'Why must we adopt a monochrome, global culture for Mumbai?'

Oct 07, 2012, 10:33 IST | Fiona Fernandez

It's a busy time for Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum, the city's oldest. In a freewheeling chat with Fiona Fernandez, she shares the museum's grand plans in the coming months, why our city deserves better design, and the need to retain its cultural and built heritage

By the time I had left the artfully restored interiors of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum in Byculla — an oasis amid cosmopolitan chaos, I had soaked in a silent, solid initiative to bridge the gap between vision and reality, despite the odds.

A few hours earlier, Alisha Sadikot, curator at the museum, had walked me through the air-conditioned section on the first floor where Social Fabric, a collaborative effort with Iniva (Institute of International Visual Arts), London, about the textile revolution, is being showcased. This ongoing exhibition is one of the many diverse events that have come to be regulars on the museum itinerary since its was reopened after restoration in January 2008.

Tasneem Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar

That walkthrough helps me join the dots later, at Tasneem Mehta’s tastefully done office, as she reveals, firstly, plans about the museum — “A museum shouldn’t be only about antiquities or a classical repository as it existed in the 19th century,” going on to spell out expansive projects that would soon be unveiled; this is apart from her sharing views on several city-related issues, from its cultural landscape to its heritage dilemmas.

“We wanted to create a different visual quality at the museum. The new wing will be the next big thing. It will materialise, after six-eight months of planning and effort. This section was meant to always be a part of the museum when we signed the agreement with the BMC.

Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum has exciting times ahead

 It’s great that we were granted financial and creative autonomy to upscale plans. We would have never got this far without support from the State government,” asserts Mehta.

Watch this space
The need for space was a deciding factor: “We are just 2,500 sq feet, which is limiting for a museum. It shouldn’t be only about collections — there must be constant re-looking of it, along with varied perspectives. For this, the back portion had to be brought into public eye. Also, we found that there was no place to soak in the experience after a visit to an exhibition,” she reasons. As she draws me in to this next set of plans, the heart does a jig. “We’ll make it special.

The biggest buzz, undoubtedly, will be around the bringing down of the Guggenheim Lab, by December, which will focus on urban design and planning. Atelier Bow-Wow, the Tokyo-based architecture firm, will be working on it. The Lab will see talks by international speakers, along with children’s events thrown in.” Work is in full swing around nucleus when we drop by. The AV centre, which was the storage room, originally, is nearly ready. The two cottages beside are in the process of being converted into a special project space where artists will be invited to conduct programmes. Funds from this will be used to build the Museum’s collections.

Khotachiwadi in south Mumbai. File photo

There is more: “An outdoor café will serve Mumbai street food and authentic thalis, we’ll also set up a souvenir shop. We’ve already tied up with the Victoria & Albert Museum for books and collectibles. In fact, our products are on sale at V&A, as part of this equal tie-up.” By January-February, the Lab will host two-three sessions. There will be music and theatre acts. “A museum experience can be vibrant unless you add to it,” she reiterates. Meanwhile, we will focus on Mumbai and Maharashtra’s artists, history and maps, design and photography.

The East Garden at the museum is a venue for children’s workshops by NGOs that focus on pottery, paintings and silverware, to support BMC schools

Mumbai for the world
While in such environs, talk veers to issues beyond the Museum, like Mumbai’s bid of the Victorian and Art Deco ensemble in UNESCO’s latest tentative list: “INTACH prepared the submission for Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) for World Heritage status and we had suggested that the entire Fort area could become part of a cluster nomination (ie important buildings or monuments in an area or region representing a particular cultural typology becomes a cluster).

World Heritage status for the Fort area and the Art Deco precinct would be an excellent way to promote the city as a cultural destination and also protect these buildings from unscrupulous builders.” She added that while Mumbai has competition from Delhi and Ahmedabad, it stands a very good chance. UNESCO also feels that India is under represented in the World Heritage Cities category so they might give more than one nomination. “Mumbai remains a magnificent city, architecturally, because it has different types of built heritage representing different cultures and communities. If the city was given a good paint job and cleaned up it would look grand. If you saw the Museum before restoration and now, you will understand what I mean.”

