I love museums, and I can spend hours inside them pottering about and looking at their varied collections. And yet strangely, for some inexplicable reason, I have never really explored the museums in my city of Mumbai. Of course, I have visited them as a child but not really visited them, if you know what I mean.
So one rainy day in August last year, I took the afternoon off from work to see the Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (BDLM). This was a museum that I had never visited, but one that I had heard about a lot from Appa. I went without a camera as I automatically assumed that, like most Indian museums, photography was not allowed. Big mistake. Non-flash photography was allowed in the Museum, though they don’t really advertise the fact.
The dazzling 3-hour BDLM visit was a visual treat all the way — right from the stately Museum building to its grand interiors (that reminded me of a ballroom) to its tastefully displayed collection — and one that stayed with me longer than the time I spent there. I knew that I didn’t just want to write about the BDLM’s artefacts in my Museum Treasure series, but write an entire post on the Museum itself. And since I wanted to include photographs, I had to wait for an opportunity to visit the BDLM once again. And last month, I got that chance and when the Museum opened it’s doors that Friday morning, I was the first to enter with a big smile and my camera.
According to the information given on its website, the BDLM is Mumbai’s oldest and India’s third oldest museum. It was established in 1855 as the Central Museum of Natural History, Economy, Geology, Industry and Arts and was first housed in the Town Barracks with Sir George Birdwood as the Curator. Incidentally, Sir Birdwood was also a Professor at Grant Medical College, Registrar of the University of Bombay, and Sheriff of Bombay, besides acting as secretary of the Asiatic and Horticultural societies. Phew !
In 1858, public funds were sourced and raised for the construction of a museum building. Dr. Bhau Daji Lad played a major role in securing funds and getting the Museum building constructed. And what a building it turned out to be.
Built in the Palladian style of architecture with grand Victorian interiors, the museum building was opened to the public on 2nd May 1878 as the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was renamed as the BDLM in 1975, in honour of the man whose vision, perseverance and dedication ensured its establishment, but sadly not its maintenance as the Museum fell into a deep state of disrepair and neglect over the years.
The building and objects required comprehensive restoration. The original colours and details had effaced. The delicate stucco and stencil work was badly damaged. The iron pillars had separated from the walls and many of the etched glass panes were broken… There was no narrative or any labels to explain the artefacts and the history of the collection. (BDLM brochure)
A unique public–private partnership in 2003 saw three organisations come together for the restoration and revitalisation of the BDLM — the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). After 4 years of intensive restoration, the Museum was reopened to the public on 4th January 2008.
I have not seen the Museum in its derelict condition, but can only imagine what it must have been like (considering that many of our public buildings all over the country are in a state of ruin). But I saw the wonder that is the restored Museum and can share it with you right here. Let’s begin with a quick tour of its grand interiors:
The Museum has several galleries like the Industrial Art Gallery, the Origins of Mumbai Gallery, the Founders Gallery, and the Kamalnarayan Special Exhibitions Gallery. A large part of the Museum’s collection showcases the importance of the 19th century in the evolution of Mumbai into a major metropolis — the people, the different communities, the industries, professions, etc.
There are scaled down models of people from different communities, model villages, farming implements, traditional indoor and outdoor games played by men and women, different professions… There are water-colour paintings, a collection of some wicked looking arms and ammunition, musical instruments, pottery, ivory figurines, brass ware, old maps and photographs of Mumbai… There are scenes from Hindu epics, scaled down representations of temples…
Let’s take a peek at the BDLM collection:
The grounds surrounding the BDLM are home to a number of statues of people connected with Mumbai, including one of Queen Victoria herself. The marble statue, however, has not fared very well and is now pockmarked and discoloured. At least the statue of Queen Victoria had a head, some of the statues were headless !
There are other interesting artefacts too, including the one shown below. Obviously salvaged from somewhere in Mumbai, it boggles the mind to imagine that sometime in the past Mumbai must have been a town!
From 19th century onwards, Bombay (as Mumbai was known then) was a bustling trade and industrial centre and my route back home from the Museum takes me through Parel, the city’s former industrial heartland. Amidst the new skyscrapers stand the remnants of Mumbai’s industrial past in the form of skeletons and ruins of abandoned mills and warehouses.
To me, it appears very apt that the city’s first museum has a major section dedicated to industrial arts and life in the city. Of course, the Museum is by no means comprehensive, and I doubt if any museum can ever be that. In a city whose industrial past is fast getting obliterated and forgotten with every passing day, the BDLM has an important role to play in preserving that part of Mumbai’s history.
I highly recommend a visit to the BDLM to every Mumbaikar, and every visitor to the city. You don’t have to spend half-a-day like me there; even an hour is sufficient. The Museum is located in Jijamata Udyan (formerly known as Victoria Gardens) and you could combine a visit to the Mumbai zoo, if you so wish, as that is also located there.
But do visit.
Note: Apologies for the terrible, appalling photographs. I was so worried in ensuring that the flash was switched off, I didn’t check the settings. It is only when I downloaded them on my laptop that I realised how bad the photographs were. But on the bright side, this gives me one more chance to visit the BDLM, doesn’t it?😀