In Virasat-E-Khalsa at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, a new ‘museum’ is enchanting its visitors, changing the way we access history, and raising difficult questions about the relationship between religion and the state. As a narrative museum solely funded by the Punjab government, it is the first of its scale in India, tracing the history of Sikhism from the birth of Guru Nanak in 1469 till contemporary times through multimedia experiences. It has 5000 daily visitors. The number increases threefold during the weekends and goes further up during Sikh festivals. Opened in October 2011, Virasat-E-Khalsa is already being called ajuba (enchanting, or something that leaves one speechless). Has the museum then found the formulae of weaving the religious and the secular; the popular and the promotional; the devotional and the educational; exhibitionism and identity construction; and, perhaps most importantly, investment in heritage and public mobilization? While it impresses and enchants, Virasat-E-Khalsa is also creating new sites of intersection between religion and politics. Many attribute the victory of the Akali Dal in 2012 state elections to the massive publicity of the museum by the state machinery and the unprecedented response it generated in public.
For some, the museum may reveal mass enthusiasm for such initiatives. But neither the numbers nor the impressive architecture of the museum obscure the question of state patronage of religious institutions in the name of promoting culture. In a state where farmers face perennial distress, female foeticide is rampant, drug culture afflicts the youth and social indices remain worrisome, is the government morally justified in wasting crores of public money on a site that retells the history of a religion already known to its masses? A new form of aggressive majoritarian politics is taking root in ‘affluent’ states like Gujarat and Punjab. The Virasat-E-Khalsa in Punjab or the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, imposing they may be, are also statements that reproduce this aggression.  Covering a space of 6,500 square meters beside Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara, 80kms from Chandigarh, Virasat-E-Khalsa is crafted by Moshe Safdie, the renowned Israili urban designer known for his dramatic curves, arrays of geometric patterns and incorporation of water bodies in his scheme of things. A phenomenon that makes Virasat-E-Khalsa most distinct is the number of viewers it gets everyday since it’s opening a year ago. It’s exhibition design that successfully manages to overcome the problem of illiteracy with multi-media presentations and audio guides generating immense amount of public interest. Long queues near the entrance, and people coming from all over rural Punjab patiently waiting to get passes as early as five in the morning is a regular affair. A substantial portion of the viewers are either peasants or they belong to the working class, coming to a museum for the first time, and whose notion of what a museum is getting shaped by what they get to see here.

Audio guides ensure comprehensibility irrespective of literacy status of the viewer.  Efficiently used audio guides, oral story telling techniques, music and other art traditions make its contents accessible even to illiterate visitor. Its visual grammar makes history exciting while its unique format redefines both museum viewing and museum curating. Collected artefacts or dense textual overlay of the old are missing here. Instead, the museum employs a multi-disciplinary approach that integrates diverse fields of graphic and industrial designs, lighting, architecture, and new media (holographic projections, stereoscopy 3D, cut-outs, miniature sets, animatronics and augmented reality) to create an experiential space that is immersive, engaging, entertaining yet educational and informative. One of the galleries establishes the Sikh philosophy of oneness of the truth, humanity and the creator in an innovative manner around which it takes a round to proceed to the next gallery Cutouts, layered paintings, and multi dimensional lighting form a consistent way of visual narration instead of adopting a text heavy story telling method. The Boat Building, in all its magnitude, captures the unique and rich heritage of Punjab coexistence through visible layering of time and history in the everyday life of the people and celebrates the true Punjabi spirit in different colors and seasons with musical interludes.  Audience walks through one of the most colorful galleries that establish the mystical aspect of Nanak. The first phase of the museum traces the history of Sikhism from the birth of Guru Nanak in 1469 to the death of Guru Gobind Singh in 1708 when he declared the Khalsa and the Granth Sahib to be the Guru, ending the line of personal Gurus. The second phase (slated for opening in 2015) would trace the history of Sikhism from 1708 to 1950, featuring the struggle for sovereign power, the doctrine of Guru-Panth, the colonial period and the partition of the country, and the survival of a community amidst hardships, the enduring strength of the Sikh community post-partition, and how they picked up their lives and looked to the future with optimism and confidence.

Sreedeep is an independent photographer based in New Delhi. He is currently a Fellow at C-PACT, SNU.  Atul Mishra is an Assistant Professor at School of International Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar
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