The Mu­seum Be­neath Your Feet

India Today - - BOOKS - —Bhavya Dore

The path slopes down­wards, lit by floor lights, with metal­lic rings pro­trud­ing from both walls. “It sloped so that ar­tillery could be brought down eas­ily,” says Umesh Kashikar, the pub­lic re­la­tions of­fi­cer of the Raj Bha­van in Mum­bai, as he leads the way. Kashikar is of­fer­ing a pre­view of the newly re­fur­bished Bri­tish-era bunker be­lieved to have been used as an arms stor­age room for de­fence in the early part of the 20th cen­tury. Re­dis­cov­ered in 2016, it has since been elec­tri­fied, spruced up, re­painted and awaits be­ing opened to the pub­lic as a mu­seum. “This bunker is a unique and won­der­ful ex­am­ple of ur­ban ar­chae­ol­ogy in the city of Mum­bai,” one of the boards reads. The mu­seum will show­case not just as­pects of Raj Bha­van’s sto­ried past and the bunker’s his­tory, but also in­for­ma­tion about the forts of Ma­ha­rash­tra and the free­dom strug­gle. Var­i­ous vir­tual re­al­ity fea­tures are also be­ing planned and sev­eral ex­plana­tory pan­els and mod­els are al­ready in place. The 15,000 square feet mu­seum will open to vis­i­tors on a small scale from Oc­to­ber 1. Raj Bha­van be­came the ‘gov­ern­ment house’ from 1885, at a time when Bom­bay was a flour­ish­ing city and em­pire was at its height. It sits on Land’s End, sur­rounded by wa­ter and vul­ner­a­ble to po­ten­tial at­tacks by sea, and ex­perts sus­pect the bunker was cre­ated to for­tify the prop­erty. With aper­tures for wa­ter and light, a drainage sys­tem and rooms marked as ‘shell stores’, ‘cen­tral ar­tillery store’ and ‘work­shop’, the en­tire space had been sealed off for six decades un­til 2016. Then dur­ing the ten­ure of the pre­vi­ous gov­er­nor C.H. Vidyasagar Rao, staff were di­rected to bring down a wall cov­er­ing one of the en­trances, only to stum­ble on a series of rooms below the lawn. Af­ter a struc­tural au­dit by a team from the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Bom­bay, con­ser­va­tion ar­chi­tect Vikas Di­lawari was en­listed to study its his­tory and con­text. “It’s a very good idea to open it up to the pub­lic,” says Di­lawari. “Other­wise where would you get an op­por­tu­nity to go un­der­ground and see some­thing so unique?” Di­lawari be­lieves it was likely con­structed dur­ing the ten­ure of Ge­orge Sy­den­ham Clarke (1907-1913), the only gov­er­nor with a mil­i­tary back­ground, and built in phases, al­though there is no record of it hav­ing been used to fend off an at­tack.

BAT­TLE READY In­side Raj Bha­van, a new­lyre­fur­bished Bri­tish-era bunker that has been con­verted into a mu­seum of his­tory

Pho­tographs by MAN­DAR DEOD­HAR

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