When Pranab Mukherjee expressed his intent to be President, it was seen as an unusual move for an active career politician, one who was referred to as the principal troubleshooter of the ruling party, and considered the sharpest and most competent of all Members of Parliament. Rashtrapati Bhavan, after all, was long perceived as a vacation home where retired, inactive or non-politicians, preferably also non-entities, were sent to fill a role that is largely ceremonial. Think about some of his predecessors; Pratibha Patil was a politician plucked from obscurity, APJ Abdul Kalam became popular only after he took office, KR Narayanan was a career diplomat, and SD Sharma was brought out from retirement.
Rashtrapati Bhavan was the ‘dumping ground’ for failed ambition, as Mukherjee’s opponent for the job, NDA presidential candidate PA Sangma, had implied; though that did not stop him from craving it himself. In the two years since he took office, Mukherjee, who vociferously disapproved of this comment, has set out to demonstrate thoroughly and meticulously that Rashtrapati Bhavan is not just a place to enjoy stately banquets and long walks in its Mughal Gardens, or smell the roses while waiting out the winter of old age. It can, in fact, be the seat of ambition and power, although of a different kind. There was never really any doubt that Pranab Mukherjee would make for a great President. What was unexpected is the air of reinvigoration he has brought to the job.
The swearing-in ceremony of Narendra Modi with its pomp and pageantry, held at the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan, was for most people a peek into an impenetrable fortress, a relic of our colonial past. There were many famous faces in the crowd that day in May, but the star of the show, the one that stood out was Rashtrapati Bhavan itself. The “curves and arches that express feeling in design” as Charles, the Prince of Wales, once eloquently put it, were visible in the background. The red sandstone glowed in the setting summer sun. The President’s Bodyguard stood stiffly in red uniform, a symbol of old times that seemed to oddly fit in with the mood of the occasion.
It was Rashtrapati Bhavan’s coming out moment, but it was just one part of the cultural renaissance that is taking place under Pranab Mukherjee. The last two years have been a transformative period for the President’s palace. Edward Lutyens’ masterpiece, one of the largest residences in the world, built over 330 acres and with 340 rooms in 1929, has always been a mystifying place. In an assertion of democratic principles by a man who has spent six decades in politics, the palace has been made accessible to the general public. Visitors can take guided tours of Rashtrapati Bhavan, there are residence programmes for artists and innovators to stay there, and a massive outreach programme through the President’s website and his social media presence on Facebook, YouTube and, just recently, on Twitter. He has travelled to almost every state in the country, giving speeches and reaching out to people. “Through his public speaking, the President has struck a chord, and been noticed by people. They have also added to his stature and his image [as] someone who has left his political past behind and been able to carve out an independent place for himself as the elder statesman and First Citizen of the country,” says Venu Rajamony, press secretary to the President. He also takes his role as Visitor to all Central Universities more seriously than most other Presidents, making it a point to engage with educationists.
If President Kalam was committed to science and technology, Pranab Mukherjee’s great passion is history. In the changes that Mukherjee has brought about, there is a method—to restore and conserve history, to document it, and to open up access to the public—these are the cornerstones of his policy. He has been known to express the view that Rashtrapati Bhavan belongs to the nation and its people, and its heritage value is something he is well aware of. An extensive restoration project has been undertaken, rooms that were not being used have been opened, and furniture designed by Lutyens has been brought out from the storerooms.
In preparation for the second anniversary of Mukherjee’s Presidency, an unusual flurry of activity can be seen at the President’s Estate. Workers are busily moving about, shifting paintings and statues, and putting last minute touches to ‘The Stables’, which will house a new museum for the public, chronicling the history of Rashtrapati Bhavan and the Presidents of India. It is the last week of June and everything is to be readied by 25 July. Cardboard boxes are lying open, rolled up carpets are pushed against walls, paintings and artefacts, and gifts from the Toshakhana (treasury) are strewn about haphazardly. A stunning royal blue velvet gown gifted by the President of Uzbekistan to Abdul Kalam is wrapped up in plastic, next to a one-kilometre long thread of khadi given to R Venkataraman by a weaver from Nabadwip; a gold wreath with ivory leaves gifted to Pratibha Patil by the Prime Minister of Greece and a golden dagger presented to KR Narayanan by the King of Morocco are in a glass showcase. Chairs and tables have been brought in from all parts of the mansion, and painted replicas of every famous room of the palace— the Ashoka Hall, the Durbar Hall, the library—have been created.
