Mumbai is visited by lakhs of tourists every year but it does not have a single museum that can give them – or us residents – a sense of the state’s incredible history. This makes the recently opened museum on the Samyukta Maharashtra movement an important milestone for the city. If only the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation had used the opportunity more wisely. Instead, the museum presents a skewed history and is not even accessible to visitors who don’t understand Marathi।
The Samyukta Maharashtra movement was responsible for the creation of the state of Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital, in 1960. The evolution of the movement debunks the idea of the Marathi manoos as a parochial Hindutva-type – a cliché pushed by right-wing parties – and testifies to the pluralistic ethos of Marathi culture. The movement was made up of Marathi-speaking Christians from Vasai, Muslims, South Indians and several minority groups. The remarkable participation of women and the working class and participation of activists across party lines were also important features.
The BMC could have showcased this powerful message through the new museum in the Veer Savarkar Sankul near the Mayor’s bungalow at Shivaji Park. But under the Shiv Sena – its chief Bal Thackeray laid the foundation and his son Uddhav inaugurated the museum – the BMC has created a shoddy exhibition that does little justice to a remarkable history that every Mumbaiite should be proud of. It only serves the Sena’s aspirations to capture the city’s history.
The Shiv Sena adulation is also palpable in other ways. Amongst the photographs of Comrade Dange, GL and Tara Reddy, SM Joshi, Mrinal Gore, Ahilya Ranganekar and Malini Tulpule, leaders who fought, protested, and went to jail during the movement, there are two huge portraits of Bal Thackerey and his brother Shrikant Thackeray (Raj Thackeray’s father) who did not play a big role in the movement.
The museum runs over three floors. On the first level, the history of the movement is chronologically narrated along with the photographs. The basement displays oil paintings of various leaders who participated in the struggle. The second level has a strange mix of aerial photographs of various forts in the state and of places in Mumbai, an exhibition that appears to be about the modern imagination of Shivaji’s Maharashtra. One positive aspect is that the displays invoke the memory of leaders like Bapusaheb Raut, Krishnarao Dhulap and Dadasaheb Gaikwad who are now almost forgotten. It also reminds the visitor of the role that Shahir Amar Sheikh’s povadas(energetic folk ballads) played in the movement.
But otherwise the museum lacks imagination and curatorial insight. There are random artefacts that have nothing to do with the movement. A small piece of stone from the moon certified by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is kept on display apparently because SK Patil, a staunch opponent of the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, had said that as long as there is a moon and a sun in the sky Mumbai will not be part of Maharashtra. In some strange, convoluted way, this piece is supposed to disprove his statement.
Even a Marathi-reading person would find it difficult to handle the amount of textual information. The displays resemble pages from history books pasted on the walls; the text and visual information is screen printed and pasted on wooden-ply boards. One wonders how this appeals to the visual sensibility of the Thackerays, who pride themselves on being a family of painters and cartoonists.
With the BMC elections coming up, no doubt the Shiv Sena is hungry for quick wins – the museum was supposed to be completed last year for the fiftieth anniversary of the movement. But laying claim to history is not as easy as changing the name of Prince of Wales museum to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya