Our neighbour, Foy

Updated: Mar 17, 2019, 17:42 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Altamount Road residents Manju and Mona Mehra remember a Bombayphile Danish neighbour with the re-release of a coffee table book that celebrates a man who loved Mumbai with the passion of a local

Our neighbour, Foy
Mona and Manju Mehra spent over a year piecing together this labour of love as a tribute to neighbour Foy Nissen. Pic/Atul Kamble

Foy Nissen looked inside Bombay, into its corners and contours. That's what made his frames extra special," Justice Gautam Patel said at the launch of a photo exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, earlier this week.

The 100-odd members in the audience, a mix of conservationists, historians, cultural influencers, archivists and young heritage lovers, listened as he discussed the late Danish photographer and heritage visionary's iconic frames.

A quiet moment with her doll. Children were often Nissen's key subjects
A quiet moment with her doll. Children were often Nissen's key subjects

In the group were the Mehra sisters, Manju and Mona. They heard intently as the other speakers, Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation trustee Cyrus Guzder, and Kamini Sawhney, curator of the exhibition, hailed his invaluable contribution to Mumbai.

But to the sisters, before indophile, Nissen was a neighbour. For over 50 years, they lived across floors in Olympus apartment on Altamount Road, and cared for him through his prolonged illness before passing in August 2018. Last week, as we had made our way to the Mehra residence, Manju took our call on a possible delay, and before hanging up, said, "Waiting for you to join us for lunch.

Nissen liked photographing people looking out of windows. Pics Courtesy/Jehangir Nicholson art foundation
Nissen liked photographing people looking out of windows. Pics Courtesy/Jehangir Nicholson art foundation

You like Punjabi food, no?" Ten minutes into our meeting, we realised they had cared for Nissen with similar warmth. "We couldn't bear to see him alone, with no one to care for him," Manju said, as we flipped through the pages of coffee table book of Nissen's photos, re-released recently. A black and white picture of young Nissen on the book jacket, Manju said, was from his days at Cambridge. "So dashing! Just like a Hollywood star," she had gushed. "He would head out on his Vespa, with a camera around his neck, to a new part of the city each time. Often, the pillion rider would be a historian or photographer," Mona added. In fact, legendary British artist Howard Hodgkin, and world historians Gillian Tindall and Christopher London had all benefited from Nissen's scooter rides. "He loved to photograph children, and was fascinated by Banganga [in Walkeshwar]. And window frames caught his fancy. But, it was the people in every shot that mattered most," recalled Mona.

Guide and mentor to young scholars and researchers is how the sisters remember the Danish chronicler, who mostly kept to himself, even as he continued to nurture his love affair with the city.

Visitors examine the recreation of Foy Nissen's Fort walk map at the inauguration of the exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar
Visitors examine the recreation of Foy Nissen's Fort walk map at the inauguration of the exhibition at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

"By early 2010-11, he had taken ill. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and dementia, and needed help since he lived alone. Soon, his older friends, including fellow Cathedralite Ratan Lalkaka and Pauline Rohatgi, alerted all his friends in the city, and ensured that he was made comfortable, with help around the clock. As his neighbours, we couldn't ignore his condition," Mona said.

Ramkrishan Gadkar, Nissen's Man Friday, who came by to meet us that Wednesday afternoon, was by "Nissen saab's" side since 2011. "Saal 2014 ke baad, woh zyaada baat nahin karte they. Lekin, dil ke bahut bade the," he remembered. After Nissen's passing, his collection of nearly 4,000 books and 5,000 slides was meticulously archived by this trio and a few others, including conservation architect Vikas Dilawari. This set was donated to various institutions, from his alma mater in Cambridge to JNAF and his beloved Asiatic Library. Some of his iconic black and white frames grace the entrance of Olympus, acquainting visitors of a once famous resident.

Foy Nissen
Foy Nissen

Throughout the meeting, English classics played softly on loop at the Mehra residence. "Did Nissen like music?" "He loved all the Western Classical greats, especially Bach. And was fond of playing the flute; I think he was self-taught," Manju smiled. "In fact, around Christmas, we, including our late mother who was very fond of him, would get into festive mode, and drop by Foy's home to sing carols," Mona laughed, egging on Manju to recall the funny hats they would sport on these occasions.

The Nissen exhibition

Guide
The Mehra sisters point to the frames by Nissen that grace the entrance to Olympus apartment, his home in Mumbai

"While Foy Nissen was alive, Cyrus Guzder was presented with a book of his work put together by Manju and Mona Mehra. We decided it had to be shared with Mumbai through an exhibition. When the trustees of his estate were looking for a home for his work, they felt JNAF would be a good place to hold the archives. The collection is in our safekeeping but once it is systematically archived, it will be made available to scholars and researchers." - Kamini Sawhney, curator, Foy Nissen's Bombay

The Internet of his time

In the 1980s, the term 'architectural historian' was unknown. Several international doctoral students came to Bombay to take it up as their Ph.D. thesis. Being an expatriate brought up in Mumbai, trained in Cambridge and working with the British Council as Cultural Activity In-charge, Foy would show scholars and guests, and in doing so enhanced his own knowledge. He guided Gillian Tindall, Dr. Christopher London, and several others. He was the Internet of his time.

GuideAsiatic Library, statue of Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Baronet. Nissen considered the landmark his "home" according to the Mehra sisters. He would spend hours poring over its archives or photographing its interiors

 

At that time, the Save Bombay Committee headed by Kisan Mehta, BEAG (Bombay Environment Action Group) led by Shyam Chainani needed academic insight to give their activism necessary meaning. Most of them counted on Foy who helped them voluntarily. The initial INTACH list of 1985-88 was under his guidance. He was like the unseen foundation to Bombay's heritage movement. - Vikas Dilawari, conservation architect

On till June 16 at Jehangir Nicholson Gallery, CSMVS, MG Road. Mondays closed.

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