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Da Vinci to Da Gama

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SLICE OF HISTORY: The collection has been put together by academicians specialising in management studies

At a newly opened museum, it's commerce rather than art that has pride of place.

In Kozhikode, gold and real estate are two commodities that dominate billboards and conversations. "People here are crazy about gold, " commented a local doctor at Kozhikode airport, adding with some pique, "Now they're also crazy for the modern glass and steel housing complexes that homogenise all cities. Where's the local flavour, the indigenous history that was once writ large on our walls?"

It has apparently been transposed to the billboards that hawk those standardised dwellings. Pulling himself up to full height, Vasco da Gama, that early interloper, highly recommends a particular residential property in downtown Kozhikode. To some the endorsement is ironic, for the locals never much cared for da Gama or paid particular attention to the chapter he wrote in the city's history when he landed here in 1498 - the first European to sail to India.

While Kozhikode, or Calicut as it was called earlier, may have more or less blotted out the old sailor from contemporary memory, the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode has cast him in an elaborate frieze in their newly opened Museum of Indian Business History. The artwork identifies da Gama as one who created new business opportunities for India in the 15th century, and also locates Calicut as the entrep�t for Western trade. It works as a fitting leadin to the millennia-long history on Indian business, particularly for a museum located in that selfsame city. Parallel associations are hard at work here.

Debashis Chatterjee, the ambitious director of IIMK, would like visitors to spot these associations. They would perhaps then cease to wonder at the decision to locate the museum here. "Kozhikode has become a place for business visitors because we (IIM-K ) are here, " Chatterjee points out. And just like the institution, which despite its distance draws students, industry delegates and researchers of management practice, so too the museum will draw in those curious about the etiology of our economic system. "We want the museum to become a hub for conversation, research and the evolution of new ideas. We will invite historians, school children, entrepreneurs, sociologists - just about anyone interested in Indian business history, " says Chatterjee. Plans are already afoot to launch a project-based course on Indian business history at IIMK. "We want students to spend time here, understand the causal forces of history, and acquaint themselves with the fireflies of India - the small traders who led to the 8-9 per cent GDP growth, ones who will eventually be forgotten if their contribution is not noted. "

Whether or not the museum meets its purpose is yet to be seen. It is after all early days, and Dr M G Sreekumar, convenor of the museum, is still on the road to obtaining desired artefacts. Having just completed its first phase - on an initial investment of Rs 1. 5 crore - the museum at present has a collection of descriptive panels, photographs, murals, interactive videos and a few historical objects, but work is on to augment it. "We are in talks with collectors to procure copies of colonial treaties, maps, trade agreements and so on. We also plan to develop digital archives, " Dr Sreekumar says.

Housed in two levels of the library building, on IIM's 115-acre campus in Kunnamangalam, a suburb of Kozhikode, the Museum of Indian Business History sets itself up as the only one of its kind dedicated comprehensively to Indian business. While a few autonomous corporate archives and museums do already exist, this one attempts to be a sum of the parts.

To do this, it tracks back to ancient India and the Harappan civilisation, whose primordial tools - stone flints - fashioned the artefacts, harvested the crop and hunted the animals that ultimately made the 'goods' that were bartered. The museum proceeds to mark out the timeline of the country's commerce and carves out the corridors of its general marketplace - from the period of ancient land and sea trade to the medieval currency, weights and measures;the machines of the industrial age, to the economic and industrial evolution of post-Independence India;the proliferation of the retail sector and the milestones of the digital age. Yet, much of this is information on a wall - no doubt imaginatively represented, but still wordy;representative artefacts, even replicas, would vastly enhance the assimilation of this history. Perhaps the museum will move in this direction in its second phase.

The advancement of Indian business owes much to its early masons, and the museum recognises those individuals who laid the groundwork. So besides business stalwarts like Dwarkanath Tagore, JRD Tata, GD Birla, CK Prahalad and Dhirubhai Ambani, it has men of science like P C Mahalanobis, who helped establish the National Sample Survey in 1950 and the Central Statistical Organisation to 'collect reliable data on changing living standards in India'. At the museum the chronological growth of Indian business is also shown to keep step with key progressions in policy and agenda setting.

One should appreciate the fact that the engineers of the museum are not museologists or historians, but academicians specialising in management studies. And true to form, they've researched their subject thoroughly. "We've consulted with the Indian Council of Historical Research, faculty from various departments of history, museologists, corporate archivists, the National Archives of India, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, and of course, relevant literature, " says Sreekumar. One of their advisors was Dwijendra Tripathi, former professor of Indian Business History at IIM-Ahmedabad. Incidentally, it was Tripathi who first attempted to establish such a museum at IIM-A. "In recent years, business history as a discipline has become better known than it was when I first launched it as an elective course at IIM-A in 1964, " says Tripathi on email. "At least nobody asks sarcastically: What is business history? I believe that now initiatives like IIM-K's may have a multiplying effeect - of course, gradually. The environment seems to be more conducive than it was a few years ago. "

A favourable environment may be due in part to the assertion of the 'brand' - an effort on the part of a business house or institution in this case to reinforce its image and legacy. Having said that, one would have expected corporate houses keen to further their influence through representation at IIM-K's museum, but barring a few, like Godrej, SBI, the private estate of C K Prahalad and RBI, ISRO and FACT (Fertilizer And Chemical Travancore Ltd), which have sponsored individual pavilions, few other corporate houses have risen to the request to contribute company relics or artefacts to the collection. Perhaps they're saving them for their own corporate collections.

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