Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Museum on caste

By RAMA LAKSHMI The Times of India 17 Apr 2006
After 16 years of debate and delay in the US Congress and Senate, the Smithsonian Institution finally announced this January the plan to open a National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum will be one of the largest in the US dedicated to explore the tortured history of African Americans, their struggles against slavery, racism and injustice, and also to celebrate their triumphs. The museum, estimated to open in 2016, will tell the story of the African American experience through photographs, video films, oral histories, archival documents, letters, diaries, posters, music, art and literature. The legacy of racism in the US is not very different from our own shackles of the caste system.
The caste system is arguably even more degrading and pernicious than racism in the US. Many believe that the biggest social cleavage in India is not religion or gender, but it is caste. Despite progressive constitutional guarantees and abolition of untouchability, discrimination continues. Can we envisage a museum on the caste system in India? To do that, we may have to think beyond the notion of museums that present our history as a series of archaeological artefacts and royal treasures. A museum need not just be about archaeological artefacts, it is also a repository of collective memory. There is a profusion of story-telling museums around the world today that are built around people’s histories.
A caste museum is one way of confronting the existence of a parallel narrative (of Dalits) that has remained invisible from mainstream historiography. The experience of caste in India is an integral part of our history and permeates every aspect of our collective experience — history, identity, religion, economy, rituals, justice, and nation-building.
There are a lot of Indians who would dismiss caste as a thing of the past. They claim to live in a caste-neutral 21st century. If indeed, it is something we have overcome, then the story truly belongs in a history museum — of how a crippling social system was defeated by us. The nation and future generations will benefit from an acknowledgement of this past. But is it really over? Problems as old and deeply embedded like this do not disappear by a set of laws enacted for over 50 years, but they have to be debated and confronted at shared platforms.
Museums are sites of dialogue about traumatic episodes of history and also of community pride — the black history museums in the US, post-apartheid museums in South Africa, the Holocaust museums, the aboriginal museums in Australia, post-Soviet museums in the Baltics and the recent on-line Chinese Cultural Revolution Museum. There are those who would say that this may only deepen our social divisions. But such a museum need not be a confrontational site. It could also be a site to celebrate the prideful moments in Dalit history, literature and art.
For example, how many school-going children read about Dalit figures like Jhalkari Bai and Udha Devi, who courageously fought the British army? What would be more fitting than a tribute to these a gallery attached to the figures in National Gandhi Museum at Rajghat? Our history tends to be formal, inflexible and academic — a grand national narrative that subsumes the various strands of social and public histories. It is time we present different and differing approaches to our culture and identity. We need to go beyond fixed narratives because history has to be constructed continually and make room for other instruments of social memory — whether it is the history of our caste system, independence movement, partition history, Emergency, or even the Aryan migration theory.
Whose stories belong in the museum? Surely, not just those of the privileged. I don’t suggest replacing one version with another, but creating spaces in a museum where both stories can live together and engage with each other’s truths. A museum’s story need not be static and can be continually and collectively built. The museum of the caste system can be a dynamic locus of reflection and reconciliation. The writer, a journalist for The Washington Post, is on leave studying museology

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