Finding Bombay: American architect Robert Stephens to showcase 16 rare guidebooks at exhibition

May 12, 2018, 17:30 IST | Fiona Fernandez

At an upcoming exhibition American architect, photographer and collector, Robert Stephens, will showcase 16 rare guidebooks about Bombay

Kala Ghoda Books
The Urbs Indis collection will be housed at the Urban Design & Research Institute Library (UDRI) in Kala Ghoda, and is available for reference Monday to Friday during working hours. PICS/BIPIN KOKATE

In HA Newell's guidebook, 1924 Bombay: The Gate of India, he writes for the benefit of the newcomer (to the city): "The Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society is situated in the Town Hall, Elphinstone Circle. The library is open from 10.30 am to 7 pm. To enter, a member's introduction is necessary."

"For nearly a century, it has been rather complex to enter and use the Asiatic Library. My experience of obtaining a year's membership in 2016 entailed not one, but two existing member references, lots of paperwork, and weeks of waiting. I find it perplexing and unfortunate that an institution of such cultural value would not make it simpler for common people to access and reference the collection," rues American architect Robert Stephens, recounting his ordeal that will resonate with researchers and students seeking entry into the library's hallowed environs. He's in the middle of giving us a sneak peek into his collection of vintage titles on the city (all in mint condition) that would make any Bombayphile do a mental jig in the head.

Robert Stephens

Stephens is a week away from the launch of his exhibition Mumbai Guidebooks (1880-1980) at ARTISANS' in Kala Ghoda. It will be a tactile exhibition of 16 rare books and pamphlets dating to this period that were handy companions for British soldiers as well as 21st century tourists. "Five years ago, I began collecting guidebooks. I would imagine that every new visitor to Bombay/Mumbai would reference a guidebook at some point in his/her journey through the city. This pursuit of 'place knowledge' has survived for centuries," he tells us, adding that the booksellers at Fort were his go-to guys. Detailed maps, illustrations and trivia are packed into hardbounds and paperbacks; "Paperbacks were introduced during wartime, when finances were tight across the globe," he informs, as we gaze at the noticeably frugal use of colour, feeble paper quality, and smaller size of some guides meant for soldiers posted in the city.

aerial photograph of Mumbai by Robert Stephens
An aerial photograph of Mumbai by Robert Stephens. He loves seeing cities as spaces of millions and places of ecology — both social and natural. Once one studies the history of a place, it is fascinating to discover how these ecologies intertwine and grow together over generations, Stephens maintains

Accompanying the exhibition is the launch of Urbs Indis: Cities of India, Stephens' online aerial photography gallery and archival library. "Urbs Indis gives digital form to the three-dimensional exhibitions of photographs and books that have featured at ARTISANS' over the years, including Mumbai Articles (2014), Mumbai North (2016), and Mumbai Shadows (2017)." Taking us through the site, he adds that it will be an online journal for all kinds of curious minds, with five aerial photography galleries spanning Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi, 12 reading rooms (one of which has Mumbai Guidebooks), an online journal featuring walkthroughs of public libraries and interviews with rare book collectors in India. The easily navigable site also offers a teaser of the aerial photography series spanning the subcontinent, including Ahmedabad Walls that is scheduled to open in October 2018 at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Ahmedabad.

Throughout our chat with Stephens, his intent and dedication are writs all over these projects, giving us hope that an individual can actually help work towards building the collective awareness of a city, one book and one photograph at a time.

OPENS May 18, 7 pm TILL May 27
At ARTISANS', 52-56, Dr VB Gandhi Marg, Kala Ghoda. TIME 11 am to 7 pm CALL 09820145397

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