At the ‘Community Museum’, there are plenty of things to catch your attention – rare photographs, antique porcelain vases, Gandhara sculptures and much more…
The quaint Parsi colony at Hughes Road, Khareghat Colony, has more than just the peace loving community residing there. Nestled in a corner amidst two buildings is the Framji Dadabhoy Alpai-walla Museum, which comes under the authorisation of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP). Spread over a little more than about 2,000 sq feet, this old-world museum was inaugurated as a ‘Community Museum’ in 1981 by the then Indian Vice President, M Hidayatullah.
Unfortunately, the museum has only a handful of visitors trickling in. Although the BBP tries its best to encourage more Zoroastrians, and people from other communities to visit, it’s evidently not enough. You have to go meet the curator, Nivedita Mehta, if you wish to visit the museum. Entry is free.
Armed with a writing pad and a camera, we decided to see for ourselves what treasures are stocked in the museum and we must say, we came back pretty impressed. A jaded looking watchman, quietly unlocked the door for us to enter the place as a lone cat sauntered by the entrance seeming slightly startled at our presence in the museum. As you enter the museum, you can’t help but wonder why the place isn’t visited often by a community that is always claiming to be rooted in traditional values. The pale green walls seem to a silent reminder of the rich heritage that is housed in there. The first thing you notice is a large wooden doorway, dating back to the 16th century from Navsari, called the ‘Gateway to Polia-Desai Wad’. There are plenty of things to catch your attention- like the rare photographs of what Bombay used to look like all those years ago, (try recognising Grant Road, VT or Dhobi Talao!) antique porcelain vases, Gandhara sculptures, paintings, carved wooden cabinets, which are more than 150 years old and much more.
The museum has collections of the late Framji Alpaiwalla as well the late Dr. Jamshed Unwalla besides other contributors. Over the years, the museum has received loads of contributions from Zoroastrians from all over the world. Unfortunately, not all of it can be displayed. The coin collection, for instance, cannot be put on view not only due to lack of space but also due to security concerns. Excavations from places like Susa dating more than 4000 BC and other ancient places in Iran are placed in the first section of the museum. Beautiful terracotta figurines from Susa, metal objects, and antiquities from ancient Persia and from the Achaemenian Palace, pots from Nehavand all dominate this section. The object that will instantly catch your attention is a huge astodan (or ossuary- a container to bury bones in) made out of terracotta from an unknown period. Restored in the museum itself, it is in a fairly good albeit delicate condition.
Moving ahead you will find some rare black and white photographs of some of the leaders of the Zoroastrian community. Ardeshir Godrej, Pheroze-shah Mehta, Nowrojee Jamshedji et al find a place on the wall here. 82 albums of photographs are currently present in the Alpaiwalla Museum of which only a few pictures are on display. Going further on you will find, among other things, a silver clock belonging to Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and a wooden chest belonging to Dadabhai Naoroji, both in great shape.
The different vessels used in various Zoroastrian rituals, the lagan ni ses are also displayed here. An ancient ‘jantar’, a machine to make the sacred kusti is also there as are the sudreh and kusti and other traditional Zoroastrian clothing like garas, jhabalas, shawls and saris. One section of the museum has been dedicated to only oriental, porcelain vases. In different shapes, sizes and colours, these vases are just as gorgeous as the kotreli wooden cabinets. “We get a lot of NRI Parsis as well as foreigners, who’re interested in the museum. Visitors are few and far in-between. We have a treasure trove of items here but due to lack of space, we can’t display everything. Keeping everything clean and dust free is not an easy task, it takes up a lot of time. But I have a helper and we do our best to keep the place neat,” says Nivedita Mehta, who’s been the curator of the museum since 25 years.