Kala Ghoda’s True Heritage

One of the worst examples of the neglect of the city’s history is the Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai. This sounds like a contradiction – in recent years Kala Ghoda has become synonymous with the heritage movement, with its museums and galleries, arts festivals and concerts, and recently restored colonial architecture. But if the conservationists had bothered to look behind their charming building facades and fancy street furniture, they would note that one of India’s most venerable and best-stocked repositories of historical documents occupies the back of the Elphinstone College building, in the Maharashtra State Archives (MSA).

The MSA is a treasure-trove of government records, correspondence, maps, and all manner of big and small publications stretching back nearly four hundred years, from the Marathas, Portugese, British and postcolonial Indian governments. The staff of the MSA are the real keepers of the city’s heritage, the Common Man who cannot afford the glossy coffee table books or steep entrance fees to the festivals and concerts celebrating Mumbai’s heritage.

More knowledgeable than their better-paid counterparts in such places as London’s British Library or Delhi’s National Archives, these clerks and peons eagerly serve up the papers and files which are the historian’s raw material for narrating stories about the still mostly untold history of the city and its region. Everything from sewerage reports from Victorian Bombay, to the diaries and letters of Maratha ministers and chiefs, to early town planning schemes and maps for Bandra and Juhu may be found in the MSA. The tragedy is that once in your hands, many of these records crumble to pieces before they can be read, or have already been eroded over time by the elements.

In spite of the flourishing interest in researching and understanding the history, culture and politics of Bombay/Mumbai amongst various groups of academics and urban professionals – from anthropologists and activists to film-makers and architects – the career of the urban researcher in Mumbai is a precarious adventure. The existing institutions charged with this task are, for the urban researcher, a veritable black hole, nowhere more so than the sprawling campus of the University of Mumbai.

While Bombay University was in many ways the birthplace of the social science research in India – the old Bombay School of Economics and Sociology counted amongst its graduates the venerable G.S. Ghurye and M.N. Srinivas – it is nowhere on the map of the new urban research being conducted by NGOs setup in recent years to study and report on urban culture, design, governance and planning. And these NGOs themselves often function in dubious ways, setup by foreign academics for offshore influence peddling, or by the city’s elites to entrench their agendas with the BMC and MMRDA.

The unfortunate result of this situation is that coffee table heritage has replaced serious historical and social research. For example, a well-known work about the “cities within” glorifies the progressive role of the colonial era Bombay Improvement Trust in urban development. To the historian, this is something akin to calling the land-grabbing and corruption of the present-day Slum Rehabilitation Authority an enlightened civic governance. With the vacuum left behind by the collapse of genuine research institutions, critical and independent research in and on Mumbai must play second-fiddle to the whims and agendas of local socialities, foreign academics, and the racketeering of consultants and bureaucrats, all seeking to turn Mumbai into a “global city” through patronage of “urban research”.

Unfortunately, most of the best recent research on Mumbai is done by writers and academics based in wealthy private universities in the U.S. and U.K. One consequence of this is that these scholars are neither responsible to local institutions such as the MSA, nor does their work circulate back to those for whom it is an essential element in discussions about the past and future of Mumbai.

(Published in TimeOut Mumbai special issue on Bombayology Vol.3, Issue 24, 27 June to 9 August 2007)

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