served as generals in the Mughal army, often spending years away from their capitals at a stretch. Sarkar wrote in tiresome detail about all these campaigns, completely ignoring whatever might have been happening on the home front at this time. I would love to know about economic and cultural life in the Kacchawaha kingdom, but Sarkar had nothing to say about these topics.

It isn’t really surprising that Sarkar wrote a Great Man history of the Kacchawaha house, since he was commissioned to write his history by the ruler of that clan. Surely Sawai Man Singh II wanted to be portrayed as a Great Man from a long line of Great Men.

Jadunath Sarkar was best known for writing about the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707, contemporary with Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I). His magnum opus was the five-volume History of Aurangzeb (1912-24), which I now have absolutely no desire to read. As Mohammad Shah points out, Sarkar thought that (Islamic) Mughal rule in India had been oppressive, and British rule was an improvement.1 Aurangzeb comes across in Sarkar’s histories as a temple-smashing religious fanatic, emblematic of the broadly oppressive policies of the Mughal Empire.

In writing the official history of Jaipur State, Sarkar had to change his tack. The reason is that the Kacchawaha house was the first Rajput kingdom to join the Mughal Empire, when the daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amber married Mughal Emperor Akbar in 1562. Condemning the Mughal Empire would, in effect, condemn the Kacchawaha house, because they had willingly joined the empire through a marriage-alliance. Instead, Sarkar restricted his criticism to certain aspects of Mughal policy. Aurangzeb comes across badly in A History of Jaipur as well, but mainly because of his supposed mistreatment of Jai Singh I and Ram Singh I.

In contrast with Mughal rule, British rule in India was, in Sarkar’s eyes, a great blessing. As a princely state, Jaipur was technically sovereign. A treaty signed in 1818 surrendered responsibilities of defense and foreign relations to the British, but the Maharaja of Jaipur could theoretically do whatever he wanted within the confines of his own kingdom. In reality, the British meddled in the affairs of the princely states, posting residents in the capitals and arbitrating in succession disputes. It was in the best interests of the princes to maintain good relations with the Paramount Power (as the British rulers styled themselves). When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, the princes stayed on the side of the British, providing essential support for the suppression of the rebellion.

The glowingly positive terms in which Sarkar describes the British read almost comically nowadays. Take, for instance, this statement about the modernizer Ram Singh II:

The dawn of the modern age in Jaipur was due to the initiative and fostering care of a number of British officers of exceptional ability and generous sympathy, and it was the good fortune of Maharajah Ram Singh II to have been trained by them at the formative stage of his life and to carry to full maturity the reforms for which they had done the spadework.2

Or this one, about Madho Singh II’s visit to England to attend the coronation of Edward VII:

The unifying force of such an Empire [the British Empire] rises above caste, creed, and locality.3

If nothing else, A History of Jaipur is a reminder that the way we interpret history can change drastically over time. No Indian alive today would prefer the British Raj over independence. This attitude can too easily be imposed onto the past, so that all Indians at all times seem to have desired independence. But many members of the privileged classes in India—including Sawai Man Singh II and Jadunath Sarkar himself—benefited from British rule. A History of Jaipur is a relic of a period that most Indians now are willing to forget.

  1. Mohammad Shah, “Jadunath Sarkar’s interpretation of Aurangzeb’s reign,” Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh 28 (Dec. 1983): 133-41. []
  2. Sarkar, A History of Jaipur, 325-36. []
  3. Ibid., 355. []

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