It’s been a surprisingly busy past week, for Mumbai’s heritage and history lovers - a rarity for this small group. The joyride began with the exhibition of FW Stevens’ original drawings, almost 130 years old, on display for the first time to the public inside the Sir JJ School of Architecture.
It’s a stunning reminder of the precise, detailed ethic of this guardian of the neo-Gothic style of architecture who went on to play a defining role in designing Mumbai’s streetscape. Next up, we were treated to an engaging illustrated discussion with Christopher W London, author of Bombay Gothic - a spectacular tribute to this style’s presence in the city, followed by a panel discussion that included conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, moderated by journalist and author Sidharth Bhatia.
Finally, the Asiatic Society hosted a special address yesterday, where curators Dr Antonia Moon and Dr Margaret Makepeace of the British Library in London spoke about the treasures inside the India Office Records. Take it from a die-hard Bombayphile - it doesn’t get better than this!
While at the Claude Bately Gallery that hosted FW Stevens’ drawings, one was able to chat with Professor Mustansir Dalvi, curator of the exhibition. The pencil drawings by the Englishman held centrestage, even as our chat crisscrossed diverse territory. “So, tell me Professor, how many of your students pursue conservation architecture? I asked.
The Professor, replied, “Not, too many. These days, modern projects are more lucrative, in every sense,” he replied, with a half smile. We didn’t need to prod. There is a dire need for this ilk. Looking around, barring students from the host college and some from the neighbourhood, the rest of the visitors were enthusiasts, experts, photographers, architects, silver-grey, bespectacled types, and scholars including Christopher London who dropped by.
This lack of the youth’s interest for our city’s heritage was reflected once again, at the Bombay Gothic session when one did a quick scan of the audience. Barring a handful, the average age was 50. And, as Abha Narain Lambah outlined the need for our city to respect and restore Mumbai’s heritage, one couldn’t help but wish to see more students and young researchers hear her speak of the current state of affairs, and hopefully, be inspired to own their city.
She spelt out how we, as a city are fast losing out what is left of a rich landscape, with its stunning showcase of mixed architectural styles that transcended centuries and influences - unlike seen anywhere in the world. Author London joined in, urging the powers that be to open up Mumbai’s public buildings so people can appreciate and respect it. “You pay taxes to the BMC but cannot enter its headquarters; isn’t that sad!” he exclaimed, as the audience applauded at his observation.
It’s crucial that we drive away this bogey, where heritage is regarded as the domain of “oldies” and “scholars”. Unless and until the youth of this city (read: school and college students) are initiated into this subject that is flourishing in our own backyard, by using simple, fun methods like field trips and visits to these stunning vignettes of history and heritage, and find mention in our textbooks, it will continue to be treated as off-limits, and thereby, unknown territory, tragically. In all probability, and like the buildings that have vanished, interest will cease to exist if this isn’t addressed soon enough.
We must act fast - this opening up of the city to the next generation will not only educate but help safeguard the city from a host of evils that threaten to destroy its very character that earned it the title of Urbs Primus in Indus (Latin: foremost city in India) in the 19th century.
The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY