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Soon, a maritime museum in Mumbai

Friday, May 11, 2018

It is a matter of concern that an island city with as rich and complex a history as Mumbai does not have a maritime museum, says Ronita Torcato

For an island city with as rich and complex a history as Mumbai, it is a matter of concern that the urbs prima indis does not have a museum dedicated to its maritime heritage. Actually, there used to be one, several years ago, off the coast, on the Middle Ground Coastal Battery, a tiny anti-sea piracy islet which was fortified by the East India Company in 1641 and was accessible by boat only to the Navy (and till 2000, journos like... ahem, moi.)

When it was shut down in 2000, the exhibits were moved to Apollo Bunder on board the historic Vikrant, India's first aircraft carrier, which played a vital role in the 1971 War (and on which I'd sailed to Goa) and which the powers-that-be could not, did not save from extinction. A modest memorial  stands on a grassy knoll next to St Andrew's Church (Scots Kirk) sponsored by the Western Naval Command and created by the sculptor Arzan Khambatta from metal parts retrieved from the shipbreaking yard by Commodore Medioma Bhathena.

Across the road, and behind the Lion's Gate, in the Dockyard which dates way back to 1671, there is another Vikrant memento inside a small and beautiful museum. Managed by Commander Santosh Kumar, the museum has been out of bounds to the public following an explosion in 2015 but bona fide visitors can view the exhibits with special permission.

Bombay Local History Society (BLHS) members have benefited from three heritage walks conducted by the indefatigable Commander Mohan Narayan (Retd) who was the longest serving Curator of the Maritime History Society (MHS) from 2000 to 2015.

Eighteen of the 21 books on India’s maritime history and heritage published by the MHS were during Cmdr Narayan's watch. Some of these books have been authored by his successor, Commodore O Johnson, who lectured and orchestrated a fine exhibition at the David Sassoon Library during last year's Kala Ghoda Arts Fair. On Thursday, the MHS celebrated its 41st Founder Day with a Commemorative Lecture by Mumbai University's Dr Kurush Dalal on the Maritime Character and Journey of Mumbai.

Communications and Electronic Warfare specialist, Cdr Narayan remains actively engaged in the pursuit and promotion of maritime history and heritage and recently spoke at the Indian Merchants Chamber on the role of maritime museums in spotlighting oceanography, shipbuilding, navigation, classical sea voyages, ports and maritime trade.

Some of the city's loveliest heritage buildings and the oldest street lamps can be found in the vicinity of the naval museum at Lion's Gate.

Inside, the privileged visitor can see maps, photographs, memorabilia and artefacts like the Wheel which steered the mighty, 22,000 ton INS Vikrant, a magnetic compass from the yardcraft, models of ships from various eras, giant anchors, and from the gangway of the Dufferin mercantile marine training ship, beautiful wood panelling embellished with a five-pointed star and sunrays bearing the motto, "Heaven's light our guide".

A stone's throw from the  naval museum  is  the dry dock, the oldest in Asia. I knew Nusli Wadia's ancestors built hundreds of ships but I didn't know that the American national anthem The Star Spangled Banner was composed on a ship built here. Here! Or that the historic Treaty of Nanking, which handed over Hong Kong to the British, was signed on yet another ship built in the Dockyard.

Anita Garware, chairperson of the Indian Heritage Society, has been privy to "wonderful pictures in BPT godowns" which could be displayed at the museum.
"Priceless!" responds Cdr Narayan when quizzed about the value of the artefacts which will be accommodated in a new home in the Princess Dock near Carnac Bunder in the structure popularly known as Ghadiyal Ghodi.

Completed in 1890, the black basalt building boasts a capacious 8,000 sq. ft. on each floor crowned by a timeball and Clock Tower ("because people didn't have watches then").

We had climbed to the top of the edifice into the innards of its Clock Tower as well as the one in the Naval Dockyard to see sweeping vistas of land and seascape.
The sound of pigeons gurgling had set off a tingle in my chest, just above the breastbone—and the sensation bore a name: Joseph Conrad.

The Polish seafarer who had stayed in the sailor's hostel (now state police HQ) adjoining the Gateway and thought he "had done with the sea" to be a writer.

Sailing a ship for Conrad was an art form and writing sea stories meant writing about life. He would go on to become the numero uno maritime storyteller and win the Nobel Prize for Literature. And I think it would be good, very good  if Ghadiyal Ghodi owner MPT (which was established in 1873 mostly on reclaimed land) moved fast to relocate the Navy's treasures  to Ghadiyal Ghodi, which is in urgent need of repairs.

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