It’s a cloudy Saturday morning and as we rush towards Byculla, the lure of a guided tour at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum seems an exciting prospect. As we anticipate our journey into a sepia-tinged universe of yore, we arrive at the museum. Passing by the antique turnstiles to enter, our wish for time travel is granted, and the transition into the past complete.
Kaveri Aggarwal is our guide for the day, and quickly, we settle into the story behind the birth of the museum that as we realised could well be a metaphor for a turbulent, decisive moment in the history of the Empire in India.
“Many exhibits are replicas of artistic specimens that were culled from far-flung corners of the British Empire to be displayed at the Great Exhibition at Hyde Park in London in 1851. The man behind this great display of colonial treasures was Prince Albert, a renowned connoisseur of the arts and sciences,” says Aggarwal, as she points out the marble statue of the prince that dominates the spectacular central hall, flanked on either side by the muses of art and science.
Replicas of the exhibits sent to London were first displayed in 1857 in what is today the Town Hall — but the display didn't remain open for long. Many were vandalised in the Great Revolt that year. “When the uprising was quelled, the British Crown took over. Empire-building exercises started in Bombay at a hectic pace.
The Town Barracks became an administrative hub, and weathered more political skirmishes. It was no longer a good home for the exhibits,” she says. Perhaps to ingratiate themselves with the Queen and please her consort, the wealthiest businessmen in the city — including Sir Jamshedji Jeejeebhoy, Jagannath Shankarseth and Dr Bhau Daji Lad, took it upon themselves to build a new home for the replicas that had survived the revolt.
The cornerstone was laid amidst great fanfare in 1862 and after 10 years of construction, the aptly titled Victoria and Albert Museum was thrown open to the public. In 1975, it was renamed after the great scholar who had worked tirelessly to fund its construction.
“The museum was built in the grandiose Palladian style, a departure from the Victorian or Neo-Gothic architecture that predominates in the Fort area,” I was told. The idea was to make it opulent — a fitting tribute to the crown. In 2008, after years of restoration, the beauty of the high Victorian interiors was revived, ensuring the stucco and stencil work embellishing walls and ceilings remained intact.
The spacious central hall is bathed in ochre light that doesn’t seem to be coming from lamps alone. “Is that gold?” I guess, pointing to the gilding. “23.5 karat,” she nods. Aggarwal then points to the ceiling, and I spot a captivating geometric pattern. “See the Star of David motif running through the design...? This was incorporated as a tribute to David Sassoon, a prominent Jew who was one of the founders of the museum.”
We head upstairs, my eyes riveted to the breathtaking opulence of the chandelier. But Aggarwal draws my attention to the tiles lining the staircase. “These are Minton tiles, popular at the time for their intricate patterns. When the tiles were shipped to India from Britain, one of the vessels capsized. Unable to afford another shipment, the builders used these tiles in some parts of the building.”
Byculla was chosen as the site for the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (then Victoria & Albert) Museum since at the time, it was a prosperous neighbourhood where the elite lived. It was the perfect site for a museum that would serve as tribute to the Queen and her consort.
Industrial Art Gallery
The displays here attest to the clever way in which the Empire harnessed indigenous arts and crafts to service its burgeoning industrial machinery.
Tea Set: The gallery has a cabinet dedicated to several of the pitstops along the eastern sea trade route, which stretched from Ceylon, Burma, Dacca, through China to Japan. My eyes linger over the exquisitely carved silver teapot from Dacca. The tea-set became popular purely because of the British obsession with tea. Traders would pick them on their way to Bombay, which was home to a large British population. The delicately etched animal motifs echo the British love for hunting — this was arts in the service of industry, driven and determined by commerce.
Japan Bowl: Politics too played a role. In the cabinet with displays from Japan, I spot a metal bowl with motifs of elephants and peacocks, animals that are more likely to be found in India, where the bowl was being exported, than Japan, where it was produced. Carved soapstone, lacquer work, papiermache, embossed bellmetal and brass, enamel, miniature paintings, repousse, sadeli — it is an astounding array.
Kamalnayan Bajaj Gallery
On the first floor, focus shifts from art and commerce to Bombay as a lived experience in the 18th and 19th centuries. Dioramas, models and illustrations capture scenes from life as it evolved at a hectic pace in the great melting pot of Urbs Prima in Indis. “Many models were created by students of J J School of Arts in those days.
The cottages that they worked in still stand in the backyard, used as the museum shop and for special projects,” shares Aggarwal.
Outdoor Games: I spend a few amusing minutes observing a diorama of outdoor games played by locals. The piggyback rides of Wagh Bakhri, the well-known Chor Sepoy and Patang, the tug of war in Shelyawagh — it all seems familiar, just about.
Tower of Silence: Paved platforms have separate receptacles (pavis) for bodies of men, women, and children. Canals carry liquid from corpses into the central well, into which the carcasses fall and crumble into dust.
Maps: A cluster of maps capture the changing boundaries of shape-shifting Bombay, right from when it was a cluster of obscure islands in Roman times, called Heptanesia by Ptolemy.
Best of the rest
Bidri Footwarmer, Carved Shells: Many objects are the perfect fusion of Indian craftsmanship and European design. For instance, Bidri work was used to craft exquisite foot warmers, an item more popular in the cooler climes of Britain than in India.
Boats: Double mast batelas, macchvas or fish-carriers, Tonis or canoes to ferry passengers, the larger Galbats, jolly boats, and Hodis , all docked at the city harbour, can be spotted here. Each had specific roles to play in the gulf.
People: Of great anthropological interest are the models and busts of different communities who came to Bombay to make their fortunes. “The British were thorough baniyas, and needed native traders. They encouraged people from all over the country — Parsis, Bohras, Sindhis, to migrate and set up clusters close to the town. It’s how pockets of Kalbadevi, Naigaon, Bhuleshwar came up,” she reveals.
Others: Look out for a 19-kilo Rajput suit of armour from the 19th century, and ornate wooden playing cards lined with carved ivory. Pottery lovers can feast their eyes on a stunning collection of JJ School of Art Pottery and Minton pottery.
How to sign up?
The tours are conducted at 11.30 am and 12.30 pm, every Saturday and Sunday.
Pay: The cost of the tour is included in the ticket price, which is Rs 10.
Call: 2373 1234 for confirmations.
How to reach
By Rail: The Museum is located on Dr BR Ambedkar road, opposite the Byculla (East) railway station on the Central Railway line.
BY Road: The Museum is well connected by BEST buses and taxi cabs will also readily ply to the area.
Address: 91 A, Rani Baug, Veer Mata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan, Dr Ambedkar Road, Byculla (East).
Museum timings: 10 am to 6 pm
(Tickets sold up to 5:30 pm)
Closed: Wednesdays and certain public holidays.