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Bombay's Dedicated Champion

Sharada Dwivedi (1942-2012) recorded the contribution of everyone to the growth and evolution of Bombay, whether it was that of a colonial administrator, an immigrant labourer, an itinerant scholar, an industrialist or a trade unionist. If she was the chronicler of vanished eras in the city's collective life, she was also a passionate advocate of contemporary causes such as pedestrianisation, low-cost housing and conservation of architectural heritage.

COMMENTARY

form and metropolitan culture held in

Bombay’s Dedicated Champion

postcolonial India.

The context for these debates was the Bombay of the 1990s, a metropolis in Ranjit Hoskote the backwash of the 1980s textile mill

Sharada Dwivedi (1942-2012) recorded the contribution of everyone to the growth and evolution of Bombay, whether it was that of a colonial administrator, an immigrant labourer, an itinerant scholar, an industrialist or a trade unionist. If she was the chronicler of vanished eras in the city’s collective life, she was also a passionate advocate of contemporary causes such as pedestrianisation, low-cost housing and conservation of architectural heritage.

Ranjit Hoskote (ranjit.hoskote@gmail.com) is a poet, cultural theorist and curator; he is currently research scholar-in-residence at BAK/ basis voor actuele kunst, Utrecht.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 25, 2012

S
harada Dwivedi, who passed away on 6 February, had crafted a unique role for herself in the public life of Bombay. An indefatigable cultural researcher, self-taught urban historian and advocate for the conservation of urban architectural heritage, she imparted the compelling idea of a civic imagination to large numbers of people in the west-coast metropolis. Instead of regarding themselves as victims of policy, as most citizens do, Dwivedi insisted that citizens should think and act as participants in their collective destiny, shaping their lived environment. This would call for an extension of their consciousness at a variety of scales, ranging from an attentiveness towards traffic patterns and street furniture to an affection for the distinctive character of a neighbourhood or a specific idiom of architecture. If citizens could retrieve their city’s history and internalise it as collective memory, she believed, they would have undertaken a profoundly enriching act of self-renewal. Only thus, she argued, could a city’s inhabitants overcome the drudgery and self-alienation of mere urban existence, and embrace the amplitude of metropolitan belonging.

Over a period of nearly three decades, during which she documented and celebrated such iconic Bombay institutions as the city’s colonial Fort area, its neo-Gothic and Art Deco architecture, the Jehangir Art Gallery and the high court, Dwivedi had herself become an iconic Bombay institution. Educated at Queen Mary’s School, Sydenham College and the University of Bombay, she combined a fine grasp over archival research with a gift for the telling insight into collective life. Her intimate knowledge of her city’s public history and its unwritten chronicles, which extended across the language-universe of English as well as of Marathi, enabled her to contribute significantly to some of the liveliest and most productive discussions on urban

vol xlviI no 8

strike that had finished off its major industrial base, and poised on the edge of the lunatic developer-driven building boom that would throw up a mountain range of science-fictional towers in a topography otherwise covered by lowrise housing and vast shanty towns. Between these two scenarios, Bombay in the 1990s was briefly able to entertain other, more constructive alternatives in architecture and urban design: alternatives that emphasised the quality of life of the greatest number, low-cost housing, the regeneration of urban precincts, and the protection of built form of a historic character, which embodied the memory and the imagination of the city.

Through her long-term collaboration with the architect and urbanist Rahul Mehrotra – which resulted in numerous volumes, the best known being Bombay: The Cities Within – Dwivedi greatly amplified our appreciation of Bombay as a rich and kaleidoscopic outcome of cultural, political and aesthetic negotiations staged over several centuries. In her account, Bombay could never be locked inside a box bearing a nativist or regionalist label on the outside; for her, Bombay’s compelling and perennial aura developed from its ability to elude all such labels. She never omitted to name and annotate any contributor to the growth and evolution of Bombay, whether that contributor was a colonial admini strator, an immigrant labourer, an itinerant scholar, an industrialist or a trade unionist.

