Three statues stand eternally on guard at the roundabout. Three statues or teen murtis of soldiers from Indian princely states who fought and died for the British in World War I. The sprawling mansion beyond takes its name from them. Teen Murti Bhavan was completed in 1930, when the rose coloured Lutyens zone was still spreading like a blush across the new capital of Delhi. Before Independence, it was called Flagstaff House, home to the commander-in-chief of the British forces. After Independence, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru moved in.

And the three soldiers turned from loyal subjects of the British empire to early patriots, fighting someone else’s war in exchange for freedom. Flagstaff House was reinvented as the nerve centre of a democracy, the place where the ideas of India came from. For the ideas that were most visible in the political life of the country in those early years, at least, were Nehruvian.

Museums of modern India

The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library now lives in the high-beamed halls of Teen Murti Bhavan. Set up in 1966 as an autonomous institution under the ministry of culture, it was fashioned as “a memorial to Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India”. The library describes itself as a “research and reference centre for colonial and postcolonial India”. It also has extensive archives, with a large collection of private papers of Indians from the 19th and 20th century as well as oral histories.

As for the museum, it is very much a creature of the 1960s, not unlike the national museums set up in the Nehru era. These were inscrutable structures, often touched with the mournfulness of the gulag: think of the vast industrial spaces of the Birla Museum of Science and Technology in Kolkata, the dimly lit halls of the crafts museum and the dolls museum in Delhi, or the regiments of glass cabinets in the National Museum. They’re crammed with information and artefacts, all existing in a democratic chaos, and good luck to the visitor to make sense of it.  It reflects the efforts of a state getting down to the ponderous business of educating its citizens.

In the gracious building of Teen Murti Bhavan, it is less impersonal. A reverent, sarkari gloom hangs over the halls, but there is a sense of “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. It’s clear that the excitement of Independence had not wholly died out when the exhibits first went up. But to step inside the museum today is to step into your common garden history textbook, one with a very long chapter on Nehru.

These old shades

Entering, you find an exhibition on the young Nehru, being dandled on his mother’s knee, posing next to his father in pukka gear, riding a horse, graduating from Cambridge, sending postcards from Kashmir. The life of young Nehru merges into the early life of the Congress, which saw the split between the Moderates and the Extremists and the reconciliation a decade later. Then suddenly you find yourself staring at a replica of Nehru’s office in the ministry of external affairs, with its massive boomerang shaped desk trapped behind a glass barrier.

This is how it will be as you weave through the museum. The current of the national movement, presented in photographs, letters and newspaper articles, interrupted by the ghosts of a life lived in these rooms. Nehru’s bedroom and study, left the way they were when he died, a gallery of gifts received on state visits and, on a slightly chilling note, Indira Gandhi’s room, also with the original decor left intact. You imagine her sitting at the ecritoire, dreaming up the Emergency.

The national movement follows a sequence of events familiar to all 16-year-olds swotting for their board exams – the formation of the Congress and the rise of Gandhi, home rule, non-cooperation, civil disobedience and Quit India, the various British commissions, the two wars, a rising fever of conferences and finally, freedom in the shadow of Partition.

It all culminates in the second floor of the museum, in a gothic chamber that is meant to recreate the midnight session of August 14, 1947. Life size dummies of the founding fathers are arranged, corpse like, on the benches. It is the only room in the museum that has air conditioning, as though the founding fathers must be preserved in low temperatures.

You can sit next to them while someone presses a switch and the figure at the podium starts speaking. It is Nehru, delivering his “Tryst with Destiny” speech. As the whirring of the tape stops, you want to leave rather quickly.

The Independence Plot

This is the main plot of the freedom movement, according to the museum, the institutional history driven by the ups and downs of the Congress and negotiations with the British. Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj, the naval mutiny and the Red Fort trials only find mention in the “sidelights”. This is the version handed down to generations of students, with Nehru and Gandhi at the centre and independence achieved through satyagraha and civil disobedience.

But this official account won’t do anymore, the current dispensation feels, especially the twinning of Nehru and nation. Last week, Culture and Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma reportedly said the museum was going to go through a “revamp”, and show the “evolution of Indian democracy”. “Right now it is only about the times of Nehru,” Chandra said, “We have to make the museum relevant to today’s times.” For a comprehensive history of modern India, you needed smart cities and Mangalyaan up there with Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh.

Two baseless assumptions seem to have been made here. First, did the Nehru Memorial ever set out to give a comprehensive history of India, right up to the present day? Second, is the culture ministry suggesting that a museum has to speak of the present to be “relevant to today’s times”? That’s a blow for museums all over the world.

A strongly worded notice put up on the museum website answers the first question:

“Keeping in mind the basic objective of the NMML to spread the ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru and awareness about freedom struggle and history of modern India the National Implementation Committee constituted by the Government of India has recommended plans for modernization of the NMML...There will be a special focus on the governance of India under Jawaharlal Nehru as the first prime minister of India which has been largely left out in the current exhibition.”

A letter signed by academics and writers, and published in Scroll, has this to add:

“Other museums with other goals can always be built specifically in order to showcase ‘governance’, ‘space research’, ‘smart cities’, the Mars Mission or whatever other idea that the Ministry of Culture has evolved during its deliberations and which it deems worthy of a separate museum for display, memorialisation and public pedagogy.”

The Nehru Memorial Museum was set up at a particular point in time, and has its own preoccupations. It does not tell all the stories of India in the 20th century, or even of the national movement. It is a worldview contemporary Indians may or may not choose to reject. But in its incomplete, idiosyncratic storytelling, the museum is eloquent.

It embodies the temper of a very young country, the concerns of a government anxious to maintain legitimacy as the heroes of the freedom struggle slowly passed on. Teen Murti Bhavan does not just recount history, it is history. The same history that transformed it from Flagstaff House to prime minister’s residence to memorial and landmark. Any revamp of the museum must surely be alive to that.