3 reasons why the bdl tops as mumbai’s most lovely museum

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Do you like museums? I do. Not all of them though. Just those that stand out, whether it be in scale or the splendour of its exhibits, recount a tale which draws one within its folds, or is so darned quaint it looks like it stepped straight out from another world, another time.

I spent this past Sunday at one that fit the last bill.

One does not often relate Mumbai to museums. And when one does, it is invariably the grand Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya which comes to mind. The name itself is a mouthful as is its repertoire of treasures. But there is another that is just as inimitable, albeit in an altogether different way—reminiscent of a large Victorian doll house brimming with charm and pretty things. It is the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla.

Three things set the second one apart and place it firmly as Mumbai’s most lovely repository: Its restored stunning Victorian edifice, a bevy of vibrant clay models which transform the place into a magical fantasy, and its exquisite collection of decorative arts which showcase India’s rich heritage. Quite a heady mix!

Read on to know more. 🙂

Raison d’être 1: The Building—“Hall of Wonder”

It was the year 1850 and the Industrial Revolution was at its peak. Preparations were underway for the first “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” to be held in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851—the brainchild of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, to present industrial arts and crafts of Britain’s colonies to the world, and thereby promote their trade. This trend soon spread to other European countries. India, and in particular, the Bombay Presidency, as the jewel of the British Raj, was to be a key contributor to these collections.

Duplicates of the products sent were made and housed in the Town Barracks in 1855 under the alias Central Museum of Natural History, Economy, Geology, Industry and Arts. Three years later, when the Crown took over direct rule of India from the East India Company, it was decided the first important public building to be built would be a museum. It would house the collection at the Barracks and be dedicated to Queen Victoria.

The Queen expressed her desire to have her consort’s name added to the title, and hence Mumbai’s oldest museum, and the country’s third oldest, started off as the Victoria & Albert Museum, Bombay, in 1872, evocative of its namesake in London. It was renamed Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in 1975 in honour of the man most persuasive in raising funds for its construction.

Built in the Grand Renaissance Revival style, intended as a “Hall of Wonder,” the structure is a unique example of 19th Century architecture and Victorian England in India, filled with Corinthian capitals and columns, Minton tiled floors, wrought iron railings, and etched glass imported from England, and 23-carat gold gilding by Vasai artisans. By 1997, however, much of it had fallen into ruins.

What one sees today is the result of intensive research and meticulous conservation by INTACH experts stemming from a tripartite agreement between Mumbai’s Municipal Corporation, Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, and INTACH in February, 2003. The restoration project, five years in the making, was awarded the UNESCO Asia Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence for Conservation. Rightly so, as the below photographs reveal.

[Note: Click on any of the below images and it will start a slide show.]

Raison d’être 2: Miniature Clay Models of the People of Mumbai

Inside the museum’s celadon green walls filled with 23-carat gold gilded Corinthian pillars and elegant chandeliers is its extraordinary collection of miniature clay models and dioramas of the “Mumbaikar.” Extraordinary, for there is no other equivalent to this in thematic range or numbers anywhere else in the world, to the extent that the models are now almost synonymous with the museum.

The models and dioramas, made in the early 1900s, served a significant purpose. They were crafted to document the life and culture of late 19th Century up to early 20th Century Mumbai and its people in detail, not just as a source of reference for the British rulers, but also for the local populace to associate with.

Since the 16th Century, first on invitation by the East India Company and later on their own, Mumbai has been a melting pot of people from all over the country—and often as far away as Baghdad and Iran—each trying out their luck in the “maximum city.”

The first floor is dedicated to the celebration of Mumbai’s eclectic ethnicity: The Mumbaikars’ dresses, traditions, games, past-times, gods and goddesses, and occupations are recounted in vivid detail, amongst maps and ship models. Dioramas, meanwhile, highlight before and after scenarios in the British Raj’s effort to “educate” the Indians of the benefits of paved roads, welled water, and planned housing. In the ground floor, otherwise dedicated to the industrial arts, the clay models again sneak their way in. This time they demonstrate the production processes behind each art form.

