A NOBEL JOURNEY IN OSLO
October is the season for Nobel Prizes and the prize winners for 2016 have been announced. The Peace Prize has been awarded to Mr. Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, for the rapprochement with the FARC.
Uniquely amongst the Nobel Prizes, the Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo (Norway) while the rest are awarded in Stockholm (Sweden). This is as stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s will. While it is not clear why Nobel specifically made an exception to the Peace Prize, it is speculated that it could be because of Sweden’s militaristic traditions which made Norway more suitable to award the prize. The prize winner(s) is selected by a five member Norwegian Nobel Committee appointed by the Norwegian parliament. This gives Norway a disproportionate heft in international diplomacy compared to its relatively small size and economy.
A walk through Oslo’s central district takes one past the buildings associated with the Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo, a city founded in 1040 was known as Christiania from 1642 in honour of King Christian IV and then renamed as Kristiania from 1877 to 1925 after which its original name was restored. The City Centre is located at the end of the Oslo fiord where one can see cruise ships and smaller ferries berthed.
Facing the fiord is an imposing brick structure. This is the City Hall where the Peace Prize is awarded on the 10th of December every year (the anniversary of Nobel’s death) by the Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the presence of the King of Norway. The City Hall, built entirely of Norwegian materials was completed in May 1950 and became the venue for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony from 1990 onwards. The ceremony is held in the Great Hall within, where a huge oil painting by Henrik Sorensen dominates the proceedings. The City Hall serves as the main office for the Oslo city administration.
The first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901 to Henry Dunant (a Swiss, for his role in founding the International Red Cross) and Frederic Passy (a Frenchman, for being one of the founders of the Inter-Parliamentary Union). From 1901 to 1904, the Prize ceremony took place in the Storting (Parliament) building located on Karl Johans Gate (‘gate’ means ‘street’ in Norwegian), the main street in Central Oslo. Karl Johans Gate connects the Royal Palace at one end with the Central Station at the other with impressive buildings, lively restaurants and high end shopping lining the road.
Between 1905 and 1946, the ceremony took place at the Norwegian Nobel Institute which is located next to the Royal Palace. The Nobel committee has its deliberations in a special hall in this building and by tradition uses the Nobel Hall for the announcement of the winner of the Peace Prize in October as well as the Laureate’s press conference on December 9th, a day before the award ceremony.
Close to the Nobel Institute is the Faculty of Law building of the University of Oslo, the Atrium of which served as the venue for the prize ceremony from 1947 to 1989 after which it was shifted to the City Hall due to lack of space.
Diagonally opposite the City Hall is the Nobel Peace Centre (opened in 2015) which showcases the ideals of the Peace Prize, the awardees and their works. This building used to be a railway station at one time. The centerpiece here is the Nobel Field, a hall with hundreds of small lights sprouting up from the floor like blue tulips on long stems and in the midst of which are placed portraits of every peace prize laureate. India is well represented by Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Kailash Satyarthi, though the omission of Mahatma Gandhi is glaring. The Nobel Committee itself has acknowledged that while Gandhi could do without the Nobel, the Nobel couldn’t do without Gandhi.
Just across the road from the Storting is the legendary Grand Hotel Oslo which from 1874 has played host to royalty, dignitaries and Nobel Peace Prize laureates. This hotel is intimately connected with the Nobel Peace Prize; winners stay in this hotel at the Nobel Suite and greet the public from the balcony facing the parliament. The Nobel banquet following the awards ceremony is held at this hotel where the Nobel laureate(s) dines with the King and Queen of Norway along with the Nobel Committee and other dignitaries. After the banquet is a concert and Amjad Ali Khan performed here at the 2014 ceremony when Satyarthi and Malala were the laureates.
The Nobel Peace Prize hasn’t been without its controversies; it has been accused of an anti-communist bias and a pro-western tilt; of deserving individuals like Gandhi losing out while someone like Yasser Arafat with alleged terrorist links winning it. Yet, for all its foibles the Nobel Peace Prize remains the pinnacle of recognition of those human beings who empathize with the most disadvantaged to make this planet a better place for them, people like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Kailash Satyarthi.