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Open Letter: A Halt to New Delhi’s Demolitions

Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Exhibits being bubble-wrapped before their move out of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, scheduled for demolition, to a temporary home at the Janpath Hotel, New Delhi, India, March 24, 2021

We, the undersigned, call for an immediate halt to the Central Vista Redevelopment Project undertaken by the Indian government, which commenced in December 2020. The designation of this scheme as an “essential service” invites fresh scrutiny of the plan. It is especially troubling that this extravagant project is moving ahead in the midst of a devastating pandemic, endangering workers, and squandering scarce resources that could be used to save lives. 

We wish to draw particular attention to the upcoming demolition and relocation of the National Museum of India, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and the National Archives Annexe. These demolitions are only one part of a mammoth undertaking that involves constructing a lavish new Parliament and turning open space, with parkland, shaded walks, trees that are almost a century old, and waterways, into modular office blocks.

The project as a whole will forever alter the historic urban plan of Lutyens’s Delhi, a piece of world heritage that has become an integral part of the cultural and political life of independent India. It will also disaggregate what was intended to be a cohesive cultural district, scattering precious artistic, architectural, archival, and bibliographic collections that are vital, both for visitors to see and enjoy, and for scholars to conduct their research into India’s rich past.  

Preparations to raze the National Centre for the Arts complex are already underway. There was a clear logic in the urban planning of modern Delhi to keeping these cultural, archival, and historical centers in close proximity to one another. The National Museum, in particular, has historical value and requires renovation and augmentation, not obliteration. The rushed destruction of these structures will cause irreparable harm to world-renowned institutions that have been painstakingly built up over decades.

The Central Vista Redevelopment also threatens the collections of these repositories of India’s cultural heritage. We are concerned that such a shift would affect the state of conservation of several objects. Even under normal circumstances, it would be a complex and risky operation to move the diverse and irreplaceable treasures of the National Museum, the records held in the National Archives, and the manuscript holdings of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. Prevailing and ever-worsening pandemic conditions only exacerbate these risks.

The details of the Central Vista demolition are opaque. It is unclear, for example, how the National Museum art objects will be stored and eventually displayed in the office complex of the North and South Blocks, as is planned. As the National Museum’s collection still lacks a complete inventory of its holdings, this relocation is hazardous. The extent to which these collections will continue to be publicly accessible is also unknown. 

The unilateral and hasty implementation of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project runs contrary to established practices worldwide. Across the globe, such plans to expand, relocate, repurpose, or redevelop vital cultural institutions are preceded by widespread consultations and consensus-building before finalizing the design, let alone moving collections indefinitely.

The escalating health crisis calls for a pause and a reset. For the short term, this project should be immediately suspended, and all priorities and resources directed to combating the pandemic. In the long term, however, this hiatus should be followed by extensive public consultations so that the future of India’s institutions, heritage architecture, and historical collections can be determined through a democratic, transparent, and participatory process. 

We urge the Indian government to reconsider its misguided scheme.

Naman Ahuja, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Ernst van Alphen, Leiden University
Sean Anderson, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Arjun Appadurai, NYU and Bard Graduate Center
Catherine Asher, University of Minnesota (emerita)
Frederick M. Asher, University of Minnesota (emeritus)
Sussan Babaie, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
Mieke G. Bal, Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA)
Tim Barringer, Yale University
Homi Bhabha, Harvard University
Bronwen Bledsoe, Cornell University
Sugata Bose, Harvard University
John H. Bowles, writer and curator
Michael Brand, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Rebecca M. Brown, Johns Hopkins University
Arpana Caur, artist, Delhi
Prem Chandavarkar, architect and independent researcher, Bengaluru
Dipesh Chakrabarty, University of Chicago
Partha Chatterjee, Columbia University
Divya Cherian, Princeton University
Iftikhar Dadi, Cornell University
Asok Das, Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum, Jaipur (retired)
Catherine David, MNAM-Centre Pompidou, Paris
Rohit De, Yale University
Vidya Dehejia, Columbia University
Chris Dercon, Réunion des Musées Nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris
Vishakha N. Desai, Columbia University
Faisal Devji, University of Oxford
Bernard Fibicher, Fine Arts Museum Lausanne
Supriya Gandhi, Yale University
Annapurna Garimella, art historian, Hyderabad
Alain George, University of Oxford
Ramachandra Guha, historian and biographer
Narayani Gupta, Jamia Millia Islamia (retired)
Vivek Gupta, University of Cambridge
Navina Najat Haidar, art historian and curator
Githa Hariharan, writer
John Stratton Hawley, Barnard College, Columbia University
Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University (emeritus)
Kajri Jain, University of Toronto
Bharati Jagannathan, University of Delhi 
Sir Anish Kapoor, artist
Geeta Kapur, art critic and curator
Sudipta Kaviraj, Columbia University
Madhu Khanna, historian of religion and art
Rajeev Kinra, Northwestern University
Pradip Krishen, filmmaker and environmentalist
Aparna Kumar, University College London
Glenn Lowry, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Sir James Mallinson, SOAS, University of London
Saloni Mathur, University of California, Los Angeles
Rahul Mehrotra, Harvard University Graduate School of Design
A.G. Krishna Menon, architect, urban planner, and conservation consultant
Parul Dave Mukherji, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Neeti Nair, University of Virginia, Charlottesville
Ashis Nandy, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (emeritus)
Gülru Necipoğlu, Harvard University
Francesca Orsini, SOAS, University of London (emerita)
Alka Patel, University of California, Irvine
Orhan Pamuk, writer, Columbia University (Nobel Laureate)
Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin
Sheldon Pollock, Columbia University
Gyan Prakash, Princeton University
Suhanya Raffel, M+ Museum, Hong Kong
Ram Rahman, photographer, SAHMAT (Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust)
Sugata Ray, University of California, Berkeley
Scott Redford, SOAS, University of London
D. Fairchild Ruggles, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Chaitanya Sambrani, Australian National University
G.M. Sheikh, artist, Vadodara
Nilima Sheikh, artist, Vadodara
Samira Sheikh, Vanderbilt University
Dayanita Singh, artist  
Kavita Singh, Jawaharlal Nehru University
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Columbia University
Martino Stierli, Museum of Modern Art, New York
Susan Stronge, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Vivan Sundaram, artist, Delhi
Romila Thapar, Jawaharlal Nehru University (emerita)
Ananya Vajpeyi, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
Ashok Vajpeyi, poet, critic, and essayist
Sarah Waheed, historian
James Wescoat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (emeritus)

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