Caught in a time warp
HOW remarkably little do museums form a part of people’s awareness generally in India, one knows. But even those who do know something about them, or take interest in these matters, would not find it easy to answer these two questions. One: name the oldest museum in Mumbai; and, two, when was the Victoria & Albert Museum founded? A guess about the first question could be: The Prince of Wales Museum (now renamed, like almost everything else in Maharashtra, after the great Maratha hero, and called the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya). And while mulling over the second question, the guesses might range between 1852, when the South Kensington Museum was founded in London, and 1899, when the same museum was formally renamed the Victoria & Albert Museum. Interestingly, however, one would be wrong on both counts. The oldest museum in Mumbai is the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, not the Prince of Wales; and the Victoria & Albert Museum was founded in 1872 – well ahead of the one bearing this name in London – because this is what today’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai was called then.
Here’s a confession: I
did not know these facts either, even though I knew of the existence of
this museum. When I was in Mumbai recently – I decided to make amends,
and visit the museum. And found it to be quite a place. To enter it is,
in some ways, to enter the 19th century, so quaint is its appearance,
and so redolent of the air that museums in that century must have
breathed. Slender pillars, wrought-iron railings, elegant arches, high
painted ceiling; and, in the midst of all that, heavy glass cases,
oversized pedestals, fading information panels, labels that have turned
into antiques in their own right. The collection swerves from clay
models that are the equivalent of those firka paintings which
were made for the British in the ‘company’ period—‘illustrating’
Indian types, and costumes, and trades and professions—to finely
wrought silver and copper ware, from votive bronzes to fossils and
minerals, from delicate ivories to models of temples made from pith.
Scattered and interspersed through all these are photographs of old
Bombay and European bric-a-brac; wonderful armour and garishly coloured
‘fruit’ models. It is difficult to tell where the museum, with this
extremely varied collection, is ‘going’, so to speak.
Few people would know it, but Sir George Birdwood, who wrote those celebrated works, The Industrial Arts of India, and Sva, was among the first curators of the museum, having been appointed in 1858, soon after the upheaval caused by the ‘Great Mutiny’, as the British called it, was over. Sir George might have had very little feeling for Indian sculpture – his famous description of "those Indian Buddhas looking like suet pudding" still hurts – but he genuinely admired Indian ‘manufactures’, and the skill of Indian craftsmen. For 10 years, therefore, he kept collecting for the museum, and looking after its growth, with the active support of a number of Indians – the nagar seths of those times , among them Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Framji Nusserwanji, and Jagannath Shankarsheth. Actively involved also was a figure familiar to most Bombayites, for he served them well in so many ways: Ramkrishna Vitthal Lad, known to most as Bhau Daji Lad. It was he who, together with a number of colleagues and men of influence, conceived the idea of erecting a whole new building for housing the collection, and naming it in honour of the Queen Empress of India, and the Prince consort. What had started as a Central Museum of Economic Products was now christened as the Victoria & Albert Museum. The year was 1862.
A great deal of time has passed since then. Curators have come and gone; the scope of the collection has expanded somewhat; statues of Englishmen that once occupied positions of prominence in the museum have been moved out to a corner of the attached garden. Some significant changes are in the offing. But, at the moment, the museum still looks on the inside much like it must have done 150 years ago. Or nearly.
The name game
In respect of naming, things have come a full circle in some ways. For, in 1975, the Bombay Municipal Corporation, which now owns and runs the museum, decided to rename it as Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, in honour of the man who devoted so much of his energy and his time to it a century and a half ago. It was he, one remembers, who had thought of naming it as the Victoria & Albert Museum.