The Bhabha bungalow in Mumbai. (PTI)
Mumbai, June 18: Meherangir, the iconic bungalow where India’s atomic energy pioneer Homi Bhabha and his art-patron brother Jamshed lived in Malabar Hills, was today snapped up by an undisclosed Indian bidder for Rs 372 crore, well above the minimum reserve price.
Employees of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) had last week filed a plea to stop the auction of the sea-facing, south Mumbai property but Bombay High Court had refused to order a stay, although it has scheduled a hearing on Monday.
The Barc employees want to convert the three-storey bungalow into a museum on atomic energy. “The government should have stopped the auction,” said petitioner Prashant Worlikar, adding that Bhabha had named the bungalow after his parents Meherbai and Jehangir.
The auction, at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), the bungalow’s custodian, had attracted eight bids for the sprawling 17,550sqft property that offers picturesque views of the Arabian Sea and the Hanging Gardens at Malabar Hills. “Of the eight, three parties finally bid when the auction opened this morning. The winning bid was by an Indian but the identity will not be disclosed at this stage according to the bidder’s request,” a source in property consultant Jones Lang Lasalle said.
The property fetched Rs 115 crore more than the minimum reserve price of Rs 257 crore.
The auction had sparked a controversy after the Barc employees demanded that the bungalow be preserved as a museum dedicated to atomic energy and Bhabha’s life. Scientist C.N.R. Rao, honoured with the Bharat Ratna recently, had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi supporting the demand.
Former Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar and former CSIR director-general Raghunath Mashelkar had also backed the call to preserve Bhabha’s legacy.
When the Barc employees’ union sought Ratan Tata’s support, the industrialist wrote back saying he would “personally be pleased” to see the bungalow preserved as a museum but could not assist them as he was not personally involved in the matter.
Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan had also batted for an atomic energy museum, saying he would take up the matter with Modi.
NCPA chairman K.N. Suntook defended the auction. “Dr Homi Bhabha was only a part owner of the property, along with his mother and his brother Dr Jamshed Bhabha, till his demise in 1966. The property subsequently devolved solely upon Dr Jamshed, who bequeathed it absolutely to the NCPA by his will, which has since been probated.”
Jamshed Bhabha, who along with J.R.D. Tata conceived and set up the centre for the performing arts, stayed at the bungalow till 2007, when he passed away at the age of 93.
“If Barc had so much concern, they could have participated in the bidding. Barc would be a more appropriate place for a museum on atomic energy. As far as the NCPA goes, we are acting only as per the probated will left by Dr Bhabha. The matter is sub judice and let the high court take a view on this on Monday,” Suntook said.
The court can declare the auction null and void if it is convinced by the arguments in the petition.
Suntook said the proceeds from the auction would be used to modernise theatres in the NCPA complex, start a new educational institution and create an instrument bank. “In countries like China, Singapore and the UK, millions of dollars are spent for promotion of the arts. It has a spiral effect. Increased revenue in the form of tourism leads to improvement in the quality of life of people there.”
Worlikar, president of the Atomic Energy Workers and Staff Union, disagreed, saying: “Meherangir is important historically.”
Kakodkar spoke of an “emotional connect” with the building. “Bhabha was living in the house during the time when ideas for institutions such as the TIFR and atomic energy were being conceived. The house could have been witness to (discussions) that contributed to the shaping of TIFR and the atomic energy establishment.”