Mr. Alpaiwalla’s Legacy: India’s Parsi Museum

Housed in a quiet corner of the Kharegat Parsi Colony, the Alpaiwalla Museum of Mumbai opens its doors willingly to all curious visitors. And there can be no better guide than Ms. Nivedita Mehta, the curator, who took me through each exhibit in detail and entertained all my queries, patiently.

Article by Sarita Ramamoorthy

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The museum is named after Mr. Framji Dadabhoy Alpaiwalla, a Parsi, who collected several items in the early 20th century. Ms. Mehta recollects that typically collectors would spend around 10 to 15% of their income on collecting, but Mr. Alpaiwalla who worked in a bank, put everything into building his collection. His passion for collecting overtook all other interests, and it is said that he eventually lived in his kitchen after he ran out of space in his 11-room home, where he housed the collection. Alpaiwalla first set up the museum at his home and following his death, his entire collection was handed over to the Bombay Parsi Punchayat (BPP). The BPP started a Parsi Punchayat Museum in 1954 at the Kharegat Memorial Building; this was reorganised and renamed Mr. Framji Dadabhoy Alpaiwalla Museum in 1981. The museum was established under the guidance of Alpaiwalla’s friend, Dr. Jamshed Unwalla, a well known religious and Avestan scholar. An archaeologist who trained at the Louvre School of Archaeology, Dr. Unwalla also worked for ten years at the historical city of Susa, in Iran. His archaeological collection from Iran is also housed at the Alpaiwalla museum.

While the museum today highlights the rich history and heritage of the Parsi community, Alpaiwalla collected not only Parsi items, but many others. He was most interested in items that reflected the new and changing ways of the world, and bought frequently from art and antiquity dealers. Among other items, he collected stamps, coins, solar water bottles and perfume bottles from across the world, Indian art pieces, Egyptian antiquities and books. When his collection was bought to the museum, one of the nicest things found was a picture of Dhobi Talao, Mumbai before it was filled up. A huge collection of picture postcards of old Mumbai, India and the world beyond is present in the museum. The collection also includes the calling card of Dadabhai Naoroji, when he was elected to the British House of Commons between 1892 and 1895. Within the collection lies a manuscript of ‘Ijashne’, one of the most important Parsi ceremonies. The manuscript is in Gujarathi, and dated 1850 C.E. The museum also includes the Vendidad Avesta, a sacred book of Zoroastrianism dated 1816 C.E. One treasure is an original firman of Emperor Jahangir issued in 1618 C.E. granting a jagir (a type of land grant) of 100 bighas (4 bighas = 1 acre) to Chandji Kandin and his nephew Hoshang Ranji; Dadabhai Naoroji was their descendent.

Ms. Nivedita Mehta, the curator of the museum, has been collecting material on the Parsi history herself. This includes several photographs of Parsi families, portrait and family paintings of Parsi families, traditional Parsi clothing and photocopies of portrait images of important Parsis that are exhibited here. Although the museum draws only a handful of visitors, it is an effort that will go a long way in sharing the history of the small but influential Parsi community.