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 was doing a project of exploring Mumbai - it had started by me starting cycling! I started cycling as a new project for the year - it started by being a fitness thing, but I got bored of going around in circles and started going further and further and exploring and discovering unknown parts of Mumbai (well...unknown to me at least) on cycle. By this time I had gone and explored various ancient forts of Mumbai - Sion, Sewri, Mahim, Worli, Bandra, Dharavi - by cycle. (You can check out the blogs by clicking on the links)
After doing this, the exploration bug kicked in a little more, and I started exploring even without a cycle. While going over the lists of tourist attractions in Mumbai - I saw that one of the main attractions was Mani Bhavan - Mahatma Gandhi's memorial in Mumbai. It was on the lists of all the Mumbai tour operators trips - and every firang visitor to the city seems to have seen it ... but I had never done so. It had never been in my mindspace at all - I had not known of it, not wanted to see it.
Well - this is 'diya tale andhera' stuff, and so I decided to check it out.
My friend Vijay claimed to know it well - as it was just behind his college - the Wilson college, Marine drive - and so we agreed to check it out together. I took an Uber and reached the place - and there was no sign of Vijay! He was late as usual.
The building was in a fancy neighborhood - Laburnum road, just off Marine drive. I thought rather cynically that Gandhi seemed to have chosen to live with this rich seth in a fancy location, rather than in a poor and humble place.
As per the Wikipedia entry - 'Mani Bhavan was Gandhi's Mumbai headquarters for about 17 years, from 1917 to 1934. The mansion belonged to Revashankar Jagjeevan Jhaveri, Gandhi's friend and host in Mumbai during this period. It was from Mani Bhavan that Gandhi initiated the Non-Cooperation, Satyagraha, Swadeshi, Khadi and Khilafat Movements. Gandhi's association with the charkha began in 1917, while he was staying at Mani Bhavan. Mani Bhavan is also closely associated with Gandhi's involvement in the Home Rule Movement, as well as his decision to abstain from drinking cow's milk in order to protest the cruel and inhuman practice of phookan meted out to milch cattle common during that period.'
In 1955, the building was taken over by the Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in order to maintain it as a memorial to Gandhi - and I wonder if they paid the family anything for this prime piece of real estate? It would be worth many hundreds of crores today!
I wonder what the family of Jhaveri seth feel about it now :)
I hung around outside Mani Bhavan waiting for Vijay - and was stunned at the amount of tourist traffic the place seemed to have. Every minute a little tourist taxi would zoom up, a guide would hop out with his clients and give them some info about the place and they would be in and out within five minutes and off to the next tick mark on the itinerary.
My heart went out to the tourists - the guides were untrained and unqualified and obviously knew nothing about the place, about Gandhi, about Indian history or the freedom struggle. He would have mugged up something and duly replayed it to every client and just made up stuff when asked questions. Poor tourists.
I finally gave up on Vijay and went inside alone.
The place is rather depressing - being ill-maintained and utterly out of date. It doesn't seem to have been touched since 1955 and is a dead mausoleum.
The first thing you see is a big Gandhi bust, and there is a library full of his writings. Imagine that - he wrote so much! And like all Indian libraries - the shelves are locked tight and are dust covered! The books are things to be worshipped from afar and not to touched or read!
Go up the stair case - and you have his old room with a charkha and some knick-knacks of his. And a few cool dioramas - small scale models with little human figures and little houses and painted backdrops - depicting his life. But this too doesnt seem to have been touched or restored since 1955.
There are some cool framed photos - Gandhi with his brother, him as a young man etc and some frames showing evolution of Indian flag etc.
But overall, it is rather sad and depressing - showing the utter disinterest successive governments - Congress and non-Congress - have had in Gandhi's message and philosophy. Which is a great pity. All they do is pay lip service and make everybody put a flower basket in front of Raj ghat.
in 2010, Barack Obama became the first high-profile international visitor to visit Mani Bhava in the last 50 years. Before him, only Martin Luther King Jr. had visited Mani Bhavan in the 1950s.
I think Rajkumar Hirani's movie 'Lage raho Munnabhai' was the finest modern-day tribute to Gandhi and his philosophy and reintroduced millions to Gandhi - and it would be great if some modern museum curator takes this place under their wings and reinvents it. Old and forgotten museums like the Bhau Daji Lad museum have been resurrected by modern curators, and hopefully a similar thing can happen here.
It should bring out the ramifications of Indian history and Indian culture - British rule - the good and bad, why Indians fought for independence, the story of the freedom struggle, the uniqueness of Gandhi's approach and how it made a difference and why exactly Einstein said that 'future generations will not believe that such a dude ever walked this earth.'
The Apartheid museum in South Africa is so powerful that it makes your flesh creep - and Gandhi section there is better than all Gandhi museums here. Maybe someday we can do a better job of presenting our own history.
Till that happens, Gandhi will just be a face on a currency note - a legacy which MKG might not be very happy about.
‘I want to ride!’ Adi wailed and stamped his feet and pulled his beard. ‘I want to ride ride ride!’ You buggers are just sitting on your asses and my lovely lovely bike is just standing there and not moving. What is this cruelty? This imposition? This inequity? Bikes are meant to be moving - not standing in garages and gathering dust!’
I, Adi and Delzad were the ‘Amigos’ - fellow riders and lovers of big fat Royal Enfield bikes and have done a number of long rides over the years - Konkan, Ladakh, Spiti, Coorg etc. But Adi’s riding lust was unabated and after a few rums inside him, his angst bubbled over. As usual.
Delzad burped and reached over a gigantic pile of tandoori chicken remains and crumbs for yet another piece of chicken. ‘What?’ he said defensively when we looked at him . ‘I am on a diet.’
