Friday, August 5, 2011

Bom Bahia comes alive...

By Savitha Hira
I visited the museum almost 2 years back, when I was asked to write about the restoration and conservation processes that had brought alive the almost forgotten history of Mumbai. In the course of my conversation with Tasneem Mehta, Convenor INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), Managing Trustee and Hon. Director Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, I was informed that the biggest challenge in the project was doing so much on a shoe string budget. In her words, "By any reckoning, 4 crores, which is the total project cost is a very tight budget for such a comprehensive project. We not only restored the entire building and the garden surrounding it, but also 3500 artefacts; archived the entire collection as well as mandatory paraphernalia of setting up a museum".
Till date, every time I visit...  feels like a first time. 

Nothing can prepare you for the overwhelming feeling of awe that overcomes you when you enter the restored precincts of the single-storied ‘Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum’. Amidst the intricate embellishments and carvings in red, blue, green and gold, an epoch era comes alive as it takes you through the late 19th century and early 20th century crafts, arts, industries, occupations, religious, cultural and social framework of the then Bom Bahia or Bombay meaning ‘good bay’ as the Portuguese christened it.

One of the finest examples of the Classical Revival style or the Palladian style of architecture, the museum is located within a classically planned 19th century botanical garden, the erstwhile Victoria Gardens, more commonly known as Rani Bagh in Byculla. Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum was initially called the Victoria & Albert Museum and is considered to be the oldest museum in Western India. After almost a century, it is now enjoying a glorious revival. The once derelict structure has been painstakingly restored to showcase its enviable collection of art, craft, artefacts, rare maps and several old manuscripts and books that represent the historical glory of Mumbai, the commercial capital of India.

The first thing that catches your eye is the beautifully anointed coffered ceiling in the foyer with its green, gold and red floral embellishments. But once through the old swivel-barricade, and you are simply captivated by the magnificence of the interiors. Orchestrated on the lines of the Palladian villa, the architecture of the building is the revival form of the style of the famous 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. So we see quaint-looking slender pillars with colourful and heavy column-bases, intricately patterned wrought-iron brackets and railings, elegant arches and a high majestically painted ceiling with an even-handed mix of chandeliers and ceiling fans. The ambience is clutter-free with the exhibits strategically lining the two lateral sides of the large exhibition hall. The clean central passage is dominated by the life-size statute of Prince Albert flanked by a few other smaller statutes set against the backdrop of the imposing staircase leading to the first floor of the museum, where more of the magic continues to unfold…

But it is not just the arterial and architectural conservation and restoration that is commendable here. It is the trimly uniformed and supportive staff that baffles you and more importantly, the tenets of museology – inventory, cataloguing and display that catch and hold your attention. In a manner that is thoroughly professional, the exhibits have been sequentially organised into narratives and sub-narratives and are presented such that they can equally hold the interest of a novice and a connoisseur alike. All display units, efficiently indexed hold a multitude of exhibits that have been restored. Approximately, 6000 exhibits are housed here. The piece-de-resistance is the extent of documentation that accompanies the exhibits and is displayed around the museum. Almost every distinct gallery created – the Industrial Arts gallery, the Bombay Paintings gallery, the Founders gallery…is succinctly and informatively documented – with broad overviews on large placards, and pertinent information regarding the exhibits on laminated sheets of paper, conveniently placed in specially-designed stands, sometimes in multiple copies, alongside each display cabinet. Every step familiarizes you with the painted floor-tile and its symmetrical alignment tastefully bordered in brass edging. 

With the dedicated time and effort allocated to the restoration of this heritage structure, Mumbai not only has a new tourist destination, but a legacy that would make any average Mumbaite proud of his origin!

Venue: Inside the Jijamata Udyan – also called the Rani Bagh at Byculla
Postal Address: 91A, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Byculla, Mumbai – 400 027
Tel: 2375 7943; 32499155; 23737942
Timings: 10.00 am4.30 pm. Closed on Wednesdays. 

First published in Mumbai Touchdown in 2009

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