Fiona Fernandez: A day at a living museum

Bhau Daji Lad museum is proof of the fact that dead spaces can be resurrected

Circa January 2000. Yours truly was one of the 60 contestants who had been selected for the televised rounds of BBC’s Mastermind India quiz. The venue for the Mumbai leg of episodes was the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum in Byculla. The day of reckoning had arrived. As if one needed more reasons to be nervous, the rain gods decided to go all out, leaving a beleaguered Central Railway to reach us to the destination. As we stepped into uncharted territory, it looked like a museum straight from what seemed like the Dark Ages. Dingy and scary, the pervading mustiness didn’t help our already slow-moving brain. The exhibits loomed large over the set like life-sized props from an abandoned warehouse. Worse, there was an intimidating giant-sized black chair (think: a horrified Alice in Wonderland) from where every contestant had to face a volley of questions from quizmaster Siddhartha Basu.

After a couple of hours of what seemed like one of the longest days in one’s life, the recording was done; the quiz had been conquered, reputation somewhat intact. Yet, the thought of the decrepit state of the museum had left an impression. Previously, we had read about the landmark, formerly known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, and its displays, treasures and rich history – as the oldest museum in Mumbai. But this did not paint a pretty picture.

Cut to 2016. It was a Sunday morning. Not exactly the time of the day to spot droves inside at the BDL museum that falls in no-man’s land – neither SoBo, nor the Bandra-Andheri belt; not even Dadar. But we were in for a pleasant surprise. Sunshine brushed the interiors of this restored masterpiece. Exhibits were displayed in all their finery; at the education centre, kids were having a blast at a story-writing session; the museum shop was inviting curious shoppers, thanks to their stunning rumal collection (in sync with Chamba Rumal exhibition that was underway). Upstairs, film buffs were having a field day posing beside Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Madhubala portraits that formed part of a photo exhibition of rare prints saluting stars from the golden years of Hindi cinema. All of this, for a paltry Rs 10 as the entry fee. It made us smile. The frame had changed, and how.

We’ve visited the museum on countless occasions since its mammoth restoration in 2008. Yet, to watch it sustain and draw in the crowds is not only applause-worthy but also a lesson for Mumbai’s public monuments and landmarks. Dead spaces can be resurrected into breathing playgrounds, to rejuvenate the young and not-so-young with our local culture and heritage, and graced by wondrous collections from around the world. Make that trip to Byculla, and you’ll see why.

mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to

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