A dream museum


The Sir J J School of Art is an enormous treasure house, and repository of art and art history, says Dr. Manjiri Thakoor. While some exemplary restoration has been done and a museum is being planned, one can only hope that more of this art also becomes accessible to everyone.

GOING down the memory lane, in the mid 1980s, I remember seeing a mysterious looking ‘green bungalow’ in my college campus of Sir JJ School of Art (JJ). It was then called as the Dean’s Bungalow. Who is ever attracted to the residence of higher authorities of one’s educational institute? But at JJ we all were absolutely in love with this ‘fairy tale’ structure. Nestled between thick lush green nature, the ‘big green house’ was all time ‘talk’ of the campus. It is difficult to point out a certain time when we began calling the “Dean’s Bungalow” as “Kipling’s Bungalow”. There was a magnetic power about it. The ground plus one structure stands with several small-big rooms, long balconies and two entrances, almost giving a feel of two different bungalows!

The founding of an iconic institute

The need of art education was immensely felt in British India by many, but a Parsi gentleman took the initiative and to his support came a Marathi business- man. Both the gentlemen made their best efforts to bring the dream come true, for their nation. The former was Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, and the latter was Jagannath Shankarseth. The latter insisted on keeping his contribution a secret, and encouraged Jamsetjee to give his name to the school, which we know today as the Sir J J School of Art. The silent but significant contribution of Jagannath Shankarseth remained hidden in some seldom told stories.

The Fine Art building constructed in 1857is the oldest of all. Tall ceilings, beautifully designed grill windows, which form patterns of light and shadow in the long, long corridors, spacious studios with huge windows almost allowing the flora and fauna enter without hesitation, captivating murals and sculptures, columns and cornices, proudly adorn the structure, housing thousands of master pieces, quietly! The art school was taken by the ruling British in 1866. Today it is a state-of-the-art college, and more than sixty percent of the students come here from rural areas to study art. The art school is more than their home. Huge Gothic buildings, tall and wide trees…almost embracing each other and forming a thick canopy, narrow, dark paths, carpeted with dried leaves, connecting lawns, grounds, workshop, canteen, stage, and yes the bungalow, comprise the Sir JJ School of Art campus. It has been home to flora-fauna…..and master strokes. It has the prodigious legacy of British and Indian masters of art and philosophy.

Reviving a grand legacy

The restoration of the works of art along with the documentation began very systematically at the art school some time ago. Both the government and the school staff began the work on a serious note. Restoring the treasure of many unsung heroes and reviving the grand legacy of the masters was a big responsibility. Many hands joined this mission. The National Research Laboratory for Conservation of Cultural Property (NRLC) authentically carried out the process of conservation on many, not all works. But soon the remaining works of art will also be restored by NRLC. In 2010, a report of this collection was submitted to the state government. The Fine Art building holds works of art including paintings and sculptures. On talking to the Dean of School of Art Professor Vishwanath Sabale, he made a special mention of sculptures which were imported to the school for reference study for students as being among these works.

Many murals also were restored. Among the prodigious collection that have been restored are the works of V.S. Gaitonde, K.K.Hebbar and S.H.Raza. Some works are of the studio practice of the art students who are known to us today as pioneers of many art movements. Such works are a visual treat to society. A few of them were exhibited at the 150th year celebration of the art school. But that’s not enough, more works should be open for public and student viewing. The school also houses some extremely valuable books and those were also restored by NRLC. Especially the documentation work of John Griffith, one of the deans of the school of art is significant. It is a remarkable series of works on Ajanta Caves, where the Bengal School artistes were also involved. Such a legacy of Indian art, pre and post-Independence, rest proudly in the colossal structure of the art school. The dean and professors were extremely emotional while talking about this treasure trove. The need to have the collection open for public, and most of all, to students of art and various other disciplines, was a common concern of theirs.

A museum in an educational institute is a great concept. We have references to such, e.g., The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, and the Heras Memorial Museum at St. Xavier’s, Mumbai. Such collaborative educational efforts play an important role for not just students who study there, but for students who want to study them. It is an enormous encyclopedia and this city deserves to have access to it. The School of Art houses thousands of masterpieces which are in need of a proper place for display, and open to people. The state government has been keen on taking up a project of ‘Making A Museum’ in the campus and the Dean’s Bungalow is the chosen one for such a noble cause. No doubt. But this has to be a museum with a difference. The beautiful restored house can be a tourist attraction provided that it remains free from conflicts, and becomes a valuable treasure domain for foreigners, Indian tourists, scholars, students, and art lovers.

Making of the school, story of the two philanthropists and many more who contributed to the making of The Sir JJ School of Art a world renowned institute, legacy of masterpieces and the masters who made them, records, books, catalogs, films etc., imagine all these being housed in there! The legacy has to be maintained and carried forward.

Dr Manjiri Thakoor

Dr Manjiri Thakoor is an independent Art Curator and visiting lecturer Sir J J School of Art. She did her Ph.D in Buddhist Sculpture from Mumbai University and her Post-doctoral Fellowsip – Sir Dorabji Tata Fellowship at the Heras Institute. She was former Deputy Curator of National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and is now Hon. Sub-Committee Member, Asiatic Society of Mumbai.