The rickety red-and-yellow buses, that ferry around 5 million passengers around Mumbai daily, have often found themselves overshadowed by the city's local trains. And just like the parent organisation - the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) - that keeps these buses on Mumbai's roads, its museum too is undervalued, leading a nondescript existence on the second floor of an office building at Wadala's Anik bus depot.
There are no inviting signs or friendly guards at the gate to direct you to this museum. Drivers and conductors scurry around the depot, checking their schedules. Only one man, Sanjay Chaulkar, the museum's caretaker for the last 12 years, has the answers to every question related to BEST's 140-year-old history.
"Have a seat," says this wiry man, pointing to the cushioned, green chairs that once belonged to the first-class section of a tram. Those with humbler tastes may sit on the wooden seats from the vehicle's second-class section. Chaulkar's voice is accompanied by the soft whirring of ceiling fans from the Victorian-era. The morning sun bathes the 4,000 square feet long museum, illuminating every speck of dust and whispering promises of discovery.
The origins of the museum date back to 1981, when PD Paranjape, an assistant legal officer at BEST, wanted to pay a tribute to the organisation. "Like Delhi's railway museum, he wanted to build a museum that would tell the BEST story," says Chaulkar. Paranjape then began collecting rare items from BEST locations across the city and storing them at the Dharavi depot. The museum first opened in Kurla in 1984, before moving to its current home in Wadala in 1993.
The museum has a good collection of originals, replicas, miniature models and photographs of artefacts. Most of the mini replicas have been crafted by the students of BEST's training institute. A few are built at body-making workshops, where the exteriors of BEST buses are constructed.
The museum helps to gauge the evolution of Mumbai's streets through its miniatures showcase of horse drawn trams that were in use in the 1870s, electric trams from the early 1900s and the motor buses that were introduced in 1926. Roofless buses, which were built in 1937, to combat the soaring prices of iron and steel before WWII, are also part of the intricate mini-replica display. "There were no traffic signals in the late 1800s. Instead, a dome or 'junction traffic assistant' (JTA) was placed at a height on the street junctions," informs Chaulkar, lifting what looks like an oversized miner's hat. The JTA would flash a bright light, urging people to slow down and drive carefully.
A vintage ticket dispensing machine and bus tickets used over the years have also been preserved. Weathered pictures of celebrated employees such as actor Sunil Dutt, who worked in BEST's supply department, comedian Johnnie Walker and musician Hasrat Jaipuri, who were bus conductors, have been proudly displayed.
BEST does not believe in only showcasing its triumphs but its deficiencies as well. On display are plans for shelved projects including an underground railway in 1962 and two massive, multi-level depots in Wadala and Malad. They were cancelled for lack of capital.
The museum, which is open from Wednesday to Sunday between 9 am and 5 pm, is mostly visited by local school children on field trips. Entry is free. A paucity of funds and support staff to maintain the museum has clearly slowed its growth. Still, it harbours the evidence of BEST's rich past, held together in places with bits of Sellotape.