Museum Stories~II

In 1914 Europe was embroiled in a war whose horrors would be felt for years. Far from the brutalities of war in the southern tip of the port-city of Bombay (now Mumbai), near the Gateway of India, construction was completed of a magnificent building whose foundation stone was laid earlier in 1905.

Museum Stories~II

Photos courtesy: CSMVS Mumbai, MMCF Udaipur.

In 1914 Europe was embroiled in a war whose horrors would be felt for years. Far from the brutalities of war in the southern tip of the port-city of Bombay (now Mumbai), near the Gateway of India, construction was completed of a magnificent building whose foundation stone was laid earlier in 1905. During his visit to India, HRH the Prince of Wales had done the honours on 11 November, and the building was accordingly named as the ‘Prince of Wales Museum of Western India’.

As the war spread its gory tentacles, the new Museum building was used as a military hospital, and even named as the Lady Harding War Hospital. The building was once again used as a major hospital during the influenza pandemic between 1918 and 1920. It was on 10 January 1922 that the Prince of Wales Museum was formally opened to the public who could now be witness to the brilliance of objects of art and archaeological treasures through the generous gifts of Bombay’s elite and the acquisitions of the Museum.

The then Chairman of the Board of Trustees Mr. J.T. Brander, stated the purpose of the Museum: “It should be largely an institution or foundation for promoting research in all branches of science and knowledge and not only a museum of curiosities for the sightseer.” Undoubtedly the Museum was the brainchild of prominent citizens of the city; it was established through public contributions aided by the Government of the Bombay Presidency.


It was one of the successful models of community participation in the early 20th century, stated a commemorative volume. Said Dr Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the director general of the Museum (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya – CSMVS) at the helm for two decades, “In these last 100 years, our Museum has fulfilled its aim to create awareness and sensitivity towards our heritage through its acquisitions, collection research, a visitor-friendly experience for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. Particularly, in the last decade, the Museum has been transformed into a world-class visitor space.” It has been a long and productive journey indeed for CSMVS.

“Today, we are one of the most sought-after institutions known for best museum practices, international collaborations and trend-setting projects,” said the soft-spoken Dr Mukherjee, adding, “The Museum welcomes over a million visitors every year who experience a sense of joy, pride and understanding of human achievement when they stroll through our galleries and our beautiful heritage garden. When the pandemic was raging, CSMVS provided many joyful and enriching experiences to its audiences online.

We played our role in healing society.” CSMVS houses almost 70,000 artefacts and has outstanding collections. These comprise sculptures, terracottas, bronzes, excavated artefacts from Indus Valley sites, Indian miniature paintings, Indian decorative arts, European paintings and decorative arts, porcelain and ivories from China and Japan. The Museum has separate sections of Numismatics and Natural History. Through 2023 to 2024, the exhibition ‘Ancient Sculptures: India Egypt Assyria Greece Rome’ exemplifies the global and educational initiatives undertaken by CSMVS with the aim to bring great works of art from other cultures to Mumbai.

The CSMVS building itself symbolizes a unique quest for cultural unity: the monumental edifice is a combination of Hindu, Islamic and Western architectural forms. There is a big distinctive dome at the centre, with two smaller domes on either side. The large beautifullylaid garden complements the building. In his diary, the Scottish architect George Wittet, who was selected to design the building, wrote: “The Museum is an Indian composition. The real reason why it is so is because I was instructed that the design should be Indian in character.” Today, this building is listed as a Grade I Heritage Building and the recipient of the ‘2022 Award of Excellence of the UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation’.

The stories of conservation and preservation of living heritage emerging from The City Palace Museum, Udaipur are rooted in the equally challenging times of the 1960s and 1970s. The Museum, spread across the Mardana Mahal and Zenana Mahal built from the 1560s onwards, was once the seat of governance for the princely State of Udaipur, Mewar. Visitors today walk through the palaces and courtyards where once the Maharanas of Mewar lived, entertained their Royal guests, and conducted the administration of the State. It was the 75th Custodian of the House of Mewar, Maharana Bhagwat Singh who was instrumental in establishing the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation as a public charitable trust with a generous endowment and main portions of the City Palace of Udaipur as donation.

