An Anchor Drops

Sharada Dwivedi was indefatigable. With her death, the project to preserve Bombay’s fragile heritage will get tougher

Sharada Dwivedi (right) with Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect, in front of University of Mumbai’s convocation hall in July 2007. AMOL KAMBLE / DNA
Elections 2024
01 March, 2012

NEAR THE BEGINNING of my reporting career, my editor at the Indian Express in Bombay proposed that the paper create a heritage and conservation beat, and that I cover it. “Look at how things are changing around us,” he said, referring to Girangaon, the fast-altering mill district in Central Bombay where our newsroom had recently moved after shifting from the longstanding office in downtown Nariman Point. I welcomed his offer, seeing it as an opportune replacement for the PhD in History I never pursued, and an ideal re-entry into the city I grew up in, and later left for undergraduate studies.

Researching a story on the minuscule Chinese community in Bombay for an early assignment, I called up the historian Sharada Dwivedi, having seen a copy of the magisterial book she had co-authored, Bombay:The Cities Within, in our office library. She asked me what I had studied and where, and then launched into a conversation, as if she were an old source. Soon, the hoarse voice on the other end of the phone was delivering rich details, mostly from memory, while pointing me to primary and secondary sources on Bombay’s Chinese I had known little about. Sharada ended the conversation by counselling me to read a short story by the writer Kiran Nagarkar about a Chinese dentist on Grant Road, which she would send. I hung up, feeling like I had struck gold.

Over the next four years, Sharada lived up to her promise of making Bombay’s conservation beat an exceedingly rich field, unfailingly serving up great amounts of information and leads to pursue. Her knowledge of the city, and its transformation through the decades, was unmatched. Trained in library science, Sharada began researching the history of South Bombay’s Taj Mahal Hotel in the 1980s. She dug up so much material in the process that she and friend and architect, Rahul Mehrotra, began a newspaper column on the city’s history. Out of this evolved the idea to do a full-fledged book, Bombay:The Cities Within, published in 1995. The book quickly became—and remains—the definitive guide to the city’s transformation from a set of nondescript islands in precolonial India to a pulsating metropolis at the close of the century, part opportunity, part frustration for its more than 12 million inhabitants. This work launched a prolific period of books co-authored by Sharada. These included a walking guide to Bombay’s original historic city centre, the Fort Area (Fort Walks: Around Bombay’s Fort Area; 1999), histories of the Banganga tank in the Walkeshwar temple complex at Malabar Hill (Banganga, Sacred Tank; 1996), the Chhatrapati Shivaji Rail Terminus or VT—Victoria Terminus—(Anchoring a City Line: The History of the Western Suburban Railway and its Headquarters in Bombay; 2000), and the city’s Art Deco buildings (Bombay Deco; 2008). Her most recent work was The Taj at Apollo Bunder, on the century-old seafront Taj Mahal Hotel which was restored last year, after being damaged by the November 2008 terrorist attack.

Marrying social and architectural history, Sharada’s scholarship on the city holds qualities rare in Indian historiography—a feeling for one’s subject, and an absorbing narrative. Greatly attentive to presentation, Sharada got involved in the book production process, setting up her own publishing house, Eminence Designs, in 1996. She had found few publishers who could do justice to the magnificence of the historical material, in particular the array of archival images she routinely dug up to buttress her texts. This degree of investment was also because Sharada placed great value in engaging the public, and conveying a sense of collective cultural trusteeship. In the preface to ‘Fort Walks , she asked the reader to keep an eye out for any desecration of landmarks, and raise it with the authorities. She urged, “Your opinion, suggestion or objection—however minor it may seem, will go a long way in ensuring that the Government safeguards and protects this cultural heritage of the citizens of Bombay.”

In our conversations, Sharada would alternate between immense love for the city and its remarkable past, and sad, sarcastic anger for every misdeed being done to it. The heritage conservation beat was a study in the best and worst of human character—from dogged greed to idealistic pursuit of an often losing cause. Bombay was India’s first city to enact heritage regulations (respecting them was another matter). Nurtured by scholars like Sharada and a few civic-minded organisations, including the Urban Design Research Institute which she helped run, a young and talented group of architects were doing defining conservation work. But the overarching narrative remained the reckless destruction of historic and architectural gems, from colonial-era textile mills in Parel to standalone bungalows in Bandra and Santacruz. Over the course of the decade, the near-overnight demolitions of so many of Bombay’s landmarks provided an acute metaphor for how policymaking and governance in the city were hostage to a singular race to make vast amounts of money by mining some of the world’s highest real estate rates.

A daughter of a civil servant who had served as Chief Secretary of the Maharashtra government, Sharada reserved her greatest anger for the current generation of public officials. Their lack of spine and scruples, she thought, were playing a special role in Bombay’s destruction. When she served on the civic Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee (MHCC), her frustration at the body’s powerlessness demonstrated the difficulty of elevating conservation concerns in urban policymaking, even when one had found a spot inside government. Equally, her ilk struggled to convey the need, and value, of preserving historic spaces to a city whose residents were caught up in more quotidian worries like the commute to work, a sputtering water supply, the threat of tenuous homes being demolished and the ever-spiralling costs of living.

But if engaging with the losing cause of heritage often resulted in despair, the past was also its own reward, a sense Sharada infectiously conveyed to reporters. Covering the beat included the pleasure of walking the city’s streets at dawn not just to photograph buildings in the best light, but to also take them in all their detail, before they were overrun by the day’s crowds. It brought long, muggy afternoons in the stacks of the Asiatic Library and The New & Secondhand Book Shop, scouring for story ideas and for images of a lost city to reproduce in the next morning’s newspaper. Most of all, the beat led me to the archive-like homes of Bombay’s small and special breed of historian-activists like Sharada, Shyam Chainani and Foy Nissen (while Chainani took calculated battles to the courtroom, Nissen retreated, bewildered and distraught by the rapid alterations to the urban landscape). In conversations with them, one often sensed that these remarkable individuals held on to a city, while suspecting that what they loved now only lived on in their encyclopaedic minds.

My last such meeting with Sharada was at her home in July 2010, on the eve of my departure from Bombay. She inscribed and gifted me two of her books including the richly illustrated Bombay Deco, and gave me a bear hug. As I left, she returned into her book-lined living room to work some more.

Sharada’s final email to me came some weeks ago. It restated the warring themes that rendered her scholarship and activism invaluable to Bombay, and its citizens:

“Am busy writing and publishing - just released a fabulous book by Jude Holliday on the stained glass heritage of Bombay. What can one say about Bombay’s heritage?! A new MHCC has not been appointed for 5 months so you can imagine how much heritage is going down the drain! 



This piece uses the city’s previous name, ‘Bombay,’ as a tribute to Sharada, who fiercely resisted using the changed name, ‘Mumbai.’