Where eagles soar

Jul 26, 2015, 06:30 IST | Meher Marfatia

These are among a total 18 medallions, representing human virtues, carved in dark shisham on three teak doors leading into the little chapel of St Xavier’s College. Sitting at a pew a quarter century after leaving the alma mater, I remain awed

Loves Mumbai and adores Bombay

Q. Match the following: Akbar, Tagore, JN Tata, da Vinci, Pasteur, Michelangelo. Art, Science, Enquiry, Wealth, Kindness, Glory.
A. Read pairings in reverse: Akbar goes with glory, Tagore kindness, Tata wealth, da Vinci enquiry, Pasteur science, Michelangelo art.

These are among a total 18 medallions, representing human virtues, carved in dark shisham on three teak doors leading into the little chapel of St Xavier’s College. Sitting at a pew a quarter century after leaving the alma mater, I remain awed. Porbunder stone pinnacles and white Amnagar stone windows stream soft sunlight on students retreating here —for prayer, study or romance (couples struck by first love sneaked in long before bolder liaisons were whispered of in the Eighties, when we attended).

Former Xavierite Joshua Lewis captures the crisscrossing  library stairwaysFormer Xavierite Joshua Lewis captures the crisscrossing library stairways

The beautiful 1909 building has just been declared the city’s sole college to be conferred heritage status by the University Grants Commission. But its outstanding feature is neither the ancient artefacts collection of the Heras Institute that nestles within the campus, nor the 2,00,000 rare specimens in the Blatter Herbarium.

It is continuing legacy that peaks the college pride. Beyond simply harking back to a hoary past, St Xavier’s is a living legend. Chapel to chai, cantilever to canteen, wooden steps to The Woods are proof of magic moments. This is architecture always alive. Every brick in the wall, every arch and apse, every spire and steeple still speaks. Sculpted flourishes on trefoils and quatrefoils to 100-year-old flagstone paths glow with eloquence and elegance. Each exquisite column, cornice and capital tells its tale, from the smallest niche in the imposing Gothic portals.

The transition of St Xavier’s from a straggle of chemistry sheds to full symmetrical sprawl was thanks to its visionary principal Fr Gonzalo Palacios. A Renaissance man like many Jesuit brothers of his time, he was full of new ideas for the construction plan and made a familiar sight chipping away at the curve of a curlicue here, a corner detail there...

On January 25, 1937, the main cluster of hall, reference library and lecture rooms opened with performances of Shakespeare’s King Richard the Third and Milton’s The Masque of Comus — shorn of female roles to avoid offending “local sentiments”.

If the moving spirits behind Theatre Group tasted stage passion in their heyday in this hall, Rahul da Cunha more recently recalls the same space packed with Xavierites for a show of Class of ’84. The play — which he scripted and directed is about six pals from his college gang which graduated that year. He says, “Returning to the roots of the play felt nostalgic. I wrote it essentially for my generation, only to be convinced that evening that the play is quite ageless.”

The college with some of the most charismatic Spanish priests gracing Indian shores, has seen twinkle-eyed anthropology professor, Fr John Macia, pitch suggestions at auditions for the Yugaantar acting group. “Use what you have around you,” he urged, smiling up at a gargoyle gushing water from its mouth-spout in the quadrangle where we struggled over a monsoon scene. Economics Major Sakina Halela traded learning the laws of supply and demand for afternoons spent devouring edgy English Literature Fascinated by Doll’s House, she recalls, “Ibsen’s psychotic characters led to hot debates in whichever corridor we walked.”

Fleur D’Souza, who heads the history department, pushes her pupils to connect with campus discoveries. She shares a fun fact piling contemporary charm onto classic antiquity: junior college kids, fresh from school, are convinced the grand crisscrossing library stairways resemble ‘the moving staircases of Hogwarts’. Perennially sniffing promise on the premises, Potter fans freak out to find further baffling delights: strange steps winding nowhere, a turret like a witch’s lair, secret cupboards never unlocked and creaky lifts seldom rising to a single floor!

I leave the chapel giving those entrance medallions a last look. Riding the Eurocentric wave at the start of World War II, when this structure was designed, Power is symbolised by King George VI and Leadership by General Franco. My favourite panel links Joy to (GK) Chesterton, his wittily insightful writing itself a fine education.

Inscribed with the Latin motto Provocans ad volandum “provoking to flight” the college crest has a mother eagle encouraging her fledglings to soar free.

We’d like to think we’ve taken wing well.

Write in to Meher at mehermarfatia@gmail.com

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