Mumbai, as one approaches it from Wellington Pier through the Gateway of India, is a study in contrasting and harmonious architectural styles. The triumphal arch constructed of basalt on the edge of the Arabian Sea was designed in the Indo-Saracenic style to commemorate the landing of George V, and a minute’s walk from the Gateway is the majestic dome of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), formerly Prince of Wales Museum, built in a similar style.
The CSMVS, which is celebrating its centenary this year, stands on an elegant semi-circular plot, the aptly named Crescent Site. Blooming amid the urban sprawl, it is constructed with locally quarried grey Kurla basalt set off against the buff trachyte Malad stone. With a beautifully laid-out garden, it is a Grade I heritage building set like a “jewel on the crescent”, as Sabysachi Mukherjee, director general of the museum since 2008, puts it. Awarded the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010, the CSMVS is now being restored for the first time since its inauguration under the supervision of conservation architect Vikas Dilawari.
Says Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum and art historian, “Why is the CSMVS so special?It is a world set in its own beautiful garden — a museum to enthral children and grown-ups, residents and tourists.Is there another museum where you can walk so easily from the Indus Valley and an edict of Ashoka, through great Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sculptures, past Indian miniatures and ancient Assyrian reliefs, Chinese ceramics and Japanese carvings to European paintings and the art of modern India?If there is, I don’t know it.”
George Wittet, consulting architect to the Bombay government who constructed the museum, changed the contours of Mumbai’s skyline by introducing the Indo-Saracenic style in a city defined byGothic Revival. Indo-Saracenic blends Hindu and Islamic styles with Western architecture: the museum’s immense dome harks back to the Gol Gumbaz of Bijapur, Karnataka.
Among the top three
Inside the museum, the vaulting dome rises above the vast hall. The huge intersecting arches, the small jalis for light and breeze, and Wittet’s clever incorporation of a wooden arched pavilion originally belonging to a wada in Nasik as a circular railing on the first floor, add grandeur to this three-storied building completed in 1914. The museum’s holdings of about 70,000 objects and artefacts are categorised under five major sections: Indian Art, Indian Miniature and Manuscript, Archaeology, Non-Indian Art and Antiquities, and Natural History.
Art historian Pratapaditya Pal, who was associated with the CSMVS for over half a century before it was rechristened, calls it “one of the most active cultural and educational institutions among museums in South Asia.” He says, “The collection has its shortcomings in some areas of Indian art (which can be easily rectified), but it ranks among the top three museums in the country. In some ways, it excels other museums for the diversity of its collection, with art from other countries and cultures of the world. One might say that while the trustees looked backwards while renaming the institution, Sabyasachi looked forward in ‘internationalising’ the museum’s programme.”
The CSMVS stands in contrast to Kolkata’s Indian Museum, older than it and with a priceless collection but racked by politicking and neglect that have adversely affected its display, while the former is a palpably living entity that reaches out to Mumbaikars — promoting a dialogue between the past and the present.
To its great advantage, the CSMVS has been autonomous since its inception, unlike museums run by the government. It was the brainchild of prominent citizens of Bombay, who came together in 1905 to erect a memorial to the visit of the Prince of Wales (later King George V) in the form of a public museum. The government agreed to the proposal and provided the land, on condition that the Bombay citizens create an autonomous body and undertake the responsibility of running it. The museum was established with public contribution aided by the Government of Bombay Presidency.
Today, funds are raised from gate collections and rent from property, in addition to contributions from hundreds of individual donors as well as support from corporates. The CSMVS gets an annual grant of ₹50,000 from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. It has a separate fund for art acquisition and spends ₹15-20 lakh annually on an average, although there is no fixed budget. For the last six-seven years, the focus has been on traditional and tribal art and crafts.
Even the 16-month lockdown and the scaling down of its centenary celebrations to a hybrid event on January 10 have not been able to dampen the spirit of the museum authorities. Saryu Doshi, art historian and chief guest at the event, said in her address: “Mr. Mukherjee aims to transform this museum — already anacknowledged leadinginstitution in the country — into a world-class visitor space with international partnership… above all, [into] an institution which promotes young talent.”
Thanks to great scholars like Dr. Moti Chandra, who headed the museum from 1952 to 1974, and noted art historian Karl Jamshed Khandalavala, chairman of the board of trustees from 1958 to 1994, the CSMVS inherited a legacy of studying its collection. Every year, the museum publishes world-class research journals, books and catalogues. Its art conservation centre, established in 2008, is gradually being acknowledged globally as an upcoming premier facility for heritage conservation, research and training.
In 2015, the CSMVS launched ‘Museum on Wheels’, an initiative designed to reach audiences beyond the museum. The project has two air-conditioned buses that take exhibitions, curated from the CSMVS’ collection of antiquities and selected keeping in mind school curricula, to rural areas. The children’s museum opened in 2019. The museum space becomes community space after 6 p.m., when the museum closes, with lectures, demonstrations and cultural events held in the auditorium.
Poet and curator Ranjit Hoskote says that under Mukherjee’s leadership, the CSMVS has “played a pivotal role in Mumbai’s cultural scene. Its mandate is to reach out to an expanding public through several means… and it offers a rich and diverse programme throughout the year.”
Mukherjee says: “A museum is not merely a repository of art and antiquity but also a centre of learning... Even as the CSMVS has evolved and grown in popularity over time, it has also become accountable to the different communities living in the city.”
The writer focuses on Kolkata’s vanishing heritage and culture.