Slated to open later this year is a second public museum, ‘The Garages’. The stables for the horses and garages that are in the basement, both spaces designed by Lutyens, have been lying in disuse for many years, and are a reflection of the President’s policy to put every available space at Rashtrapati Bhavan to good use. On the first anniversary of his presidency, he had opened up another unused building in the Estate to house a library for members of the staff.
Earlier this year, the guest wing, which had been in a state of disrepair— overtaken by dust and mites, and water seepage on the intricately painted ceilings— was restored and reopened after almost 20 years. The first guests to stay in the sumptuous rooms were the King and Queen of Bhutan. The guest wing has a back storey which has become legendary, the luxurious suites were originally meant for the Viceroy. But, when C Rajagopalachari moved in as the Governor-General to Government House (as it was then called), taking over from Lord Mountbatten, he decided that the rooms were too opulent for his tastes and moved into the quarters of the Vicereine’s lady-in-waiting; and that tradition continues till this day.
While living in opulence, the President must set an example of austerity.
For the last year and a half, Rashtrapati Bhavan has thrown its doors open to the people of India, who can register online, and for a negligible fee, take a detailed guided tour of the place every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On weekends, it is not unusual to find groups of families, foreign tourists, students, teachers, architects, historians and curious souls visiting the Bhavan. The tour goes through Marble Hall (portraits and statues of British Royalty and Viceroys), the Kitchen Museum (opened by Kalam, displaying crockery and utensils that date back to the time of the British), Durbar Hall (famous for its two-tonne chandelier), Ashoka Hall (the most opulent room, with a Persian flavour and a painting of Fateh Ali Shah on the ceiling), the newly-restored library, and the Mughal Gardens. Sune Basson, a tourist from South Africa, standing in front of a statue of King George V, tells her friend that this is a colossal waste of money. “Even though the building is beautiful, how can so much money be spent on a house?”
Shanti, a young woman who is a research scholar and works as a guide for three days a week at Rashtrapati Bhavan, takes tours in both English and Hindi. Though the job is not very well paying, it is rewarding as she gets to interact with people from all walks of life, from VIPs and bureaucrats to ordinary people from all corners of the country. “People feel it’s a real democracy as they can visit the house of the Head of State, and they feel special when they’re here. It’s a good feeling to be able to facilitate that.”
Every inch of stone at Rashtrapati Bhavan is steeped in history, and it couldn’t have found a better caretaker than Pranab Mukherjee, who invited scholars and researchers at a book release earlier this month to help identify the room in the palace where the Gandhi-Irwin pact of 1931 was signed. As an avid historian, he is aware of the import of this quest, as well as the need to engage with history, and he has found a passion project in Rashtrapati Bhavan. Before the Gandhi-Irwin pact was signed, the first time that Gandhi entered the Viceroy’s House, the King-Emperor wrote to Lord Irwin, disapproving of the ‘religious fanatic with his restricted covering being admitted to your beautiful new house’.
Pranab Mukherjee is a man of literary tastes. When he first saw the library next to Durbar Hall with its collection of 2,000 rare books, he is supposed to have said, “I can spend all my five years just reading here.” At that time the library looked more like a storeroom, with stacks of files everywhere and the books in disarray. Now that it has been restored, the books are arranged in chronological order. “He is the only President to have visited the library as often,” says SNS Prakash, the librarian at Rashtrapati Bhavan for 31 years.
As part of his self-professed mission to ‘restore the glory of Rashtrapati Bhavan’ is an ambitious multi-volume documentation project, which will include nine volumes that record different facets of the palace, like its art and architecture, history, landscape, flora and fauna, food, President’s Bodyguard and the Presidential Retreats. The first volume, Indradhanush—a record of the cultural performances hosted— will be out this month in time for the anniversary. Dr Sudha Gopalakrishnan, executive director at Sahapedia, which is collaborating on the project, says, “It is a unique project. It will be for the first time that Rashtrapati Bhavan will be documented from a primary research perspective. There have been books on it before, but this has been commissioned. In some ways, it is like Rashtrapati Bhavan telling its own story, and that is exciting.”