Free of ideological blinkers and attentive to the details of the historical record, Dwivedi was never afraid to proclaim that Bombay could not be reduced to any single ethnic, regional or linguistic constituency. Although Maharashtrian by birth, she robustly and courageously opposed the aggressive nativist politics of such parties as the Shiv Sena. As a gesture of her defiance of such a violent politics of identity, she insisted on calling her city “Bombay” rather than

COMMENTARY

“Mumbai”. To her, the former name enshrined what she saw to be the inclusive and cosmopolitan values of the metropolis at its best, while the latter was an imposition legislated into usage by a right-wing state government in 1995.

In the course of her work, Dwivedi managed adroitly to combine perspectives that are usually regarded as antithetical. If she was the chronicler of vanished eras in Bombay’s collective life, she was also a passionate advocate of contemporary causes such as pedestrianisation and low-cost housing. She was a connoisseur of the arts of detail and the techniques of 18th and 19th century builders, yet she was also an activist who fought the rapacious developer-politician lobby to secure open green spaces for today’s citizens. Dwivedi reconciled these seemingly opposite concerns to productive purpose: her hours of study in the archive informed her policy proposals; her knowledge of earlier models of urban design allowed her to argue against the official mismanagement of the city’s present.

During the 1990s, Dwivedi worked closely with Rahul Mehrotra on a campaign for the conservation of Bombay’s architectural heritage, and a programme for the revitalisation of the historic Kala Ghoda precinct. They convened a group of colleagues – among them architects, conservationists, and environmental activists – to publicise these causes. They played a critical role in the lobbying process that culminated in the landmark urban heritage conservation legislation that protects important typologies of built form in Bombay’s historic districts. By the late 1990s, Dwivedi, Mehrotra and their colleagues established the Kala Ghoda Association as a group of stakeholders in this precinct, well known for its vibrant and eclectic mix of cultural, academic and business establishments.

Bombay’s ‘Arts Quarter’

While Kala Ghoda was indeed close to the core of south Bombay and home to a number of art spaces, including one of India’s best known public galleries, the legendary Jehangir Art Gallery, the area had suffered many reverses through municipal and public neglect through the 1980s and early 1990s. Once the offices, schools and colleges had closed for the day, Kala Ghoda turned into a derelict piazza, ill-lit and ill-paved, dominated by drug peddlers, tarnished by unabashed soliciting. Through Dwivedi and Mehrotra’s efforts, Kala Ghoda was reconceived and presented as Bombay’s “arts quarter”; support from public figures brought about a dramatic transformation in the physical appearance of the area. Kala Ghoda has since renewed itself through an annual festival of the arts and periodic cultural manifestations; it has been reanimated by weekly heritage walks, another innovation proposed by Dwivedi and Mehrotra, as well as by improved street signage, street furniture and civic amenities.

Cultural Entrepreneur

However, Dwivedi was not merely a saviour of facades; her commitment to the metropolis was not limited to aesthetic delight and connoisseurial activism. To her, the modern city was a guarantee of the highest civilisational possibilities that humankind could craft for itself; to develop a civic imagination was, to her, simultaneously a cultural right and a political duty. As such, and especially during the years when Maharashtra was ruled by a right-wing coalition formed by the Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), she resolutely opposed all those violent strains of nativism and lumpen sectarianism that would choke these possibilities. Hers was an authoritative voice of reason, one that articulated the importance of treating culture as a heterogeneity to be critically celebrated, not as a monolith to be venerated blindly. Above all, Dwivedi believed in the primacy of the liberal, secular and cosmopolitan imagination. Her versatile practice, and her manifold contributions as researcher, historian, columnist, heritage conservation activist and publisher grew from this central belief.

In the same spirit, Dwivedi was remarkably generous in sharing her insights and information, and in guiding those looking for a thread into the labyrinth of the city, its municipal statutes and its cultural, economic and social history. As the city – its image and reality,

february 25, 2012

its present and future – became a major theme of the print media during the 1990s, many journalists came to rely on her knowledge and expertise. Whether they were senior editors or cub reporters, Dwivedi found the time, patience and energy to attend to their inquiries.