E.R. Fern and C.L. Burns, the museum’s first curators, who were also principals of the Sir J.J. School of Art, brought in a clay modeller from Lucknow [who was assisted by the art students], to create these colourful portrayals on show and a world in themselves. As a result, in our everyday 21st Century we get to have a dekko into the life and people of Mumbai a 100 odd years ago. And to also realise, nothing much has changed.

[Note: Click on any of the below images and it will start a slide show.]

Raison d’être 3: India’s Fine and Decorative Arts Heritage

Like its namesake in London, the museum’s original collection, now in the Industrial Arts Gallery in the ground floor, comprises objets d’art. The copies of the exhibits sent to the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855 [though the term “copies” is a harsh one to use, for what is on display here are no less worthy in quality or appearance] cover the rich gamut of India’s heritage in decorative arts and design. But there is a twist, for the indigenous art styles display a strong European and Anglicised influence, both thematically and in form, to cater to their foreign market during that period.

Where does one start? Take for instance ivory carving which centred around Mysore and Trivandrum. The ivory figurines portray European faces, motifs, and flowing hair and robes to an “imaginary” breeze in line with European aesthetics. In sandal wood carving, likewise, Christian cannons guide the depiction of Hindu deities. A wonderful example is of Parvati and Ganesh standing akin to a Virgin Mary and Jesus.

And then there are the art products made from bison horn. In the allocated cabinet is a fantastical carved European lamp stand decorated with Indian embellishments: a cobra. Or the foot warmer in Bidri, an art style from Bidar in Karnataka, introduced from Persia in the 14th Century made for a wealthy patron. In Bidri, pure silver is inlaid against a black background made of zinc and copper to create delicate decorative patterns.

Some art products, nonetheless, retained their authenticity in form and style all the way taking the shape of generic jars and trinket boxes. These include enamelling, lac ware from Sind, Koftagiri in which silver and gold wire are inlaid in complex and intricate patterns, and miniature painting of the Indian Ragas, rightfully called Ragamala painting.

The above, I assure you, are just the tip of the industrial arts collection which brims over with each piece more exotic than the other, and once upon a time had collectively fed into Europe’s fascination for Orientalism.

[Note: Click on any of the below images and it will start a slide show.]

– – –

In conclusion, Dear Reader, three reasons to make sure you add Mumbai’s loveliest museum, the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, to your bucket list. I hope you are as enamoured by it as I was. ❤

Travel tips:

  • Address: Veer Mata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan [Rani Baug], 91/A, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Road, Byculla East, Mumbai.
  • Free public tours are conducted every weekend by a member of the curatorial team. No prior registration is required, enquire at the Ticket Counter for details or to sign-up. [Note: This is what I attended during my visit]
  • Timings for tours: Every Saturday and Sunday: 11:30 am – English; 12:30 pm – Hindi/ Marathi.
  • Museum timings: Thursday to Tuesday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm; Last ticket sold at 5:30 pm. Closed on Wednesdays and certain public holidays.
  • Ticket: INR 10 for Indians; INR 100 for foreigners.
  • Photography is allowed inside [without flash, and non-commercial].
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25 thoughts on “3 reasons why the bdl tops as mumbai’s most lovely museum

  1. Pingback: 3 reasons why the bdl tops as mumbai’s most lovely museum — rama arya’s blog – www.jgbsproducoes.com

  2. Pingback: 3 reasons why the bdl tops as mumbai’s most lovely museum — rama arya’s blog – Ökonomie2040

    • How wonderful to read another perspective on the museum! Thank you for sharing your post. 🙂 The public tours are fantastic. They are run by their curatorial team (our guide was an associate by the name of Komal), are free, have small groups, and last for an hour. Very insightful and great story telling. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as you can see from my post. 😀

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    • Hello Steve, please do! And if possible do take one of their free guided tours. It will help put things in context. It is a beautiful museum … And if you have time, try and also visit the sculpture gallery at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya or Prince of Wales Museum. It has a stunning collection. You could read about it here: https://ramaarya.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/csmvs-sculpture-gallery/

      Happy travels in Mumbai. The weather is lovely nowadays so it will be extra fun to explore the city and its many layers. 🙂

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  3. These are lovely pictures of a lovely place. A great article too! I wonder, have you ever been to the Great Pyramids in Egypt? That would be one heck of a trip. Seeing some of the ancient stonework there is on my bucket list, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

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