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A City Museum

Before I really launch into typing this, I’d just like to state for the record that I love Bhau Daji Lad Museum. It’s beautiful, it hosts some winsome shows and I’m extremely grateful that it exists.

That said, what. the. fuck. is this?

IMG_1784

According to the helpful, centrally-placed label, this is an “Ideal Indian village.” Really? So the ideal Indian village has tiled roofs, even if those are far from indigenous for most of the country, and have two temples but no sign of any religion other than Hinduism? Not a mosque or a gurudwara or a church. Just two temples, with saffron flags fluttering. Great.

Here’s the thing: Bhau Daji Lad Museum is supposed to be a city museum and when it first opened, its displays really did try to reflect some sense of Mumbai’s diversity. Yes, those clay figurines were (and are) ridiculous, but they tried to show that this city’s charm lies in its hodge-podge mix. In fact, if anything, the Bhau Daji Lad Museum displays made Mumbai seem a lot more cosmopolitan than it actually feels now.

When you go up to the first floor, the first things you see are models of heads, in traditional gear, that show men from different communities that have made their home in Mumbai. Further on, there are figurines of men and women, again from different communities.

I actually made a list of the peoples Bhau Daji Lad’s displays showcased as “People of Mumbai”. Here it is:

  • Surati baniya (Hindu merchants from Surat, Gujarat)
  • Arabs
  • Memons (Muslims who generally trace their origins to Gujarat)
  • Marwaris (Hindus originally from Rajasthan)
  • Maharashtrian Brahmins
  • Kolis (indigenous tribe of this region)
  • Satara Maratha (Maharashtrians from Satara)
  • Kohlapuri Maratha (Maharashtrians from Kohlapur)
  • Prabhus (Hindu community of Maharashtra that traces its lineage to warrior clans of Rajasthan)
  • Gosari (followers of Ramdas Swami)
  • Goan Hindu
  • Ahmedabadi Baniya (Hindu merchants from Ahmedabad, Gujarat)
  • Kutchhi Bhatia (Hindu caste group from Kutchh, Gujarat)
  • Sikh
  • Sindhi
  • Shikharpuri Sindhi
  • Hyderabadi Sindhi
  • Sindhi Mohamedan
  • Peshawari Pathan
  • Parsis
  • Khojas
  • Bohras

Another cabinet shows figures labelled as Siddi, Bene Israeli, Sinhali, East Turkistani Sunni and Multani Hindu. This last one caught my eye because it made a point that we tend not to hear in public discourse: Hindus can be foreigners too. (Multan is in Pakistan.)

In the past, I’ve laughed with friends while going through these displays because you don’t see half of these people around you today. The fact is, though, that people from far and wide have settled in Mumbai and that’s the history that makes present-day Mumbai so liveable, even as its diversity is being steadily flattened.

I’ve been noticing something over the course of my recent visits to Bhau Daji Lad Museum: it’s becoming more and more about a Hindu Mumbai. The newer displays are not specific to the city. They show scenes from the Ramayana, avatars of Vishnu, Shiva and “Devi”, models of Kashivishwanath Temple in Varanasi and the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. The two Hindu divine figures I understand being in a museum about Mumbai are Mumba Devi (since some believe she may have something to do with the city’s name) and a Ganesha, since his worship is important to so many who live here. However, I don’t understand why there is a display titled “The Embassy of Shri Krishna”, showing a scene from the Mahabharata, in Bhau Daji Lad Museum. What the devil does this have to do with Mumbai?

Who is responsible for this? I don’t know. The Museum is run by a trust that has representatives from Municipal Corporation Greater Mumbai, the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Arguably, these more recent exhibits are not shining examples of Indian art, culture or heritage. If anything, they embody an attempt at obscuring our artistic and cultural heritage and making it seem far more uni-dimensional than it is.

On the day that we’re supposed to honour the Constitution of India, which declares India a sovereign and secular republic, I’d like to note that if the new additions to Bhau Daji Lad Museum are any indication, then our country is apparently one in which clumsily-crafted clay idols of Hindu gods deserve museum status and the ideal Indian village is a Hindu one. So much for secular.