Equally insightful were Mehta’s comments on the hotly debated issue of the gradation of Mumbai’s heritage structures: “More names should have been on the list. It isn’t about being anti-development. The city is a palimpsest of many cultures and communities and each area has its identity. We must remember the contribution of each of these communities to the development of the city, economically, socially and culturally, and celebrate it. Our built heritage represents that historic memory in a tangible form. It is important not to erase it.”

Our city, our heritage
When asked about Mumbai’s sub-precincts that deserve attention, Mehta cites Bhuleshwar, Mohammad Ali Road, Khotachiwadi, Girgaum and Bandra as some of the areas that need stricter heritage control guidelines. “However, there are areas, which should not be given an arbitrary Grade 1 tag. It requires a careful study. There are development pressures and we need to be able to let the old and new coexist and respect each other.” She speaks about the under-utilised land, especially on the city’s wastern corridor that could be used for development rather than demolishing precious heritage. “Also, in case permission to build in heritage areas is given, it should respect the footprint and scale of the heritage buildings. What we need urgently is an Urban Arts Commission similar to the one that Delhi has to ensure that good design is incorporated into city planning.”

At this stage, it is inevitable to discuss the red mark on Mumbai’s progress report: the case of limited radius development that has spread its tentacles. “Have we studied the impact of high rises in the West? Displacements have caused severe psychological issues there,” she asserts, channeling a pertinant social issue. More questions follow — “In place of mills, why do we have examples of monochrome, global culture, which are un-Indian? Why aren’t shopping malls designed like wadas or villages?”

And, as observed with such issues, the biggest deterrents are our lawmakers: “A politician does not understand architecture or heritage. We are ready to provide this expertise. The objective is piecemeal planning. In my 25 years of bringing art and culture to the larger public, I’ve seen greed everywhere but there are good people too, and we must take them along.”

Decongest, divert
Solutions towards making our city world-class are possible, she believes. “Decongest the city — move the main business districts and Mantralaya to Bandra-Kurla Complex, open up the Nhava-Sewri sea link without affecting the flamingoes and Elephanta Island, and develop quick and efficient transportation channels via sea and railway corridors for a livable city.”

Gauging from her experiences with the museum, where the municipal corporation and the Bajaj Foundation were supportive, she reassures us that the government is now aware of tourism and human development impact of culture.

“It’s important to demonstrate the ability to execute and sustain projects. Funds are not a problem. Mumbai needs cultural infrastructure to bring it into the league of other world-class cities. Space is a major constraint. More private initiatives are necessary but government needs to enable this by giving tax incentives to encourage spending on the arts and heritage.”  

> Guggenheim Lab
> AV Room
> Special Projects Lab for visiting artists and gallery projects
> Souvenir shop that will stock merchandise including books from Victoria & Albert Museum, London
> Outdoor café serving authentic Indian cuisine
> Live acts, concerts and music shows

> Bhuleshwar > Mohammad Ali Road
> Bandra > Khotachiwadi
> Parsi baugs

Renowned scholar, social reformer and medical practioner Dr Bhau Daji Lad, was internationally recognised for his research on archaeology and numismatics. His statue stands at the Town Hall in the Asiatic Society building. He built the Victoria and Albert Museum with the initiative of Dr John Birdwood. In his honour, the museum was renamed after Dr Lad in 1975. The museum, Mumbai’s oldest, was the only public building to be built at a distance from the Bombay Fort area, when it was completed in the late 19th century. It was designed in the Italian Renaissance style by Mr William Tracey and later modified by Scott, McClelland and Co after his death. Its complex, which is beside the Jijamata Udyan (Rani Baug) is home to some of Mumbai’s oldest trees as well 

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