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.

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

Keywords: museums Letters
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