Mumbai was on her mind

It's been nearly a week since Sharada Dwivedi's demise on February 6. Friends, colleagues and experts reminisce about the late chronicler's love affair with Mumbai and gauge the immense loss that the city will have to bear in her absence. Fiona Fernandez listens in

It's the end of an era. Period. A rare honour for a historian, this. Tributes, obits and eulogies are still pouring in among sections of Mumbai's press for Sharada Dwivedi. Only to reiterate the vacuum that her passing away will have on the collective consciousness of a city starved for heritage conservationists and upholders of a unique, rich legacy.

Pic/ Atul Kamble

The daughter of DS Joshi, ICS officer (1932 batch) and former Cabinet Secretary, Government of India, she wasn't just another academician of Maharashtrian stock. "In the 1960s, when Sharada and I would meet at the CCI (Cricket Club of India) or at the Bombay Gymkhana, she would regale us with her sharp understanding of all things Mumbai. Even then, her interest for each aspect of the city's history and landscape, be it dissecting the origins of a monument or sharing anecdotes about the area (Backbay Reclamation), was unparallel," recalls Deepak Rao, city historian and author of Mumbai Police, the most exhaustive chronicle on the city's police force.

City matters
Vikas Dilawari, practising conservation architect and head of Conservation department at KRVIA (Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies) might have not known Dwivedi for as long as Rao but a common interest for the city ensured they interacted regularly. "She was always concerned and passionate about the heritage of the city."

Sharada Dwivedi (1942-2012) Sharada Dwivedi's home (Ram Mahal) in
Churchgate was a treasure trove of archival material

Dilawari's interactions with Dwivedi increased after he joined the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC). He remembers how she would get easily upset if the city's heritage was in danger of any sort; "I remember her being terribly disturbed when she noticed that Rajabai Tower was lit externally in different colours. She wanted to check whether the MHCC had given permissions for this exercise." On another occasion, she noticed a high fencing around the Indian Institute of Science. She actually went ahead and furnished an old archival map to prove her point about its origins and that it was planned with stone bollards and chains, he adds.

When Rajabai Tower was lit externally in different colours, Dwivedi
wanted to check if the MHCC had given permissions for the exercise.

Pic/Nimesh Dave

Naresh Fernandes, Consulting Editor, TimeOut, author, and city chronicler had similar experiences while interviewing her on several occasions. "Her passion was her business. What struck me about Sharada was that like Mumbai, she had created a model and always found a way to make it work."

Perhaps this intrinsic, deep-rooted love for the city stemmed from the fact that she lived in the heart of old Mumbai. Now called Ram Mahal, Bilkha House stands near the Rasna restaurant at the end of Dinshaw Vaccha Road in Churchgate, and was built in the 1940s by the ruling prince of Bilkha, on the plot that formed part of the Bombay Backbay Reclamation.

The bottomless treasure trove
Dwivedi's collection of archival footage and information on the city's heritage was amazing too. Little wonder then researchers, conservationists, journalists, educationists, artists, and historians from the city, country and beyond pursued her. "Her book, Bombay: The Cities Within, which she co-wrote with architect Rahul Mehrotra was a watershed. It remains the greatest reference book on the city's history," recalls Rao. Dwivedi's passion for sourcing information didn't end with penning books; her publishing house Eminence Designs ensured this interest found the ideal platform to flourish. 

"She was the moving spirit for my book and would guide me from behind the scenes with valuable nuggets. She lent me several photos, and didn't charge a penny. She didn't even want a credit!" says Rao of her large-heartedness. Her recommendations were sacrosanct, her views, the Gospel truth. Conservationists would exchange notes with her on the feasibility of a project, citizens found a ready reference point in her whenever she spoke at forums or was part of panel discussions on conserving the city's history and heritage. "Her passion to keep at a project and her time management skills were right up there," adds Fernandes, recalling her ability to transcend genres with remarkable ease. Her work wasn't confined to Mumbai -- she wrote about Indian aristocracy, fashion and lifestyle and even children's fiction. Her last completed work was on the Taj Mahal Hotel at Apollo Bunder, and took 30 years to put  together. "Such was her attention to detail," lauds Fernandes.

For the love of Mumbai
Dr Mariam Dossal, fellow city historian, academician and author of several Mumbai-centric books shared a close rapport with Dwivedi. "I first came in contact with Sharada in the early 1990s and had the privilege of knowing her professionally and socially since then," she says. Like Rao and Dilawari, Dossal remembers the spirit with which she engaged with this band of city lovers. "As she and Rahul Mehrotra worked very closely, we saw ourselves as part of a community of historians, engaged along with other scholars, writers, artists, activists, in the exciting discovery and sharing of Bombay/Mumbai/ Bambai's rich history and heritage."  With her passing away, the city has lost an archive. "It's too awful to contemplate. She was a living archive," sighs Fernandes.
Perhaps, Dossal's words best sum up this loss, something that city lovers are still grappling with and will find hard to replace: "Sharada Dwivedi gave us a sense of civic pride and enobled us." 

Fiona Fernandez, Features Editor, MidDay is the author of Ten Heritage Walks of Mumbai, Rupa & Co.

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