Mumbai has been the subject of so much art and literature that you might wonder if anything is left to be said about it. From the books of Rohinton Mistry to the cinema of Ram Gopal Varma, the city lends itself to countless portrayals and discussions. Is there another exciting and unique way of looking at it?
In Mumbai: A City Through Objects—101 Stories from the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, editor Tasneem Zakaria Mehta attempts to do just that. Mehta is no stranger to the museum—she was involved with the restoration project in the 2000s.
The book was released to honour the museum itself, the contributions of those who were instrumental in its building, and, of course, the artifacts that find a home there. Originally called the Victoria and Albert Museum, it opened in the 19th century, and a massive restoration project was undertaken in the early 21st century. Through the history of the museum, the book also aims to write the city’s history.
“The idea of reading the history of the city through the objects in the museum was inspired by former director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor’s remarkable book, A History of the World in 100 Objects,” says Mehta. “But we differ in that we have tried to tell the story of not only the city, but also the museum, through the objects, albeit from a post-colonial perspective.”
It is no mean task. Mumbai has a rich, diverse and intense history, right from its days of commercial power in the 1900s to its cultural values today. Yet, the objects described give us some sense of how the city has grown and developed. The book pays tribute to the people who live or have moved here (Mumbai is the quintessential immigrant city, after all), the diverse wildlife, as well as the trade it has seen thanks to being a port city.
The book shares maps and artwork to show what Mumbai looked like in the 18th and 19th centuries—vastly different from the bustling metropolis we now know it to be. With each artefact is a write-up sharing the piece’s history and how it has changed since its inception. The book also gives us a brief history of Dr. Bhau Daji Lad, Juggannath Sunkersett, and George Birdwood, the men behind the museum.
In light of various civic issues that we talk about in context of a busy and crowded metropolis, the anecdote about Florence Nightingale being instrumental in ensuring the city had a hygienic drainage system—despite never visiting Bombay—becomes a fascinating one.
Other iconic individuals too find mention, like Jewish leader David Sassoon, whose family owned textile mills, and Parsi merchant Jamshetjee Jeejeebhoy.
Apart from this, the area’s natural history and the evolution of industrial arts find space in the book, in addition to the paintings of Raja Ravi Varma, early modern paintings, and contemporary art.
The final section of the book explores those artists who have collaborated with the museum to showcase their work, including Nalini Malani, Sudarshan Shetty, Atul Dodiya and Reena Kallat.
When some of the classical paintings with religious undertones found in the book are seen in the context of the contemporary artists showcased, it gives the reader a fair idea of how the arts in India have evolved over the centuries.
This book is a glorious celebration of both the museum and the city. Each object that is written about has a deep history, and leaves you wanting to know and learn more. While this book is a great way to get readers to want to visit the museum, it also sparks curiosity about the many-layered tales of the city itself.
Mumbai-based Shreemayee Das writes on entertainment, education, and relationships.