Bombay, one page at a time

Updated: Aug 29, 2019, 16:09 IST | Dalreen Ramos

With the Bombay Local History Society's future uncertain, a duo takes on the task of digitising its rich legacy of over 60 journals

The archive of BLHS is kept by Dr Shekhar Krishnan and Deepak Rao, curators of the TR Srinivasan & N. Sanjiva Rao, IPS Memorial Collection
The archive of BLHS is kept by Dr Shekhar Krishnan and Deepak Rao, curators of the TR Srinivasan & N. Sanjiva Rao, IPS Memorial Collection

Today, if you read the first issue of The Bombay Explorer (TBE) — the journal of the Bombay Local History Society (BLHS) — you’ll notice the irony in the introduction that begins with a verse from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding.

"We shall not cease from exploration... And the end of all our exploring... Will be to arrive where we started... And know the place for the first time."

After the management of St Xavier’s College (SXC) expressed their intent to wind up the activities of the society in the college premises, where the roots of this exploration lie, it is difficult to imagine how a legacy of 40 years can be suppressed into one-afternoon meeting. While the final decision will be taken on September 28, two members — Dr Shekhar Krishnan, a historian who works in the archives of the Municipal Corporation and State Police along with police historian Deepak Rao — are striving to keep this legacy alive through the digitisation of its journals and seminar papers.

BombayNissen’s photographs of a BLHS walk in Khotachiwadi in 1991 with Fr John Correia-Afonso

"We have maintained the BLHS journals and papers in our private collection and look forward to making it a public archive. This depends on the future of BLHS. For decades, the culture was to keep books and sources locked away in cupboards and request permissions, the question now is how to publish this rich heritage online," Krishnan, who started participating in BLHS activities over 20 years ago and became a member 10 years back. He also states that TBE, though not scholarly, was a pioneering journal in the 1980s for public and local history with rich content and deep sources. There is also no copyright for TBE.

bombayDeepak Rao

The contributors to the journal were often people central to the city’s cultural landscape — Foy Nissen, Teresa Albuquerque and Dr Jeanette Pinto. Rao, reminiscing about its heydays and particularly, the time he wrote a piece on the description of Malabar Hill according to various books he browsed through at the JN Petit Library, recalls how founder Fr John Correia-Afonso’s enthusiasm for the city shone throughout. "There was one seminar on the Indian Railways where the general managers of the Western and Central Railways brought along all their archives to set up an exhibition in the college," he shares.

BombayDr Shekhar Krishnan

Rao credits his ardent love for history to BLHS. Interested individuals can access material from this private collection by contacting the duo directly. Krishnan has already scanned 12 copies. In an age where, as he says, "The explosion of interest in local history online [in recent years] has ended up re-creating urban mythologies based on weak facts and research," perhaps it’s time for institutions to take cognizance of the history they helped build.

Email shekhark@alum.mit.edu

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