Aatish Taseer’s book, The Temple Goers, has a vignette where the narrator goes to the National Museum in Delhi to see the bronzes at the behest of his mother’s friend, a visiting writer. The narrator observes that he has never been to the National Museum though he has been to many museums in many countries.

While at the museum, the writer narrates the story about how Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the Sri Lankan art historian, had approached the Banaras Hindu University when it was being built in 1916 and offered them his vast collection of Indian art if they started a Chair of Indian Art and made him professor. His offer was rejected. He went on instead to become a curator in 1917 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston where is collection is still housed.

Given India’s overwhelming and apparently long-standing indifference to its heritage, perhaps it’s just as well that Coomaraswamy’s collection was not relegated to some musty dump that nobody would bother about.

Coomaraswamy recognized the need to preserve and revive traditional arts and crafts along with the social values and local culture that shaped them at the beginning of the last century. Despite being half English, he was concerned way back in 1906 that natives were engaged in the “the thoughtless imitation of unsuitable European habits and custom."

And today in India at the beginning of this century, we have Jatin Das, a prolific contemporary artist who is vocal about the need to do just that and voices the same concerns as Coomaraswamy did. “Our country is heaven and we are systematically destroying it," says Das. Awarded a Padma Bhushan in 2012, Das wants a museum in every university and every school to develop and maintain a sense of historicity.

Last month, Das invited me to drop everything and come to a three-day documentary film festival on art and artists with a focus on Buddhist art and culture that he was organizing in Bhubaneshwar. Spending a few days with Das is to see a man engaged in the relentless pursuit of aesthetic perfection in every task at hand—from minute details like the placement of glasses of drinking water covered with a wet muslin cloth, to the transformation of the land (for the upcoming JD Centre of Art) into a festive venue for cultural programmes and dinner each day of the festival.

An embodiment of passion and perfection combined with infectious energy, Das is a man on the move juggling myriad projects, people and pursuits. A true romantic, he misses the old days when friends dropped in unannounced or one could drop in on a friend anytime to share food and poetry. “There is no romance, no poetry in life today, instead, we are only interested in money and power," he says.

“Everybody is looking at life as a commodity and an investment. A very Western paradigm. Everything is deducted and measured in terms of gains and loss. Faida kya hai? Issey kya milega?" Das states, and adds, “… and people talk about ‘investment’ in art." Something which Das finds cheap. He talks about how he had gifted his paintings to friends on special occasions like birthdays or weddings and how pained he was to find them being auctioned off a couple of decades later.

He narrates an incident where a friend dropped by his studio in Delhi and said, “You’ve got so many crores worth of art here!" Das told her “I don’t want to meet you again."

He feels that interest in one’s history and heritage cannot be cultivated. It has to start at home, at school and has to be inculcated in society.

“We have a ministry of culture. There should be a department of art. Culture is a very large thing. It does not encompass painting, dance, music…" he states and adds, “There is no understanding. We have gone on with an ad hoc cultural policy since Independence. Till today, there is no cultural policy approved by Parliament."

“We have a rich cultural heritage. I am a contemporary artist but my interest in traditional arts is because they have a purity." He picks up a terracotta oil lamp (which we are using as an ashtray) and marvels at its form and says “look at the proportions, from any angle you look at it, its heavenly, na?" He adds, “this terracotta oil lamp is as old as 3,000 years."

Das is India’s only artist to conceive and build an Art Centre with an eye to rejuvenate arts and crafts. The JD Centre of Art (JDCA) will also be the first to bring together tribal, folk, classical and contemporary art under one roof. Originally from Mayurbhanj district in Orissa, Das is keen to develop things in smaller places which have a rich heritage instead of the metros. The Orissa government has given him an acre of land on the outskirts of Bhubaneshwar for the JDCA and a house in Bhubaneshwar where JDCA activities and operations are carried out.

Das has been collecting objects of antiquity, craft, ritual objects, terracotta, bronzes, ceramics, basketry, etc. for decades. Since the formation of the JDCA Trust in 1997, two, three, five, 10, 15 crates of this collection are sent to Bhubaneswar every month for documentation and storage until the JDCA is built. The renowned architect B.V. Doshi, Das’s friend, has designed the JDCA and the plans have been approved by the local authorities. Now, it’s just a matter of finding the funds to construct it.

Current activities under the JDCA Centre of Art include research, documentation and archival work. A “Meet the Artist" programme has been running every second Saturday for the past eleven years. The documentary film festival began in 2006 and just marked its 7th year. Most of the activities are funded by Das.

The JDCA is facing the same problems that many start-ups have as they are starting off. Team and funds. “This crusade cannot be sustained by one person. It needs a team of people with similar fervour and philanthropy," says Das. He is confident that the funds are out there. It’s just matter of building a team to go about getting the funds. Perhaps what Das needs is a few good young men and women from India’s finest business schools to lend him a hand to raise the funds to build an institution that every Indian can be proud of.

Build it. But will they come?

Last October, chancing upon a museum off the road in Gulbarga, because the other main attraction, a spanking new “must see" Jain temple was closed, and with time to kill, my mother and I decided to stop and explore the museum. The antiquities at the Gulbarga Museum are housed in what appear to be two domed tombs. We found an assortment of interesting objects like swords, cannon guns, palanquins, chairs, manuscripts, cups, armour, pottery pieces, arrows, etc. Several stone sculptures from dynasties like the Hoysalas, Mauryas, Chalukyas and Rashtrakutas are also lined up all around the two tombs outside in the open. The museum workers had to turn on the lights for us. Several excellent publications put out by the department of archaeology, museums and heritage are also available. I bought Venetian Coins in Karnataka by R. Gopal and Local Bodies in Medieval South India by G.S. Dikshit. The staff told me that hardly anybody ever visits the museum.

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