In his speech on 20 October 1969, he said, “The Main City Palace will be arranged as a museum with historical objects and paintings of the last 1400 years.” His stirring words remain a beacon of light for the Foundation, “All I possess is the sacred relics of my ancestors and I consider myself fortunate to be able to put this at the disposal of the people of India to draw inspiration and to serve selflessly.” He concluded that if this temple, the “Inspiration Centre of Self-Respect and Self-Reliance could inspire the people,” his ancestors would not have died in vain. Over six decades the City Palace Museum has grown in stature and substance. Its trustee, Dr Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar explained how the 16th century Amar Mahal was transformed into the Amar Mahal Gallery with the first-ever display of silver belonging to the former Royal Family.

“The ‘Splendour of Silver – reflecting the finest of silver smithy” has objects which are still in use. Like the silver palki of Thakur ji (our Lord) which is carried in a regal procession called ‘Ram Rewadi’ from the temple within The City Palace to Rameshwar Ghat at Lake Pichola,” he said, underscoring how the living heritage of Mewar is perpetuated, generation after generation. Dr Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar is building on platforms created by his illustrious grandfather Maharana Bhagwat Singh, and his father, Shriji Arvind Singh Mewar. For several of its programmes, this ‘living heritage’ of Mewar has merited the support of organisations like the Getty Foundation, UNESCO India Office, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Embassy of France in India, Domaine national de Chambord, France, ICOMOS and Indian Heritage Cities Network Foundation, and Oxford e-Research Centre, Oxford University.

The ‘Bhagwat Prakash Gallery’ exhibiting world-renowned Mewar miniature paintings, and the ‘Fateh Niwas Gallery’ housing the photography exhibition titled ‘Long Exposure: The Camera at Udaipur, 1857-1957’, give visitors memorable experiences in understanding court life and protocols in Mewar. Given the immense interest in textiles, designs, and Royal costumes, the ‘Gokul Niwas Gallery has provided a curtain-raiser to the exhibition ‘The Mewar Regalia, Textiles and Costumes’. Not only the costumes but their safekeeping in suitcases, even bills and catalogue registers which were maintained are showcased much to the amazement of visitors.

The Salehkhana gallery, dedicated to the arms and armouries of Mewar and Rajasthan, is a thematic display which brought experts from India and the UK together. The gallery displays various swords, daggers, guns, pistols, rifles, assegai spears, shields, maces, and axes from different time periods and from different parts of the world. For the first time in India, a private museum resourced an international firm, Plowden and Smith, for mounting and installation of objects which are a fount of stories. It is indeed awe-inspiring for visitors to know that Salehkhana was built by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1559 when the construction of the City Palace commenced. It is the oldest part of the City Palace and is now housing its newest gallery in the vast hall, with thick massive walls, large arches, and high ceiling. It was once a waiting room for Royal visitors, a place where they could deposit their arms before an audience with the Maharana was granted.

Museum officials point to a small recess, or a ‘Bha-kari’ in local dialect, where the attendants or ‘charnias’ would wait to collect the footwear of visitors, clean it, and keep it ready on their return. “As in the galleries dedicated to paintings, photographs and textiles, at the Salehkhana we have conserved and displayed historic weapons belonging to the Princely State of Udaipur, Mewar,” said Dr Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar, adding, “these have been donated to the City Palace Museum for visitors to see, marvel and learn.

Some of these weapons have been used in important battles. We think of these swords and arms as our partners in our long struggle for independence.” On International Museum Day, it is only befitting to lose oneself in fascinating stories about our museums; for that is where we find the real nuggets of history.

(The writer is an authorresearcher on history and heritage issues, and a former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalay)