Apart from state­run mu­se­ums, fam­ily ini­tia­tives – such as th­ese two mu­se­ums in rugged Kargil – are vi­tal for record­ing lo­cal cul­tural his­to­ries

Hindustan Times (Bathinda) - - Think! - Kumkum Das­gupta kumkum.das­

Ajaz Hus­sain Mun­shi is a con­sum­mate sto­ry­teller. In the one­horse town of Kargil, Jammu and Kash­mir, he is the go-to guy if you want to know about the border town’s rich his­tory, its un­re­mark­able present, and the fiercely fought war with Pak­istan in 1999. Ajaz, how­ever, comes into his own when he steps into his fam­ily-run mu­seum, which was set up in 2004 in the mem­ory of his grand­fa­ther, Mun­shi Aziz Bhat, one of the lead­ing traders of the Silk Road in the 20th cen­tury. The 54-year-old so­cial ac­tivist is the cu­ra­tor and his brother Gulzar Hus­sain Mun­shi the di­rec­tor of the Mun­shi Aziz Bhat Mu­seum of Cen­tral Asian And Kargil Trade Ar­ti­facts, a mod­est three-room repos­i­tory, lo­cated at their home that has a sweep­ing view of the moun­tain town and the glacierfed Suru river that runs along it.

While gov­ern­ment-run mu­se­ums such as the Bri­tish Mu­seum in Lon­don and Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Mu­seum in Mum­bai are nat­u­rally in an­other league al­to­gether, fam­ily or com­mu­nity-run mu­se­ums are im­por­tant be­cause they pre­serve a range of mi­cro his­tor­i­cal, cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal iden­ti­ties. “They [com­mu­nity and fam­i­lyrun mu­se­ums] pre­serve ma­te­rial cul­ture – ob­jects and ar­chi­tec­ture that sur­round peo­ple – from get­ting lost,” ex­plains art his­to­rian and in­de­pen­dent cu­ra­tor Latika Gupta. “They also serve to make vis­i­ble his­to­ries that don’t find place in main­stream na­tional nar­ra­tives, which con­struct a coun­try’s his­tory in a way that of­ten leaves out en­tire re­gions and their lay­ered his­to­ries”. Gupta was in­volved in the re-cu­ra­tion of the Mun­shi Aziz Bhat Mu­seum, un­der the aegis of a fel­low­ship from Ban­ga­lore-based In­dia Foun­da­tion for the Arts (IFA), and the INLAKS Foun­da­tion. “Niche mu­se­ums also help artists and cu­ra­tors to work with ma­te­ri­als they would not usu­ally have ac­cess to,” says Arund­hati Ghosh, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, IFA.

Other ex­am­ples of such be­spoke cul­tural repos­i­to­ries in­clude the Mu­seum of In­no­cence in Is­tan­bul, Turkey, which evoca­tively cap­tures the ev­ery­day life and cul­ture of the city, the Mu­seum of Things in Berlin, Ger­many, which chron­i­cles the prod­uct cul­ture of 20th and 21st cen­tury, and a range of en­vi­ron­men­tal and trans­porta­tion mu­se­ums in the US.

Closer home, there is the Anokhi Mu­seum of Hand Print­ing in Jaipur, Ra­jasthan, and the Liv­ing and Learn­ing De­sign Cen­tre, Kutch, Gu­jarat. While the for­mer pre­serves the dy­ing art of block print­ing, the lat­ter fo­cuses on the preser­va­tion, re­vi­tal­i­sa­tion and pro­mo­tion of the craft her­itage of Kutch.

In Guwahati, As­sam, econ­o­mist, writer, and mu­si­cian Rongili Biswas has set up a mu­seum at her house in the mem­ory of her fa­ther, He­manga Biswas, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist and mem­ber of the Indian Peo­ple’s The­atre As­so­ci­a­tion. “His ideals and pol­i­tics are rel­e­vant to to­day’s In­dia... I am also fin­ish­ing a film on the peace mis­sion of 1960 that he un­der­took through ri­otaf­fected As­sam. At a time when the Na­tional Reg­is­ter of Cit­i­zens is be­ing de­bated, his work and the jour­ney and the mu­seum are re­minders that peace is pos­si­ble even in trou­bled times,” says Biswas.

“Ours is a small mu­seum… a per­sonal space. But there is in­ter­est. We do get vis­i­tors, es­pe­cially those in­ter­ested in mu­sic. Cine­matog­ra­phers take a lot of in­ter­est in his notes and mu­si­cal in­stru­ments”.


