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The Empty House: Jehangir and Meherbai Bhabha’s “Meherangir”

Colonial India condemned Indians as a people without history, often quoting John Stuart Mill who argued that for “rude nations”, like India, “fable stands in place of fact” and “the times over which memory has any influence are rejected, and the imagination riots in those in which it is unrestricted”.

By Inidra Chowdhury | Indian Express

Perhaps an unexamined adoption of the view has now morphed into the frequent lament that we in India lack a historical consciousness. This often reflects in our actions, as historical resources are often destroyed in favour of development. Ironically, though, there seems to be a great interest in investing in art and collecting artefacts from the past. So is this the long-awaited resurfacing of the much-lamented “Indian historical consciousness”? I think not. The monetisation of the material culture from the past almost systematically erases the historical context within which these artefacts existed.

I recently visited a house on Little Gibbs Road in Mumbai. All its contents were up for auction. The name of the house, “Meherangir” — derived from the first names of Jehangir and Meherbai Bhabha who built it — was given by their firstborn, Homi Bhabha, India’s cherished nuclear physicist whose centenary was celebrated in 2009. From 2007, after the death of its last occupant Jamshed J. Bhabha, Homi’s younger brother, the house has been unoccupied. Jamshed was the founder of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. The reasons for the strange compulsion felt by the NCPA, which inherited the house from its founder, to auction its contents last week will never be known. As I walked through the house and viewed the opulence of its contents, the moment spoke about the conversion of the past into a profitable resource.

In the years I spent researching the Bhabha papers and setting up the archives of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) which Bhabha founded, I had often wondered about the place where he had lived. Jamshed had told me of the three libraries that he inherited: of his grandfather Hormusji Bhabha, inspector-general of education of Mysore state; of his mother Meherbai (which included an early illuminated Arabian Nights); and of his brother Homi. This was the house Nehru visited frequently; and the Bhabha family had entertained the Queen of England in 1960 at the very dining table on which the china and glassware were now laid out for inspection.

In the dining room was a large portrait of Meherbai, painted by Bhabha himself, and of his aunt Lady Meherbai Tata. Meherbai Bhabha wears an exquisite Chinese gara sari that hints at the many uses that were found for the treasures that came in through trade. The auction catalogue referred to them as the “Bhabha ladies”. The fact that one was his mother and the other his father’s sister who had married Sir Dorab Tata and after whom the Lady Tata Hospital is named was expunged. The catalogue introduced the “Bhabha ladies” only to talk about the emeralds and the “European-cut diamonds” that one of them is wearing. On the first floor were amazing writing implements of the early 20th century — telescopic pencils and expandable barrel fountain pens. One had the signature of Mehri D. Tata embossed on it. But the auctioneer was at a loss when a buyer asked what the pen was doing there. One could go on about the erasure of history that such moments exemplify, but there is a larger point.

The auction of all items of the Bhabha household signals a lost opportunity to create a historic house museum that could bring history to the public in both tangible and abstract ways. Such a museum could engage with a range of issues — about a way of life, the material culture that surrounded such a lifestyle and even occasional excursions into the history of writing instruments, jewellery, furniture (which ranges from 19th century Indian to Art Deco). Bhabha’s letters could be displayed here. The records and art collection of Jamshed could be a rich historical resource. The house had several unusual paintings by Jamini Roy, K.H. Ara and V.S. Gaitonde that will fetch crores. But their value also lies in the fact that Bhabha collected them. With a more active historical imagination, these paintings could have complemented the art collection that Bhabha lovingly put together at TIFR. The house, a historic structure in itself, has a small garden and a wilderness that is no longer seen in Mumbai. As a house museum, it could have become a space within which the public could engage in a range of programmes that used new technologies to explore and interpret the multilayered past.

Elements of the past do die to make place for the new. But this is monetisation of a rich material culture that will now enter private collections and drawing rooms as aesthetic objects, emptied of context. This is hardly a natural death.

The writer is director, Centre for Public History, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, and has co-authored ‘A Masterful Spirit: Homi Bhabha 1909-1966’, express@expressindia.com