For visitors coming across the exhibition on the life of Subhas Chandra Bose, in photographs, in documents and in a montage playing on loop, at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, it is an unexpected opportunity to pay homage to a hero. The white marble-clad building is a tourist destination; visiting it checks a box when you’re ‘doing Kolkata’. The Bose exhibition is a surprise bonus.
The due date for dismantling the exhibition is long past. The exhibition was a sketchy at best and incompetently put together at worst exposition of the life of a leader whose absence continues to be a permanent subject of conjecture. It was hurriedly curated, with a few artefacts from the Netaji Museum at Delhi’s Red Fort, documents from the National Archives and photographs. It is currently made up of the bits and pieces that have not as yet been collected by the institutions that provided them – hardly a proper exhibition worth the name. It is all too obvious from the empty spaces in the display cabinets and photographs with curling edges lying flat on top of tall pedestals, making it difficult to even see what these are about, that the exhibition has served its purpose and been left to decay.
For students shepherded by teachers from a school in Medinipur in the city on an “excursion” to visit Victoria Memorial, the exhibition was just one more thing that they saw. Some photographed the documents, perhaps to study them later or to share with family and friends. But there was no real curiosity about what was in the exhibition and no irritation about what was missing in the narrative that the Ministry of Culture had cobbled together for the 125th birth anniversary of Bengal’s hero. A woman who had come to see the sights of Kolkata said, “I am taking these photographs (of the documents) so that I can show them to my eight-year-old son when he can understand them better.” For her, Bose was important and the exhibition a bonus to everything else in the Victoria Memorial.
The choice of the venue, a monument erected in the memory of the Empress of India Victoria Regina, reflects a certain calculated callousness and disrespect for a controversial but towering figure of the national movement. His Majesty’s Opponent is the title of the biography by Sugata Bose, Gardiner Professor of Oceanic History and Affairs, Department of History, Harvard University, who is also the director of the Netaji Research Bureau and Museum in Kolkata, and it nails who the leader was: a determined foe who raised an army to liberate India from the clutches of the Empire. Professor Sugata Bose happens to be a grandnephew of Subhas Bose, but makes it clear, “I was taught, from childhood, never to claim a special relationship with him based on an accident of birth.”
Chandra Bose, another grandnephew of the leader and former MP of the Bharatiya Janata Party, said, “I had objected to the venue. The idea of superimposing Netaji on the memorial to Queen Victoria was not appropriate. Victoria Memorial has its own history. Let that be.”
It is a surreal experience standing under the dome of the Victoria Memorial and looking at the montage of images on loop of Subas Bose, the Congress leader, Subhas Bose, the Commander in Chief of the Indian National Army, the soldiers of the INA and Mahatma Gandhi, on the ground floor, with a series of paintings of Victoria being crowned Queen on the upper deck. Does it reflect the maturing of India as an independent democracy? Perhaps it means that a process of decolonising spaces is underway? Or are spaces being cleared to create vacuums that can then be filled with selected nationalist icons by a government that has made hyper nationalism its USP?
If indeed a memorial to Bose was sincerely intended, a new building especially designed should have been put up, Chandra Bose said. The BJP has put up a colossal monument, 182 metres tall, of Sardar Patel, “the architect of Independent India”, at enormous cost. That should have been done for Subhas Bose, he feels. “As a neutral and independent person, and a member of the Bose family,” Chandra Bose continues to criticise the decision to all of the Narendra Modi government’s decisions on Subhas Bose. “It was vote bank politics, on the eve of the 2021 West Bengal state assembly elections” that prompted the prime minister to the launch of the 125th birth anniversary at the Victoria Memorial, he adds. “They had their own agenda. Netaji is an emotion in West Bengal. It was an exercise in capitalising on Subhas Bose,” he says.
Retired professor of sociology and politics Sweta Ghosh says Victoria Memorial, a “memorial to imperialism”, is an “amazing choice” for an exhibition on an icon “who had his own convictions that the country cannot win independence only through negotiations and passive resistance”. She points out that the crowds, about 50% out of state tourists and the rest from West Bengal, who thronged the Victoria Memorial paid only passing attention to the substance of the exhibition. “They looked at the documents cursorily. They watched the montage with more attention. Their focus was in taking selfies with the outsize and smudgy photographs of Netaji and Queen Victoria as a visual record, ” she observes.
To get to the exhibition, the visitor has to cross the monumental bronze statue of the Empress of India seated on her throne. That is also a favourite spot for photographs and selfies. To exit the exhibition, the visitor walks under the enormous white marble figure of a supremely arrogant Lord Curzon, the viceroy who partitioned Bengal in 1905.
The pushback in Bengal forced the British to undo the partition, and then shift the capital of its Indian empire to Delhi in 1911. In doing so, the British erected a canopied pedestal on Kingsway to house a statue of George V, the only Emperor who visited India and held a Durbar in 1911. In the empty space vacated when the statue of the Emperor was removed, Modi inaugurated a black granite statue of Subhas Bose. Asked what may have been the reaction of Subhas Bose, Sugata Bose said he may have thought it “poetic justice”.
The exhibition does no justice to the complex history of Subhas Bose. Not that the average visitor to the exhibition or to the Victoria Memorial cares about what is missing, or about the shoddy presentation.
There is no dilution in the absolute nature of the hero worship of Subhas Bose in contemporary West Bengal. Bengalis will speak critically, “he did not do the right thing in taking the help of Nazi Germany and Japan” to fight the British, and in the same breath speak of his “desperate courage” in establishing the Indian National Army and waging war. This reflects the parallel streams of violent and nonviolent struggle that were intrinsic to Bengal’s freedom movement.
There is also a strong conviction that if Bose had not “disappeared” then the history of Partition in 1947 would have been different. For millions of Bengalis, that is a permanent lament: if only Bose had taken charge when India became independent, it would have been different. Exactly how is hardly ever spelt out; there is a conviction that he would have prevented the partitioning of Bengal. There is also a conviction that he would have succeeded in building a secular India that would have withstood the toxic divisiveness of religious identity politics.
For Bengalis, and even to the state’s new governor C.V. Ananda Bose (the Bose in the name is a tribute to Subhas Bose from a family of freedom fighters in Kerala), Netaji is a hero. Every year in every local community, that is every mohalla/para/nukkad in rural and urban Bengal, on January 23, Bose’s birthday is celebrated. Marching bands, processions, buntings and speeches are the order of the day. Any tribute, regardless of the incongruity of the space, is part of the homage that the average Bengali feels Bose justly deserves.
Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.