The story of Kargil’s Mun­shi Aziz Bhat Mu­seum is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing be­cause the Silk Route is the back­bone of the in­sti­tu­tion’s 3,500-plus col­lec­tion. The Silk Route com­prised an­cient ter­res­trial and mar­itime trade routes that con­nected the East and the West. Though silk was the ma­jor item ex­ported from China (hence the name), many other daily and lux­ury goods were also traded on this route. But “it was not only goods that flowed along the ar­ter­ies [of the Silk Route] that linked the Pa­cific, Cen­tral Asia, In­dia, the Per­sian Gulf and the Mediter­ranean in an­tiq­uity; so did ideas,” writes his­to­rian Peter Frankopan in his very en­gag­ing book, The Silk Roads. Among the most pow­er­ful ideas that spread via this route were “those that con­cerned the di­vine”: Hin­duism, Jain­ism, Bud­dhism; Zo­ras­tri­an­ism, Ju­di­asm, Christianity and Islam. Three trade ar­ter­ies of this route passed through the Ladakh re­gion, mak­ing Kargil equidis­tant from other trad­ing cen­tres such as Leh, Sri­na­gar, Zan­skar, and Baltistan (now in Pak­istan), and there­fore an im­por­tant trad­ing en­tre­port, and its bazaar a com­mer­cial hub where com­modi­ties, rang­ing from silk to slaves, were trans­ported, traded and taxed.

Mun­shi Aziz Bhat started trad­ing in 1915. Af­ter a few years, he di­ver­si­fied his busi­ness by build­ing a sarai (inn) for mer­chants at Kargil’s Caravan Bazaar. The trade col­lapsed af­ter the Par­ti­tion of In­dia and the clos­ing down of bor­ders in 1947, forc­ing the busi­ness­man to shut down the sarai. The mer­can­tile and cul­tural ar­ti­facts that are on dis­play at the Mun­shi Aziz Bhat mu­seum were dis­cov­ered ac­ci­den­tally from this inn.


De­spite be­ing an im­por­tant cul­tural and trade con­tact point, Kargil has no staterun mu­seum to show­case the town’s rich past. But, thanks to the ef­forts of the Mun­shi fam­ily, there is now one more mu­seum. The Mu­seum of Mem­o­ries at Hun­der­man Vil­lage, around 10 kilo­me­ters from Kargil, is at one of the un­like­li­est of lo­ca­tions: along the In­dia-pak­istan border. While the mu­seum is man­aged by a few lo­cal fam­i­lies of Hun­der­man, the Mun­shi fam­ily helped them to set it up, cu­rate the tra­di­tional items and pop­u­larise it.

The repos­i­tory’s set­ting is one of the best in In­dia: From the moun­tain road snaking around the hill op­po­site the 200-year-old vil­lage, Hun­der­man’s old stone houses, which are home to two gal­leries, look like a gi­ant hon­ey­comb cling­ing onto a moun­tain face, with green fields, apri­cot trees and a brook in the front. The mu­seum cap­tures the dif­fi­cult life story of a border pop­u­la­tion whose lives have been shaped by mil­i­tary events: They were a part of Pak­istan (1949-71), then In­dia af­ter 1971, and caught in wars the two coun­tries fought in 1965, 1971 and 1999. The ob­jects on dis­play com­prise border iden­tity cards, old coins and notes, arms and am­mu­ni­tion, tra­di­tional clothes and items of daily use.

Though such be­spoke mu­se­ums don’t al­ways get cu­ra­to­rial and in­fra­struc­ture sup­port that main­stream mu­se­ums get, it would be wrong to la­bel them as am­a­teur ef­forts. “They not only come from a solid un­der­stand­ing of what is valu­able but also stoke cer­tain kind of schol­ar­ship. Th­ese mu­se­ums in Leh/kargil are part of the larger trans-hi­malayan cul­ture,” says Abeer Gupta, di­rec­tor, Kr­ish­nakriti Foun­da­tion, Hy­der­abad. “Th­ese mu­se­ums rep­re­sent mi­cro-iden­ti­ties and ques­tion flat­tened nar­ra­tives about In­dia-pak­istan/bud­dhist-mus­lim.”

Abeer, who has worked ex­ten­sively in the Ladakh re­gion, says that in the last 10 years he has seen many lo­cal fam­i­lies in­vest­ing in fam­ily mu­se­ums, due to a cer­tain eco­nomic sol­vency brought about by tourism. It’s also heart­en­ing to note, he adds, that the lo­cals are re­sist­ing of­fers from richer col­lec­tors to buy their fam­ily heir­looms and other items be­cause the own­ers know that they “will lose not just agency over the items and also they [items/ar­ti­facts] may get lost among other things in larger mu­se­ums”.


