Bombay Local History Society to move out of St Xavier's?

Updated: Aug 22, 2019, 07:52 IST | Dalreen Ramos

After over 40 years of being housed inside the premises, management requests society to shift base citing space and fund constraints

Fr Henry Heras
Fr Henry Heras

In 1925, Fr Henry Heras — after whom St Xavier's College's (SXC) Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture is named — found"ed the Bombay Historical Society. Taking this legacy of learning local history a step ahead Fr (Dr) John Correia-Afonso renamed it the Bombay Local History Society (BLHS) in 1978 in light of a seminar named 'Bombay: The Gateway to India'. Following its inception, a slew of programmes began — both beginner-friendly and academically enriching. After operating on the college premises for over 40 years housed inside the Heras Institute, the society announced that they would have to shift base. Citing space and fund constraints, the college would be unable to accommodate the society.

On August 20, there was an emergency meeting summoned by BLHS secretary and director of Heras Institute to discuss the future of the society. "It was informed by the management representative, Fr Pesso, SJ of the St Xavier's College Society that they would like the BLHS to discontinue functioning from the premises of St Xavier's College," the statement on their Facebook page read. Since only 13 of the 250 members were present at the meeting, a decision on its continuation or closure could not be made. According to the statement, "The members present felt that as a consequence the BLHS should not be wound up but it would function from some other premises outside St Xavier's College and the BLHS could be registered as a society under the Societies Registration Act." So, another meeting will be held on September 28.

St Xavier's College is celebrating 150 years this year
St Xavier's College is celebrating 150 years this year

Money crunch

When we contacted Joan Dias, secretary, BLHS, she said she would have clarity on the subject only after the September meeting. Fr Pesso was unavailable for comment.  Refuting the claim of space constraints, a member of the BLHS said, "Logistically, there are no challenges because the members of Heras are the same who run BLHS." But the primary reason for the management's decision seems to be funding. A chunk of the money goes towards printing the annual journal, The Bombay Explorer, comprising research papers and running no ads. The society has also never had a permanent sponsor but has on occasion received funding from Pheroza Godrej. "Printing should cost approximately R50,000. We had a seminar last year and only 3-4 members had attended the BLHS. So, when you organise something and people don't turn up then the speaker also feels bad. We don't even charge people for walkabouts. Secondly, it wasn't a registered organisation as such. It was just out of mere love for Mumbai," the member adds.

The society also has about Rs 20,000 in its fixed deposits which the college is willing to return to its members. "The problem is that there are very few members joining each year and the rest are old and unable to attend. It has outlived its usefulness and so we either move elsewhere or figure out a way that benefits the college as well. But for an autonomous college, it's not good on their part to put a break on historical sources," a member added.

Losing out on history

Dr Fleur D'Souza, former Head of Department (History) and vice principal (Arts) of SXC, reminisces her postgraduate days in the 70s at SXC when studying the history of Bombay was an optional course. In 2012, when the college became autonomous, a course on the urban heritage of Mumbai was made part of the syllabus. But, BLHS was instrumental all along. "Bombay local history owes a great deal to Dr (Fr) John Correia-Afonso and Dr GM Moraes the first Head of the Dept Of History of the University of Bombay encouraged studies in the History of the city. With National History, Regional or World History dominating pre-set syllabi, Local History did not make the cut with the purists. Fr John's vision drew in the academic and the amateur to take an interest in "Bombay's" History.

The Society's multi-faceted programme included the Walks led by eminent Mumbaikars like Foy Nissen, Mr SS Rege and Fr John himself. The annual Seminar in September drew papers from people who had been part of the city's development and History like the former Fire Chief Mr LS Mehervanjee's paper on the Great Dock Explosion of 1944. Additionally there were organised Museum visits and Field trips," she said. A BLHS member said material found in the journals are difficult to find elsewhere. They said, "Some members come asking for archival material but it doesn't belong to them but Heras Institute. It's sad this has to happen during the 150 years celebrations."

1925
Year the Heras Institute of Indian History and Culture was founded

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