Interview: Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum director Tasneem Mehta speaks out about her reduced power in museum affairs

Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum director Tasneem Mehta responds to 'elitism' charge', speaks out about the prospect of reduced power as BMC claims greater control over the Byculla institution

On Wednesday, the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla was a sea of calm. “It’s maintenance day,” a senior museum staffer whispered when we inquired about the absence of the usual bustle of visitors.

Also read: Need time to to decide on Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum issue: BMC chief Ajoy Mehta

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta. File pic

The atmosphere was in stark contrast to the storm brewing around its honorary director and managing trustee, Tasneem Zakaria Mehta.

On January 5, mid-day had reported about a meeting in the BMC on Tuesday that resulted in the announcement to take the edge off Mehta’s powers, instead resting all control in a new trust headed by Mayor Snehal Ambekar and comprising civic officials.

Also read: BMC takes greater control over Byculla museum

After a resolution passed to the same effect in May, Mehta was put on six “months notice”, following her very public wrangle with the MNS and Sena. Last December, the MNS blamed Mehta for helming the plan to erect a new wing of the museum by floating a global design contest, which they argued would rob locals of a playground.

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

In March, MNS and Sena protesters threatened to vandalise the museum on the day a fund-raising fashion show, which they called anti-Indian culture and pro-elite, was to be held. It was shifted to a five-star, causing the museum embarrassment and financial loss.

We met Mehta in her office at the museum to discuss the development and the road ahead.

Edited excerpts from the interview.

Q. When did you learn of the decision taken at Tuesday’s BMC meeting to reduce your role in museum affairs? Was it communicated to you officially?
A. I learnt of it through the press on Tuesday evening. I have received no official communication. I intend to write to Ajoy Mehta seeking a clarification on the recent development. I have been kept in the dark. We have always respected and recognised the support of the BMC since the civic body has been critical to our success. I want them to tell us what it is that they are unhappy about. In fact, I had recently written to the Mayor, requesting for a meeting of the Board of Trustees. Between two to three meetings are mandatory every fiscal year. So far, we’ve had just one. There has been no official response to my letter.

Q. How do you see your role in the museum’s daily working change?
A. I have no idea! Let the Municipal Commissioner decide.

Q. A new trust headed by Mayor Snehal Ambekar and comprising civic officials is expected to run the museum. Do you see yourself continue as member of the trust?
A. The corporation can make a recommendation but it is left to the Municipal Commissioner to decide.

Q. You are credited with restoring the museum, reviving the heritage structure from its derelict condition; restoring over 5000 works; digitizing the museum’s entire permanent collection; reviving the interest of contemporary artists in engaging and displaying at the venue; putting BDL on the global museum map as it were. Why this sudden interest from civic officials in the museum and its working, you’d say?
A. We are a nation trying to tell the world ‘Make in India’, enter into partnerships with us and project ourselves as a country with a stable, progressive environment. This museum has been applauded for being an ideal example of all of the above. And they say they are unhappy with it. A lot of this is politically motivated and has little to do with our performance. We’ve won the UNESCO Award for Excellence and have been recognised nationally and within the city. Lonely Planet selected us as one of 5 must-visit destinations. On weekends, the footfalls range from 3,000 to 4,000. We’ve become well known, hence, inviting political interest.

Q. Will bagging sanctions or striking partnership agreements with international artists and cultural organizations get tougher, you think? What about existing programmes?
A. Of course [it will]. The news [of her scaling down of powers] will have a negative impact because they’ve believed they are dealing with a stable institution. As for existing programmes, they will continue since we are under contract with them. Most of our educational programmes are being run using funds provided by Mukesh Ambani and the Bajaj Trust.

Q. The Mayor had told this paper last April following the cancellation of Anamika Khanna’s fashion show at the museum after Sena and MNS protested, that documents of the museum Trust threw up irregularities. Comment.
A. Every year, our accounts are audited transparently. Even the BMC team reviews it. We are functioning scrupulously and by the book. The BMC gives us Rs 1.8 crore annually and we raise another Rs 1.2 to 1.5 crore. Built capital assets of the museum have been raised through this latter fund raising. We are a museum of decorative arts, craftsmanship, the history of the city and the early important Maharashtrian artistes. People must know that we are not a classical arts museum. India is home to thousands of weavers and craftspeople, and I am interested in showcasing their incredible skills. To bring it to the attention of the public, displays don’t work, fashion shows do. That is the reason we held it. It was fund raising initiative for the museum.

Q. BJP corporator Manoj Kotak spoke to mid-day on Tuesday, and said, the director will “no longer have the final word”. If this is how things pan out, how do you see it impacting your involvement in the museum’s future?
A. I have never had the final word. All decisions pertaining to the museum are whetted in consultation with the Executive Committee, the Exhibitions Committee and the Acquisitions Committee. Strategic decisions are taken by the Board of Trustees (including Pheroza Godrej and Rahul Bajaj), which is chaired by the Mayor. Systems have been set up so there is no question of a unilateral decision. You need experts in the field to do the job. Not everyone can fly a plane.

Also read: Politicians gang up to oust Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum chief Tasneem Mehta

Q. Your critics say you run an elite museum.
A. Ninety per cent of our footfalls are from modest and middle-class families. Take a look at the visitor’s book to see the merit in my claim. We are holding a variety of interactive programmes that centre around our home state; we support NGOs, craftspeople, causes surrounding cancer and the visually challenged. We work closely with BMC schools. The good work we do with them goes unnoticed. A lone fashion show gets highlighted. A lot of emphasis is on opening up this space to those who don’t have an opportunity. The elite will find an opportunity elsewhere anyway. Our staff is trained to speak Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati when briefing visitors about the museum’s collections. Our audio guides are in Hindi and Marathi. In fact, four years ago, a recommendation was tabled to increase the entry from Rs 10 to Rs 20. I fought to let it be so that it doesn’t get out of bounds for some.

Q. Has your outspokenness has gone against you?
A. I am not afraid. I have done the right thing, by following regulations and guidelines laid down by the Board of Trustees.

Q. Where does Tuesday’s announcement leave Stephen Holl Architects’ award-winning design for the North Wing expansion of the museum?
A. I live in hope. I believe in the intent with which I have done this project. I love this city and have worked towards creating an institution that Mumbai would be proud of.

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