Iconic Mumbai

Why the Portuguese told the British that Brazil was just a hop, skip and jump away from Bombay

An exhibition of woodcuts and lithographs tells the city's history in 46 prints.

Mumbai is a fast-paced city in more ways than one. With the daily movement of its millions, its cultural and geographical landscape are quickly morphed. One place to witness the story of its rapidly changing colours is the Prints Gallery at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya or CSMVS, at Fort, Mumbai. The exhibition therein is titled Bombay to Mumbai: Door of the East with its Face to the West.

While the gallery opened in 2015, its catalogue was released only in March, by Dr Anne Buddle, the Collections Advisor of National Galleries of Scotland. The collection in this gallery is curated by Pauline Rohatgi and Dr Pheroza Godrej, both well known for their work in art and local history. Together, they have put together a sizable collection of prints, which are veritable historical treasures. After years of curating, exhibiting and publishing them, Rohatgi and Godrej decided to give the prints on a long term lease, so they could be seen by a wider audience and maintained by the Gallery. “The idea came about in 2007 or 2008, when the CSMVS had its first International exhibition based on the Indian life and landscape,” said Dr Godrej.

The collection was put together in association with Sabyasachi Mukherjee, the director general of CSMVS, who promised to make permanent space in the museum for the collection. “But the greatest takeaway for any visitor should be the medium,” said DR Godrej. “India has very few places that have a prints gallery, such as this one. It offers a wonderfully vintage view of the Indian life and landscape.”

A portal to the past

Where the Prints Gallery exists today, was once an innocuous passage connecting the older building of the erstwhile Prince of Wales Museum to its new extension. It was almost as if to poetically justify this space connecting the old and the new, that the gallery was conceived. Through this display of prints, a visitor would be able to walk through time, watching the city unfold from Bombay to Mumbai.

Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz

Much of Bombay’s colonial era was graphically recorded by artists. These maps, sketches and paintings were multiplied through woodcut or lithographic printing techniques, used in books. It was an important middle step for chroniclers, before photography was invented in the mid-nineteenth century. Visitors can see a precious collection of such original prints in this gallery. The gallery has a capacity of about 46, but the collection comprises over 200 prints. These are displayed on a rotational basis, each print telling a little story about the city’s past. The set on display in March, tells the story of the city’s past.

Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz

It is common knowledge that the islands of Bombay were given as part of Portuguese princess Catherine’s dowry during her wedding to Charles II of England. But when the British coveted these islands, their Portuguese rivals – loathe to give it away – played a mean little trick. An education facilitator at the CSMVS, can tell you this little secret behind that dowry deal: back in the day, when people had to rely only on cartographers and not Google Maps, the Portuguese seemed to have presented a not-so-accurate map of Bombay to the British, drawing Brazil a hop, skip and jump away. With this tantalising commercial possibility in mind, the British readily took over the archipelago as dowry. By the time they realised that Brazil wasn’t exactly next door, the wedding was through and the map had mysteriously disappeared.

Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz

At the gallery, you can see a print of one of the earliest maps of Mumbai with its seven islands named Colaba, Old Woman’s Island (Lower Colaba), Isle of Bombay, Mahim, Mazgaon, Parel, and Worli. Another 18th century drawing will show you a plan of the Bombay Harbour, and you’ll be tickled to know how the British chose to build it inland and not right out on the Arabian Sea coast, for fear of the Maratha navy that was at the height of its power at the time. A drawing of the urgently commissioned fortifications on the first British-owned Bombay lands further testifies to those jittery colonist nerves.

But the white man persisted, and British jurisdiction grew to encompass, in addition to the seven islands, regions from the Karnataka border in the south right up to Sindh in the West. This came to be known as the Bombay Province or Bombay Presidency or the Bombay and Sind region. Bombay, then, was a much much huger territory than the one we see today. This will also explain why there are lithographs of mausoleums in Gujarat or temples at Ellora in a gallery dedicated to the city of Bombay.

Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz

A slice of archaeology

Along with the Ellora print are other beautiful images of places of historic importance. The Bombay region is one of the richest in India in terms of archaeological treasures. The first generation of British Orientalists and archaeologists in India made significant contributions to the field, and helped in the early documentation of cave sites like Kanheri, Karla-Bhaja, Salsette, Elephanta, etc.

Prints of these sites in their pristine, un-vandalised forms can be seen at the gallery. The famous 5th century “Elephanta elephant” can also be seen in its original spot in a print. The rock cut sculpture was placed on a mound in Gharapuri, and had broken when the British tried to ship it to England. It was reassembled and is currently situated at the entrance of the city’s other major museum z- the one named after Bhau Daji Lad.

Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz

Apart from monuments, prints of landscapes and people also adorn the gallery. But for these prints, it would be impossible to imagine the wilderness that Panvel (Panwell) once was, or how open the area around Bombay Fort. Whether 18th century Bombay’s ethnography, its geography, or its architecture, there’s a little bit of everything in this gallery.

Interestingly, the gallery goes beyond just displaying prints. It has offerings for people whose interests extend beyond the history of Mumbai, for it also encapsulates a brief history of printing technology. A couple of very informative panels describe types of printing such as woodcut and intaglio, and techniques such as etching, engraving, mezzotinting, aquatinting and lithography. They even have an activity centre where is intaglio printing is demonstrated.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is an Indologist and a journalist who loves to research and write about all things Indian culture, history and mythology. Read more about her work here.

Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
Image credit: Urmi Chanda-Vaz
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