Foy Nissen: Custodian of city's heritage passes away

Aug 08, 2018, 07:09 IST | Benita Fernando

Mumbai pays homage to renowned historian Foy Nissen, who championed our architectural heritage

Foy Nissen: Custodian of city's heritage passes away
Foy Nissen

Last morning, the city bid adieu to one of her beloveds. Foy Nissen, a notable name in Mumbai's cultural landscape, passed away at 88. Formerly the British Council's representative in Mumbai in the 1970s, Nissen far exceeded his capacity as a cultural activity officer, earning a name as a friend of the arts, and a custodian of Mumbai's architectural heritage.

Pune-born Nissen studied the liberal arts at Christ's College, Cambridge, in the 1950s. His father held a high position as a government servant in Mumbai, while his mother was principal of the middle school at the Cathedral and John Connon School, Fort.

Later on, Nissen came to be known as a city historian, and became an advisor for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in 1984. He created the first list of 90 buildings at the beginning of the heritage listing that today protects several architectural masterpieces in the city.

Foy Nissen was laid to rest at the Sewri Cemetery on Monday. Pic/Bipin Kokate
Foy Nissen was laid to rest at the Sewri Cemetery on Monday. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Few like him
Noted conservation architect, Vikas Dilawari, who considers Nissen his mentor, says Nissen's connection with the British Council meant he was fortunate to meet people associated with culture. He recalls how Nissen would scout the city on his Lambretta, getting to know it so intimately that he was sought out by visiting academicians, artists and historians.

"He took extra pains to show Mumbai to visitors. This was at a time when the concept of scholarly guides was missing - there were few who spoke so extensively about Mumbai's architecture. He was the Internet of his time," says Dilawari.

His knowledge of the city was so vast, that his contribution is acknowledged in several tomes documenting Mumbai's history, such as Christopher London's Bombay Gothic. His home at Olympus Apartments, Altamount Road, played host to scholars and artists from India and abroad, becoming quite the adda of intellectuals.

Eye for detail
It was as a postgraduate student that Dilawari first encountered Nissen's fascination with Mumbai. Since then, Dilawari followed up on several suggestions made by the veteran Bombay expert on restoration projects. He admires Nissen's eye for detail, and the demand for finesse — all of which were employed in projects such as the restoration of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad (BDL) Museum.

Tasneem Zakaria Mehta, managing trustee and honorary director of BDL, says he was a familiar face at the many art openings in the city, until he took ill in his later years. His friendship with Sir Howard Hodgkin, the late British superstar painter known for his abstract work, is legendary. It is one that is made iconic in Hodgkin's Foy Nissen's Bombay, executed between 1975 and 1977.

Battled Alzheimer's
In his sunset years, when he battled Alzheimer's, Nissen was taken care of by sisters Mona and Manju Mehra, his neighbours. "He played the flute, and collected a vast number of books — of which we have 4,000. We have already placed some at the J N Petit Library, and hope the rest will find good hands," says Mona.

The Mehra sisters say that Nissen's other pastime was tracing family trees and histories. His own, in fact, was quite unique. While he looked obviously English, he was of Danish descent. But, he and his family were naturalised Indians. In memoriam, the sisters have compiled a book on Nissen, recording his knowledge of Mumbai, and paying homage to his strength as an artist.

Behind the camera
Among his many interests, Nissen also took to the camera, creating some remarkable monochrome photographs, some of which were shown in 1982 as part of 'The Other India: seven contemporary photographers' in Oxford at the Museum of Modern Art. In fact, now, Olympus' foyer has been turned into a gallery of sorts, with Nissen's photographs.

"His photographs often juxtaposed the common Mumbai person against its monuments. He looked past the city's faults and its poverty. He showed the real sights and sounds of Mumbai, unapologetically," says Manju. On that subject, Dilawari notes that Nissen's New Year's Eve ritual was to capture on camera the tradition of revellers burning Old Man effigies across the city.

In quiet repose
One of Nissen's most-frequented haunts in Mumbai was the Banganga tank, which he ardently showed off to his visiting friends. However, it found close competition from the Sewri cemetery. Nissen assisted the British Cemetery Association, and would look into the maintenance of the graves.

When the English and Scots turned to him for a city tour, says Manju, he would usher them to Sewri Cemetery to trace their buried ancestors and their family trees. And now, Nissen, the original Bombaywallah, joins their company there in quiet repose, becoming one with this city that he so cherished.

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