Hearth of a Nation

A Delhi basement houses a shrine to the feeling of Indianness

31 December 2018
After India published its new constitution, Satnam bought a replica and decided to collect the autographs of every signatory of the official copy.
shahid tantray for the caravan
After India published its new constitution, Satnam bought a replica and decided to collect the autographs of every signatory of the official copy.
shahid tantray for the caravan

Down in a basement, on a lane in south Delhi, lie manuscripts by the most renowned writers of modern Indian history: Tagore, Faiz, Manto. They are accompanied by paintings and sketches, which also come from the sort of figures known by a single name: Souza, Raza. Then there are documents autographed by political leaders, including Jinnah and Nehru.

This hidden pantheon aims at comprehensiveness, but it also elicits surprise. A signature by the former prime minister VP Singh is accompanied by an abstract drawing of Ganesha. The physicist CV Raman adds to his signature a credo: “Light reveals the hidden soul of truth!” And Amartya Sen’s signature is featured alongside an unattributed caricature seemingly not available online—suggesting it might be a self-portrait.

The man who collected all these singular bibelots, Satnam Singh Hitkari—a former commissioner of India’s income-tax department—hoped to establish “the first exclusive Literary Museum in the world,” as he wrote in Immortals of Literature, one of at least six books he self-published. The National Museum, the Crafts Museum and a number of international institutions borrowed from his collection. But the Sahitya Akademi, the government body dedicated to promoting literature, did not acquire his holdings and make them the centrepiece of “an institution of great national significance,” as he had hoped.

Satnam and, after he died in 2008, his son, Jai Singh Hitkari, transformed their basement into something less prominent but more intriguing than that original vision. Walk to the side entrance of the Hitkari home, go down the stairs, and you encounter a profusion of corkboards, manuscripts, pamphlets, works of art, and stray objets d’art such as antique handguns—an organised selection from the astonishing array of things Satnam collected over the course of his life.

The most moving exhibit in the museum is the collection of letters and manuscripts of prominent Indian writers. They are displayed across three walls of the space and organised linguistically, with all 22 languages officially recognised by the constitution included. Those generally considered obscure, such as Dogri and Konkani, are treated as equals with Hindi and English. This was essential to Satnam’s vision. By “displaying manuscripts of poets and writers of all the States of India under one roof,” he hoped to “bring them together at [the] cultural level and thus create the feeling of Indianness—one people, one nation—amongst us.”

Alex Traub has worked on the editorial staffs of the Hindustan Times, The Telegraph and the New York Review of Books.

Keywords: Letters museums
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