Arun Shourie, one of the Indian right’s most influential intellectuals, last week sharply criticised the Narendra Modi government for a host of things, including the prime minister’s monogrammed pinstriped suit. “You cannot take Gandhiji’s name and wear such a thing,” he said, referring to Modi’s expedient use of Gandhi’s name while doing the opposite of what the Mahatma would have prescribed.
There are many claimants to the award for Best Politician in a Faux Gandhian Role and, Modi is in exalted company here, starting right from Jawaharlal Nehru himself. But the suit incident highlighted by Shourie isn’t Modi’s best performance in that category. That would have to be Dandi Kutir, a massive memorial dedicated to the Mahatma in Gandhinagar in Gujarat, which opened to the public in January.
Gandhinagar is an unusual Indian town for two reasons: it has great infrastructure and (almost) no people. Towering above the sleepy town is a tan-coloured cone as tall as a high-rise. This is Dandi Kutir, built in the shape of a mound of salt to commemorate Gandhi’s salt satyagraha. I’m not sure why they decided to colour what was supposed to be a mound of salt, tan and not white, but then this was only the first of many incongruences on my visit to this museum.
Spread over 15 acres, the Dandi Kutir complex is a part of the Mahatma Mandir, an impressive business convention centre, initiated by the state government when Modi was the chief minister. Chromatic verisimilitude aside, the massive cone of the Dandi Kutir looks rather striking. It is ringed by a series of administrative offices and the best government-built loos I have ever had the pleasure of using – a definite mark of getting their priorities right.
After 10 minutes of walking around with a growing sense of admiration, my balloon was punctured a bit when I reached the gates of the museum and was told it was just about to go into a one-hour lunch break. “Actually, come back in an hour-and-a-half,” said the man at the counter. “It takes time for people to gather up and we only open after lunch, when we have a crowd of at least 15 visitors.”
No matter: guess it’s difficult to get rid of all sarkaariness at once.
Thankfully, they let me wait inside the air-conditioned cone. The museum was spread out across three vertical levels, connected by elevators and steel-and-glass catwalks which spanned from one end of the museum to the other. The cone’s apex had a skylight cut out and the strong summer sun shone in, lighting the interior up with natural light. It all looked impressively industrial and modern, so much so that it would have made the Mahatma turn in his grave should he have had one. The cornerstone of Gandhi’s economic philosophy rested on the rejection of Western-style industrialisation. For example, in Harijan in 1946, Gandhi wrote:
“I do not believe that industrialisation is necessary in any case for any country. It is much less so for India. Independent India can only discharge her duty towards a groaning world by adopting a simple but ennobled life by developing her thousands of cottages [as industries] and living at peace with the world.”
Built on a budget of Rs 260 crore, there was not much in the space-age interiors of this museum built to commemorate Gandhi, which would remind one of a small-scale village industry.
Some of this ideological confusion can perhaps be explained by the fact that the Dandi Kutir museum is only partially utilised for the commemoration of Gandhi. One portion of the structure is a meta-museum of sorts, which proceeds to explain how and why the Dandi Kutir was built, a fairly unique segment as far as museums go.
This bit, as it turns out, is dominated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A large LCD panel television has a video address by the prime minster on loop, telling us why and how he conceptualised this structure. Another backlit panel hails the museum as “a monumental tribute from one great visionary to another” while another congratulates “SHRI NARENDRA MODI, The Visionary Architect of Mahatma Mandir” even as Shri Narendra Modi smiles benignly from another panel, looking dapper in a beige Nehru Jacket.
It is this section which contained my favourite part of the entire museum: the “Namo Quiz”, a 60-question trivia quiz, hosted on a touchscreen console, entirely about the life of Narendra Modi. It was a tough quiz mind you and I, at least, didn’t do all that well. Some of the trickier questions are listed below for you to take a crack at:
1. “From which league (Sangh) Shri Narendra Modi took the training?” (Options: RSS, NSS, VSS, PSS).
2. “People know Shri Narendra Modi by which nick name?” (Options: Narema, Namo, Naren, Namohar).
3. “What kind of clothing Shri Narendra Modi likes to wear most?” (Options: Kurta-Chudidar, Pyjama, Pent-shirt, Jeans-T shirt, Zbba-Dhoti).
4. Separate questions on the names of his mother, father and, surprisingly, even his wife.
5. How many brothers and sisters, respectively, does Modi have?
6. “Which world famous magazine mentions Shri Narendra Modi as the most powerful man in the world?”
7. “Shri Narendra Modi strongly believes in _____.” (Options: Accommodation, Afford, Renunciation, Development).
8. “In childhood Shri Narendra Modi took which animal’s cub home adventurously?” (Options: Elephant, Camel, Crocodile, Horse).
9. “After the victory of 2014 Loksabha elections, what did his mother give him to eat?” (Options: Shira, Curd, Halva, Laps).
10. “What kind of exercise does Shri Narendra Modi does every morning? (Options: Jogging, Walking, Yoga, Running).
After this tough-yet-engaging quiz, the actual Gandhi museum paled somewhat in comparison. The museum also suffers from a fatal flaw, as far as museums go: there isn’t a single object or artefact on display.
Story of Gandhi
Instead, what it does do is tell the story of Gandhi using a mixture of animated short films, information panels and an audio guide, a rather simple task, which it does quite competently. It’s a direct telling of Gandhi’s life and sticks to much of the standard narrative that Indian school children have grown up with. Some of it is actually quite well done. For example, Gandhi’s travels across India, after he came back from South Africa, is shown via LCD panels fitted onto a mock third-class train compartment, which I thought was quite clever.
More of an amusement park than a museum, sure, but engagingly done nonetheless.
The one place the narrative becomes a bit odd is right at the end. And it’s an expected chink. The final audio segment relates how Nathuram Godse “tore through the crowd” and shot Bapu dead in a prayer meeting, but conspicuously stays away from the whys and wherefores of the act. No link is made between Partition and of Godse’s motivations, a belief that Gandhi was appeasing Muslims.
In fact, unlike the Namo Quiz, the audio narration of Gandhi’s assassination does not even care to ask: from which league (Sangh) Godse took the training?
And earlier piece on a touring the Nehru-Gandhi Museum, Anand Bhavan in Allahabad.
First published on Scroll.