Edward Balfour and his house of fun

Published on Nov 08, 2022 12:45 AM IST

On the 1st of November, when Karnataka was celebrating her 66th birthday, another celebration was afoot in Mumbai’s Byculla – the 177th birthday of the legendary Grant Medical College (GMC)

Roopa Pai
Roopa Pai
ByRoopa Pai

On the 1st of November, when Karnataka was celebrating her 66th birthday, another celebration was afoot in Mumbai’s Byculla – the 177th birthday of the legendary Grant Medical College (GMC). It was the first Indian dean of that institute, Major General SL Bhatia, a passionate collector of medical books and artefacts, who bequeathed his entire collection to the St John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, so that a museum on the history of medicine, the only one of its kind in India, could be set up in 1974.

The SL Bhatia Museum is one of several niche museums in the city, all open to the public, including a Brain Museum (1975), the Manjushree Museum of Packaging and Design (2009), the Indian Music Experience (2019), and the Rezwan Razack Museum of Indian Paper Money (2020).

All these recent museums only follow in the proud tradition of the city’s very first, the Mysore Government Museum. That museum has been housed, since 1877, in the glorious neo-classical building, resplendent in Pompeian red, on the Kasturba Road. Many Bangaloreans are familiar with the building, but very few have ever set foot inside it. A sad fate for an institution that, until the early 20th century, was famous far and wide as the Tamashe Bungalow – the House of Fun – and attracted as many as 400,000 visitors annually.

Although the concept of museums was established in Europe by the 17th century, it was only in 1850 that south India got its first museum, in Madras. That museum, and its Bangalore counterpart, were created of the vision and labours of one remarkable man – the Scottish surgeon, orientalist, collector and environmentalist Edward Balfour.

Born in 1813, Balfour came from a family of old India hands. His father was part of the East India Company marine service, and his maternal uncle, Joseph Hume, had worked as a surgeon in an army regiment here before returning to England and becoming an MP. (One of Hume’s sons, Allan Octavian Hume, would join the Indian Civil Service, and eventually found the Indian National Congress).

In the course of a fascinating life, Balfour the polymath would write, as far back as 1849, original papers on climate change, become a public health expert, and translate the book ‘Outlines of Midwifery’ into Urdu, apart from sponsoring its Kannada, Tamil and Telugu translations. A fervent collector and classifier, he would also found the Government Central Museum in Madras, inviting members of the public to send in potential exhibits (‘We accept everything!’). To encourage women to visit the museum, one day a week was set aside for them.

When Balfour was transferred to Bangalore in the early 1860s, the then Commissioner, Lewin Bowring, accepted with alacrity his suggestion that a museum be set up here as well. In 1865, south India’s second museum was established, in the premises of the Cantonment Jail (today the Good Shepherd Convent on Museum Road – see why the road is called that?).

A decade or so later, with the museum having outgrown its premises, Chief Engineer Richard Sankey was called in to design an exclusive building to house it, which he did, in the same style as his other recent building on the other side of Cubbon Park, the Attara Kacheri.

Today, 145 years after its founding, Balfour’s House of Fun is a dusty, desolate place. Despite containing such treasures in its collection as the Halmidi inscription, the oldest extant inscription in Kannada, dated to the 5th century CE, and the Begur hero stone, which references, as far back as 890 CE, a town called Bengaluru, it fails to attract more than a couple of hundred visitors a day.

(Roopa Pai is a writer who has carried on a longtime love affair with her hometown Bengaluru)

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