It’s no secret that the mansion on the hill in central Delhi has a hallowed history. Now, it has found a resident who wants to bring to light its hidden nooks and corners.
When President Pranab Mukherjee moved to Rashtrapati Bhavan, it was assumed by some that he would be busier keeping an eye on Delhi’s hectic political machinations from his high perch than merely holding a ceremonial post. India’s septuagenarian president has, instead, turned into a keen historian—instructing his officials to gather the historical associations of all rooms in the palace.
Mukherjee’s plan for a historical audit was first recorded during his interaction with the visiting Bangladeshi Track 2 delegation in the first week of October. Presenting a coffee table book to the delegation leader, he reeled off the names of the pioneer residents of the house on Raisina Hill—called Viceroy House before Independence—and demonstrated his formidable memory. More than the building’s colonial heritage, it is the association with the Independence movement that intrigues the President.
While the Viceregal Retreat in Simla was in the spotlight for the official events that led up to India’s partition and Independence in 1947, its grander cousin in Delhi had remained in history’s shadow. But it played a historic role in the feverish events leading up to August 15, 1947.
In his conversation with the Bangladeshi visitors, Mukherjee recounted hearing that before Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten accompanied by senior Congress leaders went to Simla for official talks, they had held a series of meeting in the Raisina Hill mansion.
“I have asked my secretary to identify each room that is associated with this history,” he told the delegation.
With 340 rooms, it promises to be a long and daunting process. The project is still at a preliminary stage. The presidential secretariat is working out how to proceed further. “We would be searching for scholars who can throw light on this aspect,” said a senior official in the secretariat.
Sources said that all eventually the collated historical information on the presidential palace could help in drawing up an informative walkthrough, which could then be thrown open to the public.
Besides delving into the past, Mukherjee has also been enlivening the red sandstone palace with regular cultural functions–continuing a tradition pioneered by APJ Abdul Kalam. Under the Indra Dhanush cultural series, he has so far held two musical concerts in Rashtrapati Bhavan’s auditorium. On Saturday, he sat through the popular ‘Ramayana’ ballet performance of Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, which has been part of Delhi’s cultural landscape after its first performance in 1957.
Far away from the long nights of the knives and tense parleys with politicians that used to be part of his former life as the Congress party’s top troubleshooter, President Pranab has found time to watch some of his favourite movies— Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk and the 1953 Hollywood classic Roman Holiday.