April 30, 2016

Fire destroys Delhi’s National Museum of Natural History

“Vritha ahankarshivaya, yathapashyapasoon alipt rahoon, muktapane khanbeerpane va utsaahane, kartavyepalan karnanyalach satvik mehantat”

“The detached and liberated performer, devoid of false ego, endowed with fortitude and insurmountable enthusiasm, unwavering in success and failure, is considered noble.”
– The Bhagavadagita

Tragedy struck Delhi this past week when the priceless treasure horde that was the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) was reduced to a smoldering mass of immense nothingness by a devastating fire.

The indescribable anguish and the surprising outburst of nostalgia, vociferously articulated by the city’s heritage and environment enthusiasts, was considerably more pronounced for Kaustav, my fellow Bio-technologist, and I since it has not yet even been a couple of months that we were standing riveted within the colossal building, in turns enthusiastically admiring the not insignificant collections meticulously arranged within glass cases and acquisitively staring at the scores of preserved flora-fauna specimens which we then heatedly argued about while attempting to classify them according to families, classes and categories learnt back in school (Animalia, Mammalia, Vertebrae…you get the drift). As if it would come alive and charge, the massive preserved rhinoceros standing threateningly at the foot of the staircase leading to the exhibition area too cornered a considerable fraction of our bewilderment.

The brilliantly lit fluorescent displays, the dazzlingly multi-hued butterfly collections seeming so conspicuously fragile, the unbelievably endearing bird specimens, the singularly patterned mollusks, the arrays of taxidermy big mammals, the numerous mesmerizing life-size diorama scenes, and of course the inquisitive-looking leopard sentinel-like staring at visitors from its perch along the ceiling – the loss is literally irredeemable, as if a bright light has become inexplicably extinguished even though it had been catastrophically neglected for so long that little of its magnificence, its magnetism now remained, even though it retained its unparalleled potency for illumination.

Death, in general, and the poignant eulogies that follow undeniably possess the unfailing propensity to elevate even the mundane on to the pedestal of blinding glory. I have no intention of denying that the museum authorities did little to promote its outstanding collections or even to preserve them particularly painstakingly, or that most of the mounted specimens were indeed frustratingly drenched with thick grimy layers of dirt and actually appeared like mottled and unkempt teddy-bears which could not even aspire to compete with the stunning visuals and the enviable narration that, say, National Geographic or Discovery Channel, have to offer today. Yet not unlike most things Indian, the endearing museum excelled not because of the uninterested bureaucracy but despite it, and the loss certainly does overwhelm.

Government authorities, including Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar (under the aegis of whose Ministry of Environment and Forests the iconic museum had been functioning since 1978 from a rented building belonging to the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) at Mandi House), have resiliently announced the construction of a grander, considerably better equipped facility near Pragati Maidan, how soon can the same be established and operationalized however remains to be seen. The precise cause of the accidental fire too hasn’t yet been ascertained.

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