Mumbai: Politicians gang up to oust Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum chief

After foiling her plans to host a fashion event at the Byculla museum, politicians now want to remove her from there altogether; alleging irregularities in the running of the museum, BMC has put Tasneem Mehta on six months’ notice; Mehta says she would be ‘delighted if the Mayor and corporators wish to get more involved’

It was less than three weeks ago that the Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum in Byculla had received a rude shock when the Lakme Fashion Week grand finale had to be abruptly shifted elsewhere after alleged threats from an MNS leader. It now looks as though political pressure may rock the boat yet again, as the BMC yesterday unanimously cleared a proposal to unseat the museum’s current management.

Also read: Lakme Fashion Week finale shifted abruptly after MNS threat

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta
Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director, Bhau Daji Lad museum

Some said hosting a fashion event of an international scale could have boosted the museum’s popularity, but an MNS member objected to it saying the museum was not supposed to host any commercial events. The museum’s managing trustee and honorary director, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, had said this was the political party’s attempt at moral policing (‘Fashion week finale shifted abruptly after MNS threat’, mid-day, March 23).

mid-day’s report on March 23
mid-day’s report on March 23

Now, however, all parties have united against Mehta and seem intent on removing her, even putting her on six months’ notice on Friday. Bringing up the fashion week controversy again and giving her party credit for stopping the show, Mayor Snehal Ambekar who is also chairman of the museum trust said, “They were holding a fashion show at the museum. It was only after Shiv Sena protested that the show was called off. Post that, I asked for documents from the museum’s trust and there were irregularities.”

Criticism
The Mayor wasn’t the only one to criticise the way the museum was being run. Group leader of Samajwadi Party, Rais Shaikh, alleged, “There’s no book of accounts at the museum. We aren’t apprised about meetings that are supposed to be held there on a monthly basis.”

MNS group leader, Sandeep Deshpande, who presented the proposal to oust Mehta, said she was autocratic in her approach and had made many political statements regarding the expansion of the museum. Deshpande was referring to the time when the museum was to replace a playground with its new wing. Amidst protests by the MNS, Mehta had supported the plans.

“She had said that people who were opposed to the the expansion of the museum do not understand what culture is. What culture does she intend to show? Our culture is Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Lavni and Kathak; this is what we should be showing to the foreigners, not the culture that these people talk about,” said Deshpande.

Even before the proposal came up in the house, group leaders of all political parties met the Mayor and Municipal Commissioner Sitaram Kunte to discuss their gripes about Mehta and her style of running the museum. Later, the proposal was passed in the house within seconds, without objection from any quarter.

“Today, in the BMC, we passed a proposal to revoke the agreement signed between the BMC, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) for 17 years, starting January 2003,” said Dehspande, adding, “However, we gave them a notice period of six months because we didn’t want the museum to be left without any care.

In these six months, we will come up with rules and regulations so that we can either enter into another agreement for the museum’s management or it is possible that the BMC may take care of the museum itself.”Sena corporator Avkash Jadhav was of the opinion that the corporation could have lost control of the museum.

“There is a need for a more proactive role by the Mayor and the corporation. The BMC will appoint a professional who has done a museology course to run the museum,” he said, adding that a committee would be set up under the Mayor to formulate guidelines for the future. As of now, the proposal is still pending commissioner Kunte’s approval, though corporators said he had already given them the green signal in advance.

'Running a museum is like flying an aeroplane'

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, speaks to Fiona Fernandez about allegations leveled against her by the BMC

mid-day: The BMC has alleged that you are not qualified enough to run the museum.
Mehta: I am a curator par excellence. I had delivered the keynote address at the Future of South Asian Collections Conference, University of East Anglia, Norwich in 2014, which was attended by curators of all UK museums that have collections of South Asian art. Since the tripartite agreement was signed between the BMC, the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) in February 2003, over 5,000 objects have been restored by the trust.

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. File pic
Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. File pic

We’ve restored the building and the original structure that was in neglect. The Museum Restoration Project won the 2005 UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence for Conservation. In 2012, I was appointed by MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) to be on its international council. I’m on the National Museum’s advisory board (New Delhi), as well as on the Salarjung Museum’s board (Hyderabad). The government is giving R20 crore to this museum. I must be doing something right, isn’t it?

mid-day: The Mayor mentioned that the recent Lakme Fashion Week show was when her office learnt of irregularities at the museum. 
Mehta: Incorrect. The resolution passed by the previous Mayor (Sunil Prabhu) empowered me to raise funds for the museum. All of these events held here are being charged for whether it’s a film shooting or a fashion event. I can show them a list. They are meant to augment the museum’s collection. I am trading capital assets for the museum’s future. Running a museum is like flying an aeroplane.

You need experts to do such jobs. I bring not just my skills, but also help raise funds for the museum. The R2-crore annual fund that we get from the BMC is used for staff salaries and conservation work. The UK Trust of INTACH is also paying for a large part of our international collaborations with museums.

Funding from the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, and more recently from Mukesh Ambani as well as artists, helps in the overall maintenance and programming of the museum. I don’t get reimbursed for my petrol and phone bills. I’m like an investor, and not an employee.

mid-day: The Mayor and the BMC have said they need to play a larger role. 
Mehta: I’d be delighted if the Mayor and city corporators wish to get more involved and play a larger, more proactive role in the running of the museum. Please get involved and help organise the programming of this museum. I am looking forward to seeing this happen. In fact, I had stated this need at a group leaders meeting of the museum late last year. Let me add here that, since 2003-15, I have had to beg civic authorities to attend our events. We need more money, and they should give it to us. Corporators should feel proud of this museum.

mid-day: What next? 
Mehta: We have six months; let’s see. I am doing all of this because I love Mumbai and I want this museum to belong to everybody. For this, I want to be able to make a significant contribution. I come from a famous family; I don’t need a platform. The vice-chairmanship of INTACH is a bigger platform. If they (BMC) feel they are not being included, I will make that extra effort to improve this perception.

Fourth time’s the charm
The proposal to cancel the agreement with the museum trust had come up in the BMC three times in the past, but was not heard in the house. All three times, it was Byculla corporator Samita Naik who had presented the proposals. It should be noted that it was her husband, Sanjay Naik, who had objected to the fashion week finale being held at the museum last month.

They were holding a fashion show at the museum. It was only after Shiv Sena protested that the show was called off. Post that, I asked for documents from the museum’s trust and there were irregularities
- Mayor Snehal Ambekar, who is also chairman of the museum trust

Our culture is Bharatnatyam, Kuchipudi, Lavni and Kathak; this is what we should be showing to the foreigners, not the culture that these people talk about
- MNS group leader, Sandeep Deshpande, who presented the proposal to oust Mehta

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