The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is in the process of taking administrative control of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum from its current trustees in September. Its managing trustee and honorary director, Tasneem Mehta, speaks to Sadaf Modak about why art & culture institutions should function autonomously.
The BMC claims its agreement with the trustees of the museum comes to an end in September this year, after which it will take control of the administrative operations of the museum while you maintain that the agreement remains valid beyond this year. Can you elaborate on this issue?
The BMC says that the 15-year agreement with the current trustees, Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and Jamnalal Bajaj Foundation, ends in September 2019. It is considering the date of the agreement to be effective from 2004 when the heritage committee gave us permission to start the restoration. That is the date they have arbitrarily taken, even though there is no such mention in the agreement. According to us, the agreement mentions that it will be in effect from the time that the complete restoration and revitalisation of the museum is done. We, the expert trustees, donor trustees and myself, had made an assumption on the basis of trust with the BMC because the scope of the work had substantially increased that the 15-year agreement would commence from the date the museum opened in January 2008. Even if one has to take the principle adopted by the BMC, it would have to take into consideration the fact that the heritage committee granted permission for restoration of the special exhibitions gallery, the education centre, café and shop, the Bandmasters cottage in 2012, and hence the 15-year agreement will end in 2027. They are only taking into consideration the restoration of the main museum building, while there were provisions in the agreement as well as subsequent resolutions regarding the restoration of other infrastructure. Whether it is 2023 or 2027, it is still not 2019.
How do you think these differences with the BMC can be resolved?
There is a disagreement about the date. We need to sit down and talk about it. The agreement also clearly states that there is an option of extending it by another 15 years. The agreement also had a clause for dispute resolution stating that if there is a dispute, the BMC commissioner, donor trustee and I as the managing trustee, will sit down and resolve the dispute. If not, then we can agree on arbitration. Even then if a party is dissatisfied, then there is the legal recourse. Nobody is running the museum in an arbitrary manner. It is being done in the way the processes were laid out by the civic body. If there is something that the BMC feels should be revised, there should be a discussion, a board meeting as to what is that we are doing that they are not happy with. We had a good relationship with the municipal corporation and it was only in 2014 when we presented the expansion plan, which would have been game-changing for the city, that these problems began. We are a little bit in the dark as to why have they suddenly decided this and what went wrong even though we have created a very successful museum.
The BMC has drafted a proposal to have a seven-member committee including historians, curators, members of the heritage committee as well as a deputy municipal commissioner and a civil engineer to be in control of the museum. What are your thoughts about this proposal?
A museum cannot be run by a committee. A committee is a euphemism for deflecting responsibility. A committee cannot run institutions, you need leadership. one person has to make decisions. Of course, the person works in concert with everybody else but one person has to execute. The paradigm of having a committee run the museum has failed in the past. It was being run by the deputy municipal commissioner before but it was in a very poor condition and that is why we were brought in.
The bigger issue here is the larger context of institutions. The government can veto, but the functioning of such art and culture institutions is autonomous. That is also the reason we have been successful, because there is a respect of the expertise. If the government has to start telling a pilot how to fly a plane, that plane is going to crash. You don’t have the expertise to fly a plane, you don’t have the expertise on how to run a museum. You do have to concede that there are people who have this expertise, who are acknowledged experts. What we are interested in is to preserve the paradigm as this is a very successful institution.
What effect will these differences have on the museum?
We feel that we have just really begun, that the museum has just begun to flourish. It is now that we can really build on what we have been doing. It has taken 8-10 years to build the institution. It is not about keeping control, but about respecting an agreement. It is not a power struggle as is being painted. The trustees are all experts in their fields; we have not exploited the institutions for our gains. If the BMC does not respect the terms of the agreement, nobody will want to donate for cultural activities to government institutions. For now, we are awaiting a response from the BMC on a letter we have sent them on its decision but it doesn’t mean that the working of the museum will hinder in anyway.
What are the plans for the museum for the next few months?
We will continue with the exhibitions that have been planned and the educational programmes including a course in Modern & Contemporary Indian Art & Curatorial Studies which we began eight years ago. It covers the theoretical and critical study of the history of Indian Art from 1850 to the present and is a one of a kind course in the city. We also have walkthroughs in English, Hindi and Marathi along with newsletters, to make the museum more accessible for all. We also keep endeavouring to showcase indigenous cultures.