The more popular spot off Hughes Road might be a city bookstore but a rewarding experience awaits the curious at the Khareghat Memorial Hall, in the Khareghat Colony a few metres away.
A lonely, uniformed caretaker sits like a weary guardian at the entrance of the Framji Dadabhoy Alpaiwalla Museum–a capsule-like gateway into the past of one of the city’s foremost communities, the Parsis.
Inside, Persian antiquities, Chinese porcelain, European glassware, iconographic material, coins, stamps and old picture postcards line up like ignored concubines of the past.
You’d think the man outside is as old as the museum itself. Not so. Inaugurated in 1952 after the death of its founder Framji Dadabhoy Alpaiwalla, whose persistent efforts persuaded the Parsi Panchayat to fund and administer a Parsi museum, the collection today includes contributions from various prominent Parsi families, the archaeological finds and additions made by Nivedita Mehta, curator of the present-day museum.
Among the museum’s intriguing exhibits are an Astodan, a large, tub-like clay container (a repository for the long bones of the dead that vultures couldn’t consume) dating back thousands of years, artifacts from Susa, an ancient cosmopolitan city north of modern Basra in Iraq, and what Mehta describes as an emotional excavation of history–relics from Nehavand, Iran, the last site of Persian rule, where the Arabs defeated the Sassanians in 641 AD. “It is emotional for Parsis who know their history,” says Mehta, tongue-in-cheek.
An original firman (a land grant) from the time of Emperor Jehangir, bearing his own seal, handed to one of Dadabhai Naoroji’s ancestors, is one of the outstanding attractions of the collection. Mehta, an MA in Archaeology from Deccan College, Pune, has also collected fascinating anthropological objects of contemporary Parsi history. Like a pair of women’s shoes embroidered to match the sari (“some women still get them done”), props used in everyday Parsi rituals and a peculiar chair constructed out of a wooden toilet seat, acquired by Alpaiwalla.
“Most collectors devote a percentage of their income to art collection. Alpaiwalla exercised no such self-restraint. He was often bankrupt because of the money he sunk into art,” says Mehta.
The earlier location of the museum was a large flat in Bhavnagari House (later renamed after the museum’s founder) on Princess Street. “Alpaiwalla started with bottle tops, old scent bottles, old notes, anything that appealed to him,” says Mehta.
After the founder’s death, everything in the home was moved out and, on the suggestion of Sadashiv Gorashkar, a former director of the Prince of Wales Museum, the community-specific museum was established, the only one of its kind in India. “Footfall here is largely season-specific. Now, it’s the time for the Indian diaspora to visit. We definitely have more non-Parsis than people from the community,” she says.
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