The titan lies, mute, as a toddler runs her pint-sized hand over its seven-foot tusk. Don’t touch it, her mother hisses. In vain. The girl continues, agog with wonder, as others gather around the creature and a bored attendant looks on.
Stegodon Ganesha, whose plaque simply reads “Animals that lived millions of years ago”, is one of 1,700 fossils in the Siwalik Gallery. The air is musty, punctuated by the scent of ageing furniture. Walk into the colonnaded courtyard and the unmistakable whiff of bat guano hits your nostrils. Go out the main gate, and you’re hurtled from past to present by honking cars, the aroma of kathi rolls and Kolkata’s mugginess.
Siwalik is one of 32 sections in the 30,000 sq. ft Indian Museum. “Jadughar” (house of magic), as the museum is locally called, isn’t just a custodian of antiquities. It watches, as quietly as Stegodon Ganesha, the shapeshifting world within and outside its walls.
At 204, this is India’s oldest museum. And also its most controversial.
A train of blue tarpaulin runs nonchalantly along its perimeter. For the vendors of Chowringhee who sell everything from jhalmuri to crockery to terracotta jewellery to T-shirts, Jadughar’s visitors matter more than its chequered history. A history that includes a Gupta-era sculpture heist in 1974. A stolen Buddha bust in 2004. Allegations of pilfering and the display of fakes. A whistleblower missing for four years. “That case is sub judice and we can’t say anything. But we pray for his return,” says administrator Nita Sengupta about Sunil Upadhyay, the preservation officer who disappeared in 2014.
Here 28 years now, the woman in a crisp taant sari and neat ponytail is no mood to hear ill of the Indian Museum, and neither are the three men accompanying her. As evening sets in, a game of factual ping-pong unfolds in the museum security office.
“Sunil had been offered Rs 90 lakh days before he disappeared,” I remember a museum worker telling me (requesting anonymity). “I suspect that more than half the originals in this museum have disappeared.”
I wonder what Sengupta and company make of this. More on that later.
On the face of it, Upadhyay’s case seems limited to rampant corruption. But look closer, and a common thread emerges, connecting seemingly disparate dots of mismanagement, artefact smuggling and tedious repatriation.
That thread is security.
India has no official protocol regulating the security of our cultural heritage. When museums are woefully understaffed or have untrained guards, it’s a cakewalk for the mice, both within and outside, to come out and play.