Shobhaa De on Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, the indomitable art historian

The first day of the launch of Tasneem Zakaria Mehta’s labor of love, a massive tome titled Mumbai: A City Through Objects – 101 Stories from Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, turned into a huge disappointment for the Managing Director ( Tasneem) of this gem of a museum. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan had died the day before, and the Indian government declared a day of mourning and canceled official functions as a mark of respect for the UAE president and the ruler of Abu Dhabi.

I was due to attend my friend’s reception, where the book was to be released by Maharashtra’s Minister of Tourism and Environment, Aaditya Thackeray. I felt discouraged by the inevitable postponement of an event that means so much to so many people (the new date did not suit me). When I last met the bright and beautiful Tasneem in her art-filled home in central Mumbai, we talked about the enormous stress of editing and proofreading a book. so ambitious. But then, the Tasneem I’ve known for the past 40 years is not a quitter.

I remember her as a beautiful young girl, greeting the illustrious guests of her politician/scholar father Rafique Zakaria in his beautiful apartment, whenever she came from Columbia, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Arts. liberals, before doing his master’s degree in English literature from the University of Delhi. Today, with a PhD in Cultural Studies from JNU, Tasneem is recognized as a highly respected art historian, curator, cultural activist and leader of India’s heritage preservation movement.

I know how hard Tasneem has worked to hold the museum together against formidable odds. It was originally established in 1855, but thanks to the continued efforts of Tasneem as director, visitors today can enjoy it in all its restored glory.

It’s nice to be able to proudly display our three generations of close friendship – I started as a friend of his parents and today our children are close. We participate in each other’s lives with joy and are there on occasions that really matter. I enjoy Tasneem’s company as a girlfriend – we often spend evenings at a favorite bar and leave feeling uplifted by the conversation. I shine with pride when I look at Tasneem in her official capacity as the lady who has firmly placed her beloved museum on the map of the world, earning recognition from UNESCO for its comprehensive restoration.

In the sprawling home Tasneem shares with her husband Vikram Mehta, the eclectic art on the walls tells many stories; in particular, some of the canvases painted by prominent female artists reflect Tasneem’s unwavering commitment to feminism.

A dinner invitation is highly coveted – between Tasneem and Vikram, they know everyone worth knowing in the worlds of business, art, film, academia and society. Guest writers, award-winning filmmakers, comedians, public intellectuals, politicians of various colors, billionaires and “famous people” mingle in a relaxed atmosphere, over malts and wine, while a celebrity chef prepares an exotic meal.

I had the privilege of being the “guest of honor” at an evening organized by the Mehtas to mark my 70th birthday. It’s hard not to be moved by such an overwhelming gesture! I was delighted, of course! But also shy and shy. I remember making a real mess of my spontaneous “speech” to thank Tasneem and Vikram, after a generous toast was given in the presence of wonderful friends.

Well, here’s my plan. As Tasneem celebrates her historic birthday, I’ll gladly honor her by hosting a dinner party for her – and this time I’ll be much better prepared!

@DeShobhaa @shobhaade

About Bernice D. Brewer

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