Mumbai Multiplex | Open culture
Six years ago, it was a relic, hoarding relics. How did the city’s biggest museum transform into a museological role model?
Last week, when dancer Astad Deboo performed a piece inspired by the paintings of Mohan Samant at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), scaling the small space of the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation gallery at the museum with his signature precision, agility and grace, the audience unwittingly witnessed a moment of the city’s cultural resurgence.
In over six years of restoration, collaborations and the opening up of doors to artists and citizens, the CSMVS, or the Prince of Wales Museum, has become an example of how a museum can adapt to a world used to consuming culture in digital capsules, without losing its local relevance. And last week it was hosting one of the city’s most gifted practitioners of contemporary dance, whose performances usually premiere outside of Mumbai, or even India. For as long as he has been performing, Deboo has been talking about the need for spaces like this in his hometown, where contemporary dance gets audiences, from where traditional definitions of dance can be shattered.
The CSMVS is Mumbai’s biggest cultural catalyst in a very long time. Its calendar is packed, and through the week, people who work in the area, domestic and foreign tourists, and students walk leisurely through its newly resplendent foyer and corridors, 12 galleries, including the refurbished sculpture room, and every gleaming nook and cranny.
Unlike most public structures in India, the CSMVS’ restored architecture and structure, its garden, two cafés and the museum shop are friendly to the differently abled—the two levels of the building have wheelchair ramps.
At the Premchand Roychand Gallery exhibiting the show Flemish Masterpieces From Antwerp, including works by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, David Teniers II and Jacob Jordaens, spotlights illuminate the amazingly lifelike portraits, still life and lustrous landscapes. Despite the sense of familiarity this show evokes—aren’t all colonial nations used to classical European-style portraits and landscapes?—it is mesmerizing and one that the museum’s 48-year-old director general, Sabyasachi Mukherjee, has enough reason to host. “I am happy that everybody in Mumbai can walk into their local museum and see a Rubens painting,” he says.
Mukherjee studied archaeology and museology at the MS University of Baroda and worked for a few years at the CSMVS, Mumbai’s oldest museum, designed by the British architect George Wittet. The museum, which opened in 1922 and has always been managed by a trust, has amassed a collection of rare manuscripts, sculptures and statues. By the 1980s, when museums around the world were trying to re-evaluate the role of a public museum, the CSMVS had become a heritage site—and a piece of history.
In the early 2000s, there was a dialogue with the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum, London, on restoration. The summer 2005 issue of the Victoria and Albert Conservation Journal says: “Partly as a result of this first visit in 2002, the POWM and the V&A entered into an official partnership in 2003 which acknowledged the important symbiotic relationship of the two institutions with a view to sharing both professional expertise and collections in the future. In 2003 Mr Sabyasachi Mukherjee spent three months as an intern at the V&A in the Asian Department and in the Paper Conservation Section. As well as improving his knowledge of conservation, he attended lectures in the Museum and shadowed several senior members of the curatorial staff. During this time he worked in close liaison with the head of collections, Debby Swallow, who helped to arrange suitable contacts and visits.”
In 2007, after joining the museum as director general, he set in motion an elaborate plan involving conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah for the physical restoration of the mammoth structure built in the revivalist Indo-Saracenic style, a synthesis of Muslim design and Indian material developed by British architects in late 19th century India. The Museum Grant Scheme of the Union ministry of culture allocated Rs.23 crore in 2008 to Mukherjee and his team of 250 curators, conservationists and administrators.
According to Mukherjee, there has been “a 25% rise in the number of visitors in the past six years, and the number of local visitors went up from 11% to 48% in 2013”. School trips from neighbouring towns and villages to the museum have increased considerably in the past five years.
The “mummy exhibition” of 2012 was the blockbuster, although the museum’s turnaround as a vibrant cultural space has been obvious since 2008. In 2008, it hosted Indian Life And Landscape by Western Artists, in collaboration with the V&A Museum. This was followed by the shows Musical Heritage of India in 2010 and Treasures of Ancient China in 2011, which displayed the “terracotta warriors”—an ancient collection of funerary sculptures depicting the armies of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. Mummy: The Inside Story, which the British Museum, London, and CSMVS jointly presented in 2012-13, attracted millions of visitors. “One of the main attractions of the show was a 3D film on the 3,000-year-old mummy of an Egyptian temple priest Nesperennub, but it was really the curiosity to see what a mummy could look like that got people in—‘There’s a mummy in town, let’s go see it’,” Mukherjee says.
Treasures from the museum’s collection have been displayed at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), University of London, and Europalia, an arts festival in Belgium.
Currently, besides the Flemish masters, the CSMVS is hosting The Cyrus Cylinder And Ancient Persia: A New Beginning, which has travelled from the British Museum. This clay cylinder, inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, has been variously described—including as “the first charter of human rights”—and has special significance for Zoroastrians around the world. While Mukherjee takes me on a tour of this show, a visitor thanks him, saying, “I am a Parsi and I couldn’t have otherwise seen the Cylinder.”
Anupam Sah, the CSMVS’ chief art conservation consultant, heads the new conservation department at the museum, and his team put in years of work to restore the Anvar-i-Suhayli, a manuscript of Panchatantra stories commissioned by Mughal emperor Akbar in the 16th century. The CSMVS is helping conserve objects for the governor’s house and the David Sassoon Library, a city architectural and artistic legend. Mukherjee calls the conservatory, which he invited Sah to head in 2009, the museum’s “hospital”.
“Money comes with great ideas,” Mukherjee says, explaining how uncomplicated it was to get the government grant. And he is still nurturing a great idea: Demystify high culture, make it open, accessible and enjoyable.
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The Alice Boner Collection from Rietberg Museum, Zurich
Alice Boner was a sculptor and painter of Swiss parentage. In 1935, after watching the ballet troupe of Uday Shankar perform, she became fascinated by Indian dance forms and sculpture and emigrated to India. She was an Indologist who documented the Indian arts in her work. This collection, which has a variety of statues and sculptures from her youth, will open in November.
This collection, featuring paintings from the Bank of America Collection, will open in early 2015. It will display the work of prominent American artists such as George Bellows, George Inness, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, Lilla Cabot Perry and Julian Alden Weir.
Click here for details of shows and events at the CSMVS.
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