What would you prefer: a museum or a thriving art centre?

In the news entirely for the wrong reasons is the Bhabha bungalow. (A little aside here: is anyone or anything ever in the news for the right reason?). The newspapers are full of it, and TV channels are running discussions about it. Yet, if we were in a logical world, there would be no fuss, no controversy, therefore no news.

Article By Anil Dharker

homi-bhabha For those of you who have missed the hullabaloo, in Mumbai’s prized (and, therefore priced) Malabar Hill, tucked into a particularly quiet corner is a three-storeyed bungalow discreetly hidden from the road. This was acquired decades ago by a Parsi family called Bhabha, which came into prominence because the older son Homi became Dr Homi Bhabha, India’s greatest nuclear scientist, and the founder of the nuclear establishment of the country. The younger son, Jamshed, became one of the senior directors of Tatas, and founded the National Centre for Performing Arts. Over the years, NCPA has undoubtedly become one of the country’s best cultural institutions, with state-of-the-art auditoriums and a varied series of programmes across the arts.20 jjbhabha -big

The Tatas supported NCPA financially in its initial years, building the Little Theatre and then the bigger Tata Theatre. Even to this day the Tata Theatre is a marvel: it seats over a thousand people, but it has an air of intimacy about it — and its acoustics are so terrific that you do not need a mike to be audible in the corner most seat. (A little story here. Jamshed Bhabha was a purist, and as purists often do, he laid down the rigid law that no mikes would be allowed in the auditorium. Pandit Ravi Shankar, then in his prime, had heard of the marvellous new hall, so decided to perform there. Bhabha showed him around as a prelude to fixing dates. “Do you have a good amplification system?” Ravi Shankar asked. “The acoustics have been designed for music without amplification,” Bhabha said sternly. “But I will not perform without mikes,” the sitar maestro said. “In that case,” Bhabha replied, “We will have to do without your concert.”

 

To come back to the present day, and the current hubbub, Dr Homi Bhabha was killed tragically young in an air-crash in 1966, his death being a huge loss to the nation. But he had left his mark — The Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) brought the best scientific brains under one roof, while BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre) did likewise for nuclear scientists. The TIFR campus also has a wonderful auditorium designed by Homi Bhabha (and later, named after him). As if this isn’t proof of his multiple talents, Homi Bhabha had a wonderful collection of paintings and was a very good painter himself! All of this art is housed at TIFR. These institutions, therefore, commemorate Homi Bhabha’s memory already.

Jamshed Bhabha got NCPA built brick by brick, and a few years before his death in 2006 saw the completion of the theatre that bears his name, with a stage large enough to hold a symphony orchestra. Amazingly, he funded the whole thing himself! Not just that, he willed his entire estate – the Malabar Hill bungalow and its contents, including extremely valuable paintings and antiques — to NCPA. He knew that NCPA lived hand-to-mouth, so badly needed an infusion of funds in a country which is miserly when it comes to culture.

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When the auction of the bungalow was announced, employees of BARC suddenly woke up to the memory of Dr Bhabha. Forty-eight years after his death! The bungalow should not be sold, they said. It should be converted into a memorial to him. They even went to court to stop the auction.

Why a memorial to Homi Bhabha in a bungalow which belonged to his brother Jamshed, and who lived there for over four decades till his death? Why talk of Homi Bhabha’s legacy alone? What about Jamshed Bhabha’s legacy? Was the latter’s legacy less important because it involved culture, rather than science? Wasn’t NCPA obliged to carry out the will of Jamshed Bhabha, which was absolutely clear in saying that the bungalow and its contents should be sold and its proceeds be used to run and expand the activities of NCPA?

And, finally, why are we as a nation so eager to build memorials to the past rather than create living institutions for the present and the future? Ask yourself what does more good: a bungalow stacked with furniture, papers, photographs and other memorabilia, or a thriving arts and cultural centre? The answer, for me at least, is clear enough.

  • Sohrab Kamdin

    Both, – a museum & a thriving art center.