Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, 60
Till a decade ago, Mumbai’s oldest museum, Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, lay forgotten in the Victorian greens of Byculla, Mumbai, completely hidden from the art scene. Today, thanks to Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, it holds its head high, like the monolithic basalt elephant — once at the gates of the Elephanta — at its entrance. The carved doors open into imposing interiors with Palladian columns and richly painted ceilings, reflecting the green that envelops the museum — the colour chosen by Mehta to dress the space.
Every artefact on display is hand-picked and gives the 19th-century museum a new face. It merged the past with the present, the colonial with the contemporary. “We want to showcase contemporary culture the way the museum did earlier,” says Mehta, the managing trustee and honorary director of the museum, who reopened it after extensive research and renovation in 2008. The project was a public-private venture funded by the Ermenegildo Zegna Group. Soon, artists were invited to showcase their works. Sudarshan Shetty erected his own life-size statue next to the marble statue of Prince Albert and Jitish Kallat presented the city as an unfinished national project with makeshift scaffolding and rioting figures. “It’s about creating a dialogue between the museum and the city,” says Mehta, a JJ School of Art graduate.
She went on to pursue a degree in liberal arts from Columbia University, which was followed by a post-graduate diploma in modern art from Christie’s and a PhD on the establishment of museums and schools of art from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She has been working in the field of art ever since. Among other things, she was the governor of the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority Heritage Society and the vice-chairman of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).
In the six years since the reopening of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, there has never been a dull moment. “Curating is also a form of art, which, unfortunately, is not understood in India,” says Mehta. The biggest challenge, though, is interacting with the artists. “Artists can be very possessive about their work,” says Mehta.
Having learnt the fine art of maintaining a distance, and yet being involved, she makes active interventions in most projects at the museum. For instance, in Kallat’s 2011 exhibition, Fieldnotes: Tomorrow was Here Yesterday, the boxes that housed miniature resin figurines came from Mehta’s office. “He wanted them on the floor,” she says. Kallat yielded to her idea when she showed him a box they had. She has also worked closely with his wife Reena, who designed continued…