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Tasneem Zakaria Mehta and the art of living

She has transformed Mumbai’s Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum from a crumbling liability to a  heritage haven. Museum Director Tasneem Zakaria Mehta tells Kareena Gianani about how art and heritage are as much a part of her personal life as professional, why she has no plans to take things slow at 60, and her secret wish to retreat into a home art studio soon

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, Managing Trustee & Hon. Director, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum

Beyond the wrought iron turnstile at the entrance of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is its Director’s office. One can safely assume that if Tasneem Zakaria Mehta isn’t bent over the computer like she is now, it would be impossible to spot her in there. It isn’t that her office is sprawling or has secret nooks, but because Tasneem has covered every surface in large, hardcovers and coffee table books which threaten to become towering piles if left unwatched.

“Art, words and literature — my life cannot been devoid of them,” she says as we begin speaking of her artistic and literary leanings.

Tasneem Mehta
Tasneem Mehta spent a decade in New York in her 20s to get away from familial pressure to get married. Those formative years, she admits, taught her important life skills. Pics/Bipin Kokate

It all ties up — Tasneem, Convenor (Great Bombay Chapter) at Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), has helped convert the 134-year-old museum from a gloomy space to a vibrant cultural destination history buffs are proud of. Today, the museum is a repository of artefacts thoughtfully curated and meticulously recorded.

All about the arts
However, as a child being museum director was never on Tasneem’s mind. “It was always painting and writing for me at The Cathedral & John Connon School. I was into theatre and debates too, but I wouldn’t have believed it had someone told me I would eventually land up here,” she says, looking around at her office.

Tasneem was the kind of child who read “serious” books her father thought were “too adult” for her under a blanket at night. Torch and dictionary in hand, Tasneem says she scribbled big, new words in notebooks to remember them.

“I did it for the thrill of discovery,” she reminisces. “I still do, it is just that now, I subscribe to an online dictionary and I love the trivia on history and language which comes with it,” says Tasneem.

As soon as she says this, Tasneem walks toward the computer, restive because she can’t remember the name of the website. She apologises for digressing this way. “But I must find out which one it is — I would be too distracted otherwise.”

Tasneem Mehta

Tasneem is evidently punctilious — whether it is the haphazard placement of tissues near our tea cups, her own grooming habits, or the way the museum is run, Tasneem says she needs order and structure. “I have made unconventional life choices in life, taken paths which were considered too bold for women in the 1970s, but they were well thought out, very organised. Fortunately, the life those choices led me to only fostered the need to be accountable and meticulous,” states Tasneem.

A decade to remember
It is the decade she spent in the US she is actually speaking about, I soon learn. Tasneem studied Textile Design at the JJ School of Art because her father, Dr Rafiq Zakaria, preferred that she did “something useful” with her degree, and painting, which Tasneem coveted, was too avant-garde for him because it involved nude models. “I couldn’t rebel, because I knew how scandalised he was with my involvement with theatre and modelling,” she laughs. At 21, when Tasneem realised her father wanted her to get married, she decided it was time to flee the nest and study in the US.

“It was one of the best times of my life, and also most formative. Ismail Merchant was a family friend and took great care of me — it was because of him that I walked the circles of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Madhur Jaffery, James Ivory. Asha Putli was a star then in New York and became one of my closest friends. I became more aware and sophisticated — I was in the company of the most engaging minds,” remembers Tasneem.

Her three-year-long stint with Bloomingdales, where she managed their Little India Shop, taught Mehta creativity and structure, and also helped her fund her Masters in Liberal Arts at Columbia University later. “At 25, I was in control of my life. I learnt to be accountable and responsible — something which stands me in good stead as I run the museum today.”

Love at first sight
The fairytale in her personal life wasn’t far behind either — it was in New York that she first met her now husband, Vikram Mehta. “One day, while we were making plans to watch a movie, one of my friends slapped his forehead and remembered that he had to meet a family friend who, we assumed for no reason at all, would be boring.”

A brief meeting between the duo resulted in their marriage after three years of a long-distance relationship. “Vikram claims it was love at first sight for him. I was charmed by his Oxford accent, and his disarming intellectual air which people claim he still has,” remembers Tasneem.

If New York was one learning curve in her life, Tasneem’s inter-faith marriage was another. “Marriage is hard work anyway — you must nurture it and you need all the support system there is — so having inter-faith marriage back then was a rather difficult choice,” says Tasneem. “What I think helped matters was that I was not squeamish about embracing Vikram’s Hindu rituals. I studied in a Catholic school, am a Muslim, have Hindu friends, so I had no qualms wearing lehengas and conducting Diwali pujas with his family. It still does not clash with my Islamic roots because that is second skin. I am a sensitive person, and see a lot of nuance and grace in small religious rituals. In fact, one of the regrets I have now is that our two daughters — Malika (25) and Ahilya (19) — are not surrounded by these rituals. We miss out on on an important cultural connection, our roots,” feels Tasneem.

‘A leader must empower’
Tasneem raised her girls while writing and studying mainly in Egypt and London, and wherever Vikram’s job took them. After the family moved back to India in 1995, Tasneem joined INTACH. Six years later, she took on the challenge of transforming the Mumbai museum and achieved what few had foreseen for the crumbling institution.

“I would describe my leadership style as one which encourages autonomy but demands very high standards from it. I don’t care about working with big names and fancy degrees, though of course a good education matters. I seek driven, imaginative individuals. I push my team to think for themselves and take decisions like they would if I weren’t around. I empower my team by sending them to international conferences and study programmes, for instance.”

Tasneem Mehta

For the future
At 60, Tasneem has no plans to cut down on work. “My personal and professional life are not very different - both are soaked in the arts and heritage. I would love to travel around India with Vikram, but he also leads such a busy life that it only makes sense to involve myself in meaningful work,” says the museum director. Tasneem admits she is a bric-a-brac junkie. “I would love to collect more shells, textiles, accessories, brass objects and contemporary art. My home is full of books on the floor, on the windows — so I want to read deeply in the future. My dream is to paint more in life, have a studio of my own at home and disappear into it.”

My Favourites

Food: Japanese
Movie: Kaagaz ke Phool
Book: Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
Sport: Swimming
Destination: Our house in Binsar
Quote: If you can walk with the crowd and keep your virtue, or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch; If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run — Yours is the earth and everything that’s in it — Rudyard Kipling

Inside Track
Born: November 22, 1953
Education: JJ School of Art, Columbia University, New York, Delhi University
First job: Bloomingdales, New York
Best advice you ever got: From my father quoting the Gita to focus on the path and not on the rewards

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