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PLEASE READ THE COMMENTS. THIS IS THE RANT OF A PARANOID.

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?

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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

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2 thoughts on “A City Museum

  1. Hello! Let me begin by saying that I love your blog and have been reading it off and on for a while now. I appreciate the fact that you love the museum but may I point out that the exhibits you have referred to were infact created during the colonial era. It’s a study in the British efforts to understand India ethnographically and anthropologically. There is a reason you see dominance of one religion in the exhibits – the one that was most ‘exotic’ and ‘foreign’ to those British officials in charge of India.

    The Museum offers free curatorial tour on weekends between 11:30-12:30 (English) & 12:30-1:30 (Hindi/Marathi) and you will see how differently you have interpreted the display here.

    • Thank you for leaving this comment. Someone else went and sussed out this whole matter, and arrived at the same conclusion. I’m very grateful to know I’ve been paranoid and entirely wrong (though I will admit that my paranoid self is still wondering about the exhibits I mentioned being freshly painted and the timing of their being brought out of storage).

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