‘Diet?’ I looked again at the huge pile of bones and remains. It was like something Genghis Khan would have left behind in Asia after a particularly brutal campaign.
‘High protein, man! Build muscle! Lose weight! Burp.’
Me and Adi looked at each other and shrugged. And Adi was back to his point again.
‘I want to ride...ride ride ride...Let’s go somewhere over the weekend. Let’s go down the Konkan coast and go to Anjarle’
‘Mmm.. Let’s go!’ Delzad agreed enthusiastically. ‘We will eat awesome fish there - Surmai, Pomfret, Rawas…’
‘What is this obsession with riding?’ people ask us. ‘Why would you get on this rickety rattly bike and go on an uncomfortable journey where you will bake in the sun and freeze in the cold and get soaked in the rain? Why not do as we do and go in a comfortable car or bus? You will have air conditioning and nice music and can chat with the family and eat khakras.’
‘Tchah’ I reply. ‘Pah! Gah!’
‘Kulkarni..’ I would say … or Mahalingam or Ahluwalia or Bandopadhaya or whatever the name happened to be… ‘Motorbike Riding - Long distance riding - is something very different from sitting in a metal can with five other sweaty noisy bipeds and ingesting carbs.’
‘Er...that’s right...what he said.’ Adi would say after a moment's thought. Delzad would not say anything at all, having used this opportunity to take a quick power nap.
‘A bike in the city is great for commuting - it is cheaper than a car, can get through traffic better, is easier to park etc - But that is not riding. That is just commuting.’
‘Riding - with a capital R - is when you go for a long ride - get out of the city and hit the highways. Get out of this pollution, the crowds, the noise etc. Get out of the normal hurly burly and hustle and bustle.’
‘But where will you go?’ Ramalingam...or possibly Muthuswamy ...would ask. ‘There is nothing to see around here.’
‘Pah! Tchah! Gah!’ I would reply again. ‘there is so much to see and do - wherever you might be. Right here in Mumbai, we have a fantastic shoreline, we have the Sahyadri mountain range, we have wildlife sanctuaries, we have any number of ancient forts and temples... the same applies to any place in the world. There is always a paradise waiting to be discovered.’
‘YES!’ Adi would say. ‘LET’S RIDE! Ride to the mountains...ride to the sea...ride to the riverside...ride to the salt flats...ride to the jungles... ‘
‘And so much new cuisine to be discovered and eaten! Yum yum!’ Delzad woke up momentarily from his nap and licked his lips. Surmai fish in Anjarle, Mutton curry from Kolhapur, Aapus mangoes from Ratnagiri, Chikoos from Bordi…mmmm.’
‘And it’s not just about the destination’ I would explain to Ahluwalia...or Pathania or whoever… ‘It’s the journey. The pay-off is not just reaching the destination and seeing the place and eating the food or whatever...the real joy is in the ride.
When you ride you are in a different world. The powerful bike throbbing under you...the world whooshing by...the wind under your wings...the tight turns...angling the bike so that you can feel the foot pegs scrape on the tarmac and shooting out a jet of sparks… You feel awesome.
As a friend said once ‘It is the closest you can get to flying’
You feel the journey much more intensely on a two wheeler than in a metal can...you can feel the sun on your shoulders, the coolness of a cloud passing overhead, the damp feel and petrichor of a watered field, the sudden gusts of wind... In a car or bus, you are completely divorced from the world - on a bike you are a part of it.
On a bike you are the sole captain of your destiny - you can stop where you want, take a pee by the side of the road, eat that awesome snack the street vendor is selling, explore small interesting looking roads and paths, take photos or just take a nap by the side of the road - you don't need the approval of everyone in the car to do things.’
‘Yes…but..’ Fadnavis...or Gadkari or whoever.. would object ‘But will you get company to do such a trip? I mean, all our friends are enmeshed in their life and jobs and families and stuff. They will not join us on such trips.’
‘One does not need company to ride - solo riding is an awesome experience. It is Zen. All you need is a bike and a road. When you are alone you feel the trip much more intensely. You are open to new experiences. You make new friends. You have time in the evening for reflection or writing or meditation. In fact - solo riding is meditation in motion. Never be afraid to ride alone
Having said that - Solo riding is great but riding with friends is awesome too! There is a particular kind of people who are willing to suit up and hit the open road on a bike and so you are always guaranteed to meet a fun and interesting set of people when you go riding. Stop during the ride for a smoke and a chai and joke about the journey. The end of the day is celebrated with Old Monk and chicken and loads of laughter. What more can you ask for?
Awesome riding during the day, Great sights and experiences at journey’s end and awesome camaraderie in the evening.’
‘But bhat about the bhife and keeds?’ Bandopadhyaya ...or possibly Mukhopadhaya...asked. ‘How can I leave them all and go riding?’
‘Tchah. Pah. Gah.’ I replied with a dismissive wave of my hand ‘ ‘Let there be spaces in your togetherness’ as Kahlil Gibran said. Give some breathing room to your spouse and get some yourself.’
‘Hoodibaba!’ Dasgupta...or was it Debbarman... leapt up ‘Bhat a brilliant idea! The perfect excuse to get away from the bhife! I will tell her that I am going on motorcycle and she obviously cannot come with me on the bike! FREEDOM! WOOHOO! ASADHARAN! DARUN’
‘Joshi saab! You are a genius!’ he clapped me on the back as I simpered modestly. ‘Is that why you bought the bike? To get away from the wife and enjoy with the boys?’
‘Balls.’ Delzad snorted. ‘His wife bought him the bike. Must have been all her strategy to get him out of the house and out of her hair.’
‘Whatever dude.’ I laid back and sighed. ‘Whichever way you look at it - It’s a Win-Win’
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!