Alongside these demanding public commitments, Dwivedi continued with her own work as a researcher and writer, and as a cultural entrepreneur. She did not expect or demand the patronage of the State for cultural initiatives, but instead worked to raise funding and ensure distribution for the books she brought out as a member of Eminence Designs, a publishing cooperative that she founded with a number of friends and colleagues, including Bal Mundkur, Anju Bedi and Dhun Cordo. Eminence Designs, under Dwivedi’s stewardship, will be remembered for the extraordinary amplitude of authorial and readerly interests that were acknowledged through its list, which spanned cinema, the visual arts, architecture, the history of Indian cuisine and the arts of leisure, and urban history.

Dwivedi herself wrote on a number of these subjects, and collaborated, variously, with Shalini Devi Holkar on a history of traditional remedies as passed down in India’s royal homes (Almond Eyes, Lotus Feet), and with Charles Allen on a history of the legendary Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. Among her many books are Lives of the Indian Princes (1984), The Broken Flute (1994), Banganga, Sacred Tank (1996), Abu Jani, Sandeep Khosla: A Celebration of Style (2000) and Premchand Roychand: His Life and Times (2006).

To her large circle of friends, Sharada Dwivedi was a good and dependable friend; she was as generous in her praise of what she liked as she could be outspoken in her criticism of what she did not like. She was always excited by the thought of embarking on new projects, always inspired by the possibility of transforming both the physical as well as the mental landscapes in which the city stages itself. Her departure diminishes Bombay’s cultural scene greatly, and leaves the metropolis bereft of one of its most dedicated champions.

vol xlviI no 8

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

Referees Consulted in 2011

1 A R Vasavi 29 K V Ramaswamy 57 Ramachandra Guha
2 A V Jose 30 Kalpana Kannabiran 58 Raman Kutty
3 Alok Rai 31 Karen Coelho 59 Ramesh Chand
4 Amita Baviskar 32 Latha Gangadharan 60 Ravi Nair
Anant Maringanti 33 M H Suryanarayana 61 Reetika Khera
6 Arindam Dasgupta 34 Madhav Prasad 62 Rinku Murgai
7 Asad Sayeed 35 Mary John 63 Ritu Dewan
8 Ashwini Deshpande 36 Mathias Pandian 64 Samita Sen
9 Avinash Kumar 37 Mausami Das 65 Sanjay Reddy
Banikanta Misra 38 Mekhala Krishnamurty 66 Sharad Chari
11 Biswamoy Pati 39 Modhumita Roy 67 Sharmila Rege
12 C Ravi 40 N Krishnaji 68 Sudhir Chella Rajan
13 C Veeramani 41 Nalini Rajan 69 Sudip Chaudhuri
14 Chandan Mukherjee 42 Navdeep Mathur 70 Sugata Marjit
Chandrika Sharma 43 Nirupama Subramanian 71 Sukumar Muralidharan
16 C P Chandrasekhar 44 Nitya Ramakrishnan 72 Sunil Mani
17 D N Reddy 45 P S Vijayshankar 73 Surinder Jodhka
18 E A S Sarma 46 Padmini Swaminathan 74 T K Sundari
19 Gita Sen 47 Pallavi Chavan 75 T Nagi Reddy
H Srikanth 48 Partha Ray 76 T T Rammohan
21 Haris Gazdar 49 Parthapratim Pal 77 Thomas George
22 Himanshu 50 Parthasarathi Mondal 78 Thomas Weisskopf
23 J Devika 51 Pinaki Chakraborty 79 Tushaar Shah
24 Janaki Nair 52 Poornima Chikarmane 80 Uday Kumar
Jean Dreze 53 Pulapre Balakrishnan 81 Veronique Dupont
26 Joe Lobo 54 R Nagaraj 82 Vidya Rao
27 Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria 55 Raghuram Raju 83 Vinay Gidwani
28 K L Krishna 56 Rama Baru 84 Viswanathan Iyer
(The list includes editors/reviewers of the Review of Rural Affairs, Review of Urban Affairs and the Review of Women’s Studies)

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
february 25, 2012 vol xlviI no 8

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