A mu­seum is an elab­o­rate and ex­pen­sive af­fair. To at­tract vis­i­tors, it needs funds, space, in­ter­ac­tive ex­hibits, good re­search, and a dig­i­tal strat­egy. In In­dia, many of the 800 state-run mu­se­ums find it dif­fi­cult to meet th­ese re­quire­ments due to lack of funds. In the lat­est bud­get, the Cen­tre al­lo­cated ~80.60 crore to the min­istry of cul­ture for mu­se­ums. This amount, say, ex­perts, is hardly enough for man­age­ment of the coun­try’s cul­tural re­sources.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the chal­lenges be­fore the niche ones are much more var­ied. For ex­am­ple, the Mun­shi Aziz Bhat mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of ma­te­rial ob­jects has no in­trin­sic value. Its value lies in the cul­tural, eco­nomic, so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­texts the ob­jects were em­bed­ded in. The his­to­ries of the ob­jects and that of the col­lec­tion are what make this story unique. “[So] the chal­lenge that lay be­fore Latika [Gupta] was how would she frame the col­lec­tion in such a way that it re­flects both the his­tory of the ob­jects and that of the col­lec­tion it­self, and bring to the fore the im­por­tant ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tion that Kargil oc­cu­pied on the In­dia-pak­istan border,” ex­plains Suman Gopinath, programme of­fi­cer, Archival and Mu­seum Fel­low­ships, IFA.

“We def­i­nitely need funds for mainte- nance, bet­ter dis­play of arte­facts, mu­seum build­ing, art shop but the state gov­ern­ment has not lis­tened to our pleas though we have of­fered to give land for a new mu­seum,” says Ajaz Mun­shi. “We want peo­ple to know that there is a Kargil be­yond the 1999 war. While mu­se­ums in Zan­skar and Leh have re­ceived sup­port, we seem to be pari­ahs for the state”.

Hun­der­man’s Mu­seum of Mem­o­ries’ prob­lems in­clude lack of ex­pert cu­ra­to­rial sup­port, funds, reg­u­lar sup­ply of elec­tric­ity and even com­mu­nity sup­port. “I did not know that our tra­di­tional items would be of any in­ter­est … we don’t have that ex­po­sure, ed­u­ca­tion. But when Ajaz bhai and his nephew Muza­m­mil ex­plained their im­por­tance to me, I re­alised their value,” says Mo­hammed Illyas An­sari, the heart and soul of the mu­seum. Many of his neigh­bours, he says sadly, are still re­luc­tant to part with their per­sonal items for the mu­seum.

The lack of foot­falls is an­other mega chal­lenge. In 2015, many of In­dia’s gov­ern­ment-run mu­se­ums recorded fewer than 100,000 an­nual vis­i­tors. In com­par­i­son, the Lou­vre (Paris), drew 8.6 mil­lion that year. Ex­perts say this is be­cause In­di­ans lack a mu­seum-go­ing cul­ture since cul­tural his­to­ries are hardly taught in schools.

In this rather chal­leng­ing sit­u­a­tion, can fam­ily/com­mu­nity mu­se­ums flour­ish? En­gage­ment, says Latika Gupta, is key. “There are still mu­se­ums which see large numbers of vis­i­tors such as the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mu­seum or the Ch­ha­tra­p­ati Shivaji Ma­haraj Vastu San­gra­ha­laya in Mum­bai. So when mu­se­ums have ex­cel­lent ex­hi­bi­tions and pro­grammes, there are vis­i­tors,” she says. IFA’S Gopinath says that their fel­low­ship wants to nudge the mu­se­ums to open up their col­lec­tions, make them spa­ces of re­search, “rather than mau­soleums that no­body vis­its”.

De­spite th­ese stiff chal­lenges, Deepthi Sasid­ha­ran, di­rec­tor, Eka Cul­tural Re­sources and Re­search, Delhi, is op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of fam­ily/com­mu­ni­tyrun mu­se­ums in In­dia. “Es­tab­lished mu­se­ums may have the re­sources but many of them lack vi­sion and out­reach,” she says. “They are too process-driven, while com­mu­nity mu­se­ums are pas­sion driven.”

Thank­fully, the peo­ple who run th­ese niche and be­spoke mu­se­ums aren’t lack­ing in it.

The 200­year­old Hun­der­man Vil­lage was part of Pak­istan be­tween 1949 and 1971, then In­dia af­ter 1971. It was caught in wars the two coun­tries fought in 1965, 1971 and 1999 An­tique samovar, a type of ket­tle widely used in cen­tral Asia and Kash­mir, Mun­shi Aziz Bhat Mu­seum, Kargil


Or­na­men­tal sil­ver snuff box (late 19th cen­tury to early 20th cen­tury). Ori­gin: Cen­tral Asia. Th­ese were used by traders for stor­ing opium when they trav­elled across the moun­tains, deserts and plains of the Silk Route

Mun­shi Aziz Bhat’s great grand­son Muza­m­mil Hus­sain holds an an­tique horse saddle, Kargil, Jammu and Kash­mir

Am­a­teur cu­ra­tor Ilyas An­sari with tra­di­tional uten­sils, Mu­seum of Mem­o­ries, Hun­der­man Vil­lage

A regis­tra­tion cer­tifi­cate of a res­i­dent of Hun­der­man Vil­lage. Other ob­jects on dis­play at the Mu­seum of Mem­o­ries also in­clude old cur­rency and coins

A rev­enue record doc­u­ment with Mughal em­peror Shah Ja­han’s royal seal, Mun­shi Aziz Bhat Mu­seum, Kargil, Jammu and Kash­mir

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