Coming back to what I’d written right up on top about being grateful for Bhau Daji Lad Museum — I am, and I’m sure that it faces an uphill task to bring the exhibitions that it does bring to the city. Perhaps those in the know think that letting vitrines full of Hindu gods into the museum is a small price to pay for the freedom to show other works that might be more provocative. Whoever is taking those calls must be weighing their options very carefully before letting a city museum become a device to push a chauvinist agenda.

But think of it from the perspective of the average museum goer. There are so many schools that send kids to Bhau Daji Lad Museum. Every time I’ve visited on a weekend, I’ve seen families roaming around. Imagine what the average Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Parsi kid feels while peering into the glass cases. Come to think of it, at least the Parsis have one model of a Tower of Silence. Everyone else who’s non-Hindu, their heritage doesn’t exist even though they form essential chapters in Mumbai’s history.

If Bhau Daji Lad Museum has to add to the ridiculous diorama that pretend to be museum exhibits, why isn’t there one of Haji Ali or the dargah of Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, for instance? In addition to models of temples that aren’t even in Mumbai, why couldn’t we have had one of the cake-like Knesset Eliyahoo?

I never thought that I’d find myself applauding those damned clay figurines, but there you have it. I’d rather see a dozen more glass cases like the old “People of Mumbai” than what’s all over Bhau Daji Lad Museum today. In the fact that the new exhibits seem to be slowly but steadily crowding out the old ones, you’ve got to wonder how accurate a reflection this is of Mumbai itself in the present. After all, this is a city museum

Write this way

 

“If at first you don’t succeed, get used to it.”

I have spent the last 24 hours trying to write, which means I have done the following:

  • Stuck 30-odd photographs on a wall that I’ve decided is going to be my wall of travel photographs
  • Stuffed a chicken
  • Marinated a duck in a plum, basil and chilli mix
  • Washed clothes that didn’t need washing
  • Stared unseeingly out of my window so fixedly for so long that the people in the next apartment building actually drew their curtains.

What I do have at the end of all this is an excellent reason to write by hand, rather than sitting at the computer. When you write on that onscreen document on your computer, you type and the words appear. They’re neat, orderly and present. Then you read what you’ve written and it’s a bloody disaster. So you hit delete. And it’s gone. Whoosh. The document’s blank again. Continue reading “Write this way”

Get-it-off-your-chest Tuesday

Don’t mind me. I’ll just be in this corner, my face to the wall, frothing at the mouth and talking to myself. Because holy hell in a handbag, what is this country that on paper is mine?

A young man killed himself on Sunday night. Yesterday, while thousands (I live in hope that there are more zeroes to add to that number) mourned and raged that he’d been driven to suicide, government authorities secretly cremated his body. Why? Because they didn’t want a “law and order” situation. Never mind the fact that this man wouldn’t have killed himself if the government hadn’t made a mockery of the idea of law and enforced an order that privileges spinelessness and is repressive, exploitative and prejudiced. Continue reading “Get-it-off-your-chest Tuesday”

Happy New Year

At precisely one minute to midnight, on New Year’s Eve, this song starts to resound in the street:

And so, at midnight, all you can hear is a slurred but enthusiastic group chorus chanting the song’s refrain, which roughly translates to:

Don’t let it be morning
Let’s not part
Let’s stave off sleep
You’re my hero. 

As a side note, this song was being sung by clients to two gentlemen who had, after being laid off, become strippers. In a country that’s frequently whooping about its economic awesomeness while biting its nails in secret, this is a rather poignant song for 2015’s New Year’s eve if you think about it in the context of the film.

But the economy wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when this musical gem started pounding its way out of the speakers. My point is a little more semantic. If you don’t want the morning to come at a party to celebrate the advent of the New Year, then there isn’t really any point to the party, is there? Shouldn’t you be asking the morning to hurry up and get here already? Isn’t the basic function of New Year’s eve to boot out the old year, rather than declare it one’s hero as embodied by shirtless Akshay Kumar and John Abraham? Not that I’m much of a pro at partying, but it seems to me that on New Year’s eve, the motto should be “Subha hone de” (“Please let it be morning”) rather than “Subha hone na de” (“Don’t let it be morning”).

