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Eternal India, 21st century style

April 4, 2012

A week-long visit to India passed in a blur of meetings and impressions.

Now, more than a week later, it is still a challenge to sort into some kind of mental order the many conversations and incipient friendships that came from this whirlwind trip to Mumbai and Delhi.

One main purpose of our visit was to meet advisers and potential supporters for Oxford’s and Somerville’s plans to bring increased numbers of talented postgraduate and undergraduate students to Oxford with funded scholarships. Indira Gandhi is one of our most illustrious alumnae, and Somerville is keen to commemorate her in our programme, along with historical links with India and Indian students that go back to the first decade of the College.

In the midst of this work several visits in particular defined and deepened in my mind an indelible impression of this complex, modern country. India draws such strength from its ancient traditions at the same time as grasping new opportunities with all the energy of a rising power.

Three of us from the Oxford party took time out in Mumbai to visit the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, with its Honorary Director Mrs Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. Built to display the exhibits that represented India at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, the Museum’s original name was the Victoria and Albert. There in the middle of the ground floor stands a marble statue of the Prince Consort himself, several times life size. What surrounds him is a monument to the vision and determination of Mrs Mehta and her fellow trustees. The cast-iron structure gleams with bright paint and gilding. Original display cases have been renovated to display examples of Indian arts and crafts and paintings, with dioramas illustrating the countless manufactures and occupations of the subcontinent. The displays of decorative artefacts ranging from metal work to ceramics and fabrics celebrate traditional Indian artistry and also show off the influences of classical European style and the arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth century. A young curatorial and education staff working with some expert conservators have brought to life a vibrant centre for the teeming city of Mumbai (population about 22 million). The cross-currents of international cultural influences and the layers of trading and colonial history in this great ocean city come vividly to life here. In the museum gardens, palm trees and a brightly coloured canopy give shade for visiting school parties. Alongside them are statues of colonial British governors, several of them decapitated during the campaign for Indian Independence.

Meeting Somervillians in India

Meeting Somervillians in India

The final event in our flying visit to Mumbai was a party given at her home by the business leader and writer Gita Piramal. Business people, journalists, academics and Bollywood film directors joined in this warmest and most hospitable of gatherings. Conversation flowed ceaselessly and I found myself wishing for more. Rajni Bakshi, of the Gateway House project,used the word “conquest” in a direct way that made me think freshly about the context of that word and how it sounds respectively in British and Indian ears. She questioned whether triumphal arches that lead to nowhere are an exclusively European conception (the Arc de Triomphe, Marble Arch, and then the Gateway to India in Mumbai, from where the Mountbattens departed after the Independence celebrations). I am still thinking about that.

We flew on to Delhi early the next morning, and more meetings. The courtesy of our Indian hosts, and their interest in what Oxford has to offer, was humbling. Another glittering party at the house of the head of Shell India, Oxonian Vikram Singh Mehta, who has been a wonderful friend to Somerville, and more meetings…Among so much that was memorable, the visit that stands out was to the Eternal Gandhi Memorial Multimedia Museum., where we were guided by the chief curator and colleagues. This brilliantly executed shrine to India’s great hero is based in the house where the Mahatma was staying when he was assassinated. I have never seen a more creative use of technology and visual effects in any museum. One ingenious and colourful display led on to another, each one inviting the visitor to interact with appropriate symbols by speaking into a tube, or touching a pillar, or moving a hand across a giant dish of salt. Gandhi’s life and teachings sprang to life in each room, in a way calculated to appeal to those with no knowledge of him, from school children to foreign visitors, just as much as it does to the great majority of Indian citizens for whom he is an iconic figure. There was always more to learn. Most moving of all was the pathway through the garden, following Gandhi’s steps to the spot where he was killed, which is marked by a simple shrine. The entire museum is supported by the Birla family whose home it was; a striking act of patriotic generosity. And then, not least, there was our visit to the OP Jindal Global University. Where else would it be possible to build an entire campus in five months? The brainchild of industrialist and philanthropist Naveen Jindal and his Vice Chancellor the lawyer Raj Kumar, this youthful university, founded less than three years ago, so far consists of schools of business, law, government and public policy, and international affairs. It will expand to take in some 2,500 students in the first instance and later as many 5,000; and the campus will expand accordingly on an eighty-acre site about an hour’s drive from Delhi. The vision behind this “private university promoting public service” is based on principles of human rights and anti-corruption. Faculty have been recruited from international backgrounds including Oxford, MIT and Harvard. The first cohort of graduates will take their degrees this summer. One can only salute the ambition, the courage, and the founding principles. I felt connected here, even more than in our other visits, to the newness and optimism of India.

Talking to the entrepreneurs, academics, writers and politicians who gave their time and hospitality so generously during that whirlwind week, I felt an enormous sense of how privileged we were to meet them all. These people are the founders of 21st-century India. In their hands the vast problems of desperate poverty (visible everywhere in troubling juxtaposition to the wealth and new buildings) illiteracy, and political violence are being tackled. If Oxford can support that endeavour by sharing in the education of aspiring young Indians, we will be making a worthwhile contribution. Somerville’s ambitious slogan, “if you want to change the world, come to Somerville” has a special meaning in this context.

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