The white, intricately carved pillars of Mumbai’s oldest museum stood tall along its meticulously restored façade. The walls, a dusty emerald green until three years ago, were now celadon green—a pale, yellowish green which, I later discovered, was picked by the restorers after consultations with various European museums. Two streaming satin insignias hanging along the length of the structure announced the spiffy new avatar of the Bhau Daji Lad museum as I entered the Rani Jijamata Udyan in Byculla—my third visit in 10 years.
Green zone: (top) Gold stencil work and synthetic colours restored the museum’s ceiling and staircase; it is scheduled to open on 6 January. (Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint)
The museum used to be decrepit and in negligent hands. But this time around, even on a sunny afternoon, the circular area next to the entrance, where the Bhau Daji Lad Museum has stood since 1855, was bustling. Cars jostled for space in the parking area; curious passers-by interrogated workers outside the museum’s majestic doors; the clock tower at the entrance looked spruced up, and the clock was ticking.
But later, after I bought the Rs5 ticket (the price hasn’t changed in 10 years) for a tour inside the zoo and garden, the old Rani Bagh (the other, more popular name for the Rani Jijamata Udyan) caught up. It was a much-needed catching up. This 53-acre green retreat, located at the heart of central Mumbai, is full of clean, crisp air that we suburban mice crave.
A few minutes into the walk, and I realized that Rani Bagh has aged considerably. The cages in Mumbai’s only zoo were rusty; the female lion looked feeble and downcast. Old men and young couples, either napping or enjoying their privacy, spent the afternoon perched on stone benches. The government offices inside—that of the municipal corporation’s garden superintendent, the tree authority and zoo authority—were quiet and underpopulated. The yet-to-be-opened museum and its milieu suddenly seemed a world apart from the garden’s ageing animals and leafy lanes. Rani Bagh had become a unique space in the city, where art and heritage met pristine nature. But, as I discovered, it might not remain so for very long. More on that later.
My first stop was, of course, the museum. Restored by the joint efforts of Intach (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) and MCGM (Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai), it was ready to be unveiled in February 2007. The person at the driver’s seat, any journalist in Mumbai would tell you, is Tasneem Mehta, convenor of the Mumbai chapter of Intach. She envisioned the project, stubbornly stuck to her ideas despite dilly-dallying government officials and corporate indifference, witnessed its culmination after the Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation pitched in Rs4 crore, and now waits for the right date when the who’s who of Mumbai and the President of India would be able to make it for a grand inauguration.
“We went on a research tour of European museums before deciding on the raw materials and the new design. This museum was originally built in Palladian design prevalent in Europe at that time. We had to change things here and there to infuse a modern sensibility,” she said. Mehta’s future plans include, with the Rs5 crore more that the foundation has promised, “to transform some of the surrounding garden area into a platform for discourse on the arts, a café and additions to the library and audio-visual facility already inside the museum.”
A tour with the museum’s curator and Marshal Sequeira, the artist who replicated the original stencil work on the ceiling in gold and synthetic colours, revealed the brilliantly executed transformation. Every glass case, every figurine, every wall corner and pillar and the entire ceiling and staircases were recreated in four years. Said Sequeira, who belongs to the fifth generation of a family of carvers and painters from Vasai, a Mumbai suburb, “This was the toughest job I have done so far. The designs in the ceiling were intricate and I had to use gold and other materials over them. It took more than nine months.” For a Rs10 entry ticket, the Bhau Daji Lad Museum is the kind of heritage spot that the city needed for tourists and locals.
A high footfall is ensured, of course, because of the adjacent zoo. An average of 8,000 people visit the garden-cum-zoo of Rani Bagh every day, the superintendent’s office told me when I stopped over after an hour’s walk through the ancient baobabs and banyans, the kusums and the teevars. On the way, I paused to talk to workers who have been taking care of these trees for years. “Many people who come here work nearby and they know every bend and corner. They come to relax, lie on the gardens or take afternoon naps,” one of them told me, as I was trying to figure out why the arrow pointing to the lions’ cages had directed me to the twittering military macaws. For the 48-acre area that covers the zoo, there are roughly five signposts, so you pretty much have to navigate the space alone. Of course, that’s one of Rani Bagh’s charms.
Back at the office, I was shown its proposed future. In July, MCGM invited the Thailand-based design firm HKS Designer and the US-based Portico Group to prepare a master plan for a complete revamp of the zoo. The Rs433 crore plan, now with the Central Zoo Authority for approval, if executed, will transform the Mumbai zoo into what the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation authorities describe in various words: “a nature interpretation centre”; “a zoo of international standards”; “a safari and wildlife conservation centre”.
The public relations office of the zoo authorities is tucked away in an isolated corner of the garden, where I got to see the blueprint of the revamp plan. Three geographically marked areas are to be created—the Australia zone, the Asia zone and the Africa zone—according to the kind of animals living in each area. Strategic viewing areas, sealed by glass, are to constructed. An auditorium at the entrance, opposite the Bhau Daji Lad, would screen a film on life inside the zoo.
Quite predictably and thankfully, an environmental group, Save Rani Bagh Action Committee, is already opposing the plan. Imagine a “discourse on the arts” at the museum foyer being interrupted by tourists headed for an artificially created safari. Is that the Rani Bagh we want to come back to?
The Jijamata Udyan, Byculla, is open from 9am to 6pm.