The gold standard for Bombay's history

Updated: 28 September, 2020 08:11 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

When noted architect and urban thinker Kamu Iyer passed on earlier this month, he left behind a huge void not just among his fraternity. Here's how an American professor remembers his impact

Professor Mary Woods with Kamu Iyer and his daughter Aditi (right) in January 2020
Professor Mary Woods with Kamu Iyer and his daughter Aditi (right) in January 2020

Fiona FernandezAs I looked for Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, Kamu Iyer's deep-dive into the growth of the city, on my bookshelf, I noticed that it sat beside Santa Cruz That Was, a priceless documentation on the historic suburb by the late city chronicler Teresa Albuquerque. Whether that was serendipitous, I'm not sure, but it got me thinking even more about the loss of another heritage keeper of the city.

Iyer's passing is an irreparable loss to the architecture fraternity. His in-depth analysis had stitched, for so many of his ilk, present and future, the link between the city's glorious past and its present challenges. The latter was astutely validated by the great Charles Correa in the foreword he wrote for this book – '[reading through this book will] provide us with clues on how to reverse the grave (perhaps terminal) blunders we are currently making.' For journalists like yours truly, who track the heritage and urban planning beats, his inputs are worth their weight in gold.

And, so, it was heartwarming to see generations of architects, academics and urban thinkers pay tribute to this contribution; his thirst for knowledge and humility in sharing it. One such ode was from Professor Mary Woods, of Cornell University. The scholar who specialises in history of architecture and urbanism, shared a beautiful connection that I discovered in course of our email exchanges last week. It offered further insight into the many lives he touched within and outside India. It was back in 2007-08, through fellow academic Vandana Ranjit Sinh, that she met Iyer while working on her book about women architects in India. Hereafter, she'd visit him at his office each time she was in Mumbai.

"He was, as Kamuji was for so many Indians and foreigners, the gold standard for Bombay's past, present, and future. I will always treasure the long conversations followed by lunch in his conference room with his young partners, his former students," she wrote, adding that while she mourned the loss of a cherished friend, mentor, and teacher, she also hoped to celebrate his life as a remarkable architect, professor, historian, writer, advocate, and citizen. Iyer's wit and laughter came in from special mention; this I recall, too, each time I'd pick his brains for an input on a city heritage story. "Why would you want to quote an octogenarian architect for this story! Will it really add weight?" he'd chuckle, not before offering fantastic insight on the topic of discussion.

Other anecdotes followed, as we discussed the great mind. Like how it was the visionary planner JB Mhatre, his guru, who inspired Iyer to become an architect. The now demolished Art Deco-styled Goldfinch Apartments in Five Gardens, where Iyer grew up and spent almost all his married life with his beloved wife, Lalitha, was built by Mhatre. The seven decades resulted in invaluable research about the origins of the Dadar-Matunga neighbourhood and is well documented in the book that I now hold even dearer.

The more I exchanged emails with the professor, the more it became evident how Iyer gave so much to the architecture, people, culture, and everyday life and spaces of his beloved Bombay. "It is a huge loss; we need him now more than ever to guide us into a post-COVID world this is more just, sustainable, and engaging for all." For Bombay that's changing with head-spinning rapidity, we can only hope that these words and his vision are kept alive, somehow.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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First Published: 28 September, 2020 08:02 IST

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