So confusing.

My visiting Swiss hobbit made a rather pertinent point though: On New Year’s eve, you don’t want the morning (read: hangover) to come. What you — or at least those who do this sort of bopping and chanting business — want is for the post-midnight night to continue.

This logically sort of makes sense, though it still means you’re saying you don’t really want the New Year to come.

Is it very obvious that we were sober?

Happy new year.

Aphro city

At 2am, this neighbourhood is finally quiet, quiet enough for me to be able to hear the dull, muted clatter of my fingertips hitting the keyboard. Of course, this being Bombay, it’s not really dark. There are windows the colour of blue-white neon pricking the night. Some places have stars, Bombay has sleepless citizens.

My room, unlike the ones that are making sure night and darkness remain separated, isn’t lit. I’m sitting on my bed, without a light on, with only the glow of the screen before me, reading old love letters.

Continue reading “Aphro city”

“First, stomach.”

Notes from a talk by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, about food and the philosophy it contained in ancient Hindu India at Tata Lit Live:

Food is divine.

What is ancient India? When does it begin? One thing could be, before we ate potatoes because potatoes came with the Portuguese. … Tomato, chilli, so imagine India without samosa. The samosa came with the Turkish people. Samosa was actually packed with meat. But the Indians said we want something Indian inside it. Called a potato.

Everything that comes into India, it’s invented in India. … It reveals a very fragile self esteem.

Continue reading ““First, stomach.””

Hello world

It’s been so long since I clicked on the button to add a new post that I feel like I should just write “Hello world!”, like the default first post that WordPress puts up for a new blog. On the plus side, here I am, only eight months after the last post. They’ve been eventful months and at some point in the future, when I need to remember that show I saw in June 2014 or September 2015, I will curse myself into a tiny pile of ashes for not having blogged. Because obviously, I will not remember anything other than the fact that there was something memorable. Logamnesia, ahoy!

Continue reading “Hello world”

Mr. Turner

Early on in Mr. Turner, the painter’s father goes to buy paints for his son. There, he enquires after the cost of the ultramarine. The shop owner says that he has the best price and the best pigment. The ultramarine comes from far away Afghanistan, says the shop owner. The senior Mr. Turner buys some and also asks for some Indian red and some chrome yellow.

And with that little, insignificant detail, the colonies imprint themselves upon the work of an artist who is considered an epitome of British art. Ultramarine came from Afghanistan because it was obtained from lapis lazuli. Indian red was called that because it was made of natural iron oxide from deposits near Madras. These colours show up in so many of JMW Turner’s paintings. As I was watching the film and its glorious shots of the English countryside — many of which were supposed to remind the viewer of specific paintings — I kept thinking about the pigments from the colonies that would render that British-ness on canvas.

Continue reading “Mr. Turner”

Enter Tragica

A new year is upon us, yet again, but if you think that this is just another arbitrary event in the lunar cycle, rid yourself of such cynicism. As anyone who has been following the news knows, ever since India’s landmark general elections last year, the Big Brother of South Asia has voted for change and progress. At the start of 2015, we no doubt stand on the brink of sweeping transformations that will sweep away all traces of the Third World country that India once was. We will enter a glorious era of VPNs, vegetarianism and voracious development. So lest we forget where we came from, here is a humble request: let us build a monument that will remind generations of all that makes up India today. Let us build TRAGICA, a Third World-themed, Indian amusement park.

Continue reading “Enter Tragica”

Ravi Varma Remixed

I made most of these years ago — before I knew of “memes” and what not — and someone reminded me of them recently. Ravi Varma, popularly known as Raja Ravi Varma, is the grandaddy of Indian kitsch and calendar art. His paintings were once extremely popular in India but as you might be able to tell from what’s below, his art is not what you’d describe as timeless.

It took me forever to find these and I was pretty sure that they wouldn’t be half as funny as I remembered them to be, but they’re actually not bad. I’m glad my taste in fonts has improved though.

Continue reading “Ravi Varma Remixed”

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