When one thinks of a museum in Mumbai, one tends to think only of the Chatrapati Shivaji vastu sangrahalaya - or the Prince of Wales museum, as it was formerly known. It is a very nice museum - lovely convenient location, extensive collection, lovely building and all that.
But there is one museum in Mumbai which is far older - The Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum at Byculla! It was first conceived as ‘The Central Museum of Natural History, Economy, Geology, Industry and Arts’ and was the first museum in Bombay - way back in 1855!
George Buist - the editor of the Bombay Times (ancestor of ‘The Times of India’) - and 'The foremost man of letters in India' - took a keen interest in setting up this place. Buist was a very interesting fellow - the son of a rich and rather cantankerous Scottish minister (the priest kind - not the political one) - he was a man of wide learning and wide interests. He was one of the open-minded clergy of the era - trained to be in the ecclesial field, but more interested in science and botany (then called Natural Philosophy) than in preaching. He started as a newspaperman in Scotland and London and then accepted a post in 1839 to come to India and edit the Bombay Times. Imagine! Moving to India in 1839 to edit a bi-weekly newspaper! He remained the editor for 20 years till 1859 - when he resigned due to differences with the shareholders.
But Buist was more than just a newspaper editor - he was a scientific man. He was a keen geologist and meteorologist - and became the unpaid inspector of the observatories of Bombay. During his time in England in 1845 he obtained special grants from the government for improving agricultural machines and rural economy in India, and for establishing 12 observatories, from Cape Comorin to the Red Sea, for meteorological and tidal research. He also formed the geological collection for the museum of Elphinstone College, Bombay.
But 1857 as we all know - was a watershed year in India, being the year of the Great Sepoy Mutiny, or the First War of Independence, as we call it now. North India burnt and the Company sarkar tottered - but Mumbai and West India were largely peaceful. Buist was ousted from his post as editor because the Indian shareholders of the Bombay Times thought that he was too pro-British and not taking them to task over their brutal reprisal and revenge on Indians - and the East India company was nationalised and the Crown took over the country and India formally came under the British Raj.
This affected the museum as well - it was closed to the public and the collection was shifted to the Town Hall. But luckily for it, the eminent and learned Sir George Birdwood - the noted Indiophile and nature lover - was appointed curator of the collection and he drummed up support to create a new home for the collection.
A committee was formed of the who’s who of eminent Indian businessmen and philanthropists was formed - Dr. Bhau Daji Lad, Sir Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy, David Sassoon and Jaganath Shunkerseth. They raised money for a new building for the museum and land was allotted in the precincts of the Victoria Zoo and Botanical gardens in Byculla - and the elegant building was built and inaugurated in 1872 as the Victoria and Albert museum.
But in just a few years, this museum was deemed to be too small and a grand new museum was opened in central Fort area in 1905 - The Prince of Wales Museum - and this overshadowed the old museum entirely...so much so that people forgot that the older museum even existed!
After Independence, people wanted to expunge all memories of the British and there was a wholesale renaming of all British names. The Prince of Wales museum became the ‘Chattrapathi Shivaji museum’ after the great Maratha ruler, and the Zoo and botanical garden were named after his mom ‘Jijamata udyan’.
The Victoria and Albert museum was named after the first Indian founder of the museum - Dr Bhau Daji Lad.
Dr Bhau Daji Lad was a very remarkable personality - he was a doctor .. a physician, a sanskrit scholar and antiquary. He was born in Goa, but moved to Bombay ...because he was good at chess! An englishman noted his brilliance at chess, and told his dad that he should give the kid a good education. Well… the best education institutions were in Bombay - so the kid was sent to Bombay and was admitted in the Elphinstone institution. He did very well at school, and went on to take his medical degree at Grant Medical college - he was part of the very first graduating batch of GMC in 1850.
(think of the context here - it would have been extremely unusual for a ‘native’ to be allowed to learn medicine in 1850! Remember, the whole mutiny happened because the British were racist and disgusting. He must have been really outstanding)
He started practising as a doctor and was very successful. He mixed the learnings from traditional Indian medicine and modern western medicine and was a pioneer in using ancient methods for modern treatments.
As a guy who came up from nothing just due to education - he was a great votary of getting people educated, and was a founding member of the University of Bombay. He was the first president of native origin, of the Students' Literary and Scientific Society. He was the champion of the cause of female education. A girls' school was founded in his name, for which an endowment was provided by his friends and admirers.
He was twice chosen Sheriff of Mumbai, once in 1869 and again in 1871!
(Again! Think of the context! A ‘native’ - not bue-blooded, not a rich plutocrat - being given such a respected post)
He was an ardent historian as well - he amassed a large collection of rare ancient Indian coins and antiquities, which he studied - deciphering inscriptions and ascertaining the dates and history of ancient Sanskrit authors and stuff - and as we have already learnt - was the founding member of the first museum of Bombay.
One can assume that the other luminaries - Sassoon, Jeejeebhoy and Shankarsett - provided the money, while Dr Lad and Dr Birdwood provided the intellectual underpinning.
Unfortunately, it was totally neglected after independence, and apart from changing the name - the museum was totally ignored and became quite a mess. Indian politicians and municipal leaders were more interested in lining their pockets and looting the country blind rather than maintaining the venerable little museum.
But luckily for all of us, a bunch of public-spirited individuals came together to save the institution and convinced the government to adopt a public-private model to save the place!
In 2003, the non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) joined forces with the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai to undertake a painstaking refurbishment of the building, aided by historian and donor Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. The results were spectacular. In 2008, the building reopened with its High Victorian architecture fully restored, and the collection (which pays special attention to the history of the city of Mumbai), back on display amid high vaulted mosaic ceilings, intricate Minton tiled floors, etched glass and gold details, and freshly painted Corinthian columns.
The part I really loved was the painstaking dioramas which show the various scenes of day to day life in Bombay - and a very detailed gallery of the various communities which made up Bombay - and India, for that matter. These colourful portrayals of people were created by a clay modeller who was specially brought from Lucknow to work at the museum and was assisted by students of the JJ School of arts.
The figurines were created as a way of scientifically documenting the identities of the people of India and their way of life during the early 20th century - and the then curator Ernest R Fern (1918 - 1926) noted that these clay figures were an immediate success and were very popular with the visitors. These have been painstaking restored and look awesome!
Especially today - when all of india is becoming an amorphous mass of similarity and losing all the charming detail and uniqueness it used to have - I felt that this is very important for us modern day Indians to realise what our people used to look like and dress like. I really loved them!
Now it is a most charming little space - and they are planning to expand and do more things in the future. It has lovely little art gallery, a little theatre, a cafeteria and a charming garden - which is the home of the original ‘Kala Ghoda’ - an equestrian statue of King George in black stone and the original ancient elephant statues of Gharapuri island which gave ‘Elephanta caves’ its name.
Both the major museums of Mumbai - CSVS and DBDL - have benefited through public-private partnerships, and I sincerely hope that things get better and better.
Check out the website - https://www.bdlmuseum.org
And check out the story of the rebirth of the museum https://www.apollo-magazine.com/mumbais-oldest-museum-looks-to-the-future/
PS - I really wish they would sell copies of those figurines, or even a cool poster.
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!