100 Years of Topiwala National Medical College & BYL Nair Hospital

This essay on the city’s first Indian-run medical college and public hospital was published in the centenary souvenir of B.Y.L. Nair Hospital and Topiwala National Medical College in 2022.

Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu visit the National Medical College with Dr D.D. Sathaye after Gandhi’s release from jail for Non-Cooperation in 1924


The National Medical College (NMC) was opened on 4 September 1921 in response to the call by Mahatma Gandhi to establish new “national” educational institutions during the Non-Cooperation Movement, begun in 1920. Its first students came from those who boycotted Grant Medical College (GMC) and other state-run institutions, protesting the unequal opportunities to learn and practice medicine in colonial India.

Dr Dinkar Dhonddev Sathaye, founder and first Superintendent of the National Medical College, 1921-24

The NMC became the second major medical college in the Bombay Presidency, the colonial province which covered most of western India. Its pioneering founders and faculty sought to “bring medical education within the reach of poor but deserving students” by “imparting sound training to Indian youth of moderate means and of cultivating among them a spirit of research and of service for suffering humanity”.

The college was a novel experiment which few expected would succeed – including Mahatma Gandhi. Supported entirely by public donations and student fees, it was taught by the city’s medical professionals on an entirely honorary basis in its initial stages.

NMC was founded by Dr Dinkar Dhondhdev Sathaye, an ophthalmic surgeon and nationalist who had been Secretary of the the Indian Home Rule League and the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee (BPCC) during World War I.

With a 136 students enrolled in its first year – of whom less than ten were female – the college was started in a large bungalow located behind Rani Baug at 2nd Victoria Cross Lane in Byculla, with classrooms, laboratories, dissection rooms, an Ayurvedic manufacturing unit.

Fees were Rs 60 per term. Evening lectures on medicine by well-known practitioners were held to packed audiences of medical students from across the city, including those from nearby GMC. A large residential hostel was built with accommodation for 150 students, from which the college earned rent.

Fund-raisers and charity performances were held in which thousands of rupees in donations were received, scholarships and prizes awarded to students, and prominent visitors were hosted. Grants and loans were received from the BPCC and its Tilak Swaraj Fund.

Modelled on courses in London and Edinburgh where Dr Sathaye had studied, the college initially offered a five-year general medical course, a four-year dental course, and a three-year BSc course. Faculty was almost entirely comprised of Indian surgeons and physicians who had graduated from British universities.

Students were required to study Hindi and either German or French (to facilitate study abroad). Ayurveda and Yunani were taught in parallel to Allopathy, and Indian medicines were made at the college and distributed in local dispensaries.

Cadavers for dissection and demonstration were provided by the Bombay City Police. Classes on botany were conducted by the college’s first Principal, Dr A.P. Kothare, in the Botanical Gardens of Rani Baug. NMC soon began offering postgraduate courses in applied chemistry, anatomy, bacteriology, and pathology.

NMC received generous donations of equipment and books from city practitioners, including the entire laboratory and library of renowned chemist and pharmacist T.K. Gajjar.

Free medical relief for the urban poor and clinical instruction to the students of the college was provided at the People’s Free Hospital in Agripada, the Aimai Merwanji Chamarbagwala Free Ophthalmic Hospital (Parel Eye Hospital) – earlier founded by Dr Sathaye – municipal clinics and maternity homes, and a general outpatient dispensary at the college in Byculla.

After his release from jail for Non-Cooperation in 1924, Gandhi visited the NMC with Sarojini Naidu. He apologised to Dr Sathaye for doubting whether the college would be ever become a success. But the nascent college remained in need of its own affiliated hospital for clinical training of its growing body of students, whose numbers doubled every term.


Dr Anandrao Nair (1861-1934), businessman, physician and philanthropist who supported the college and endowed the hospital in the name of his late mother, Bai Yamunabai Lakshman Nair

The Bai Yamunabai Lakshman (BYL) Nair Charitable Hospital was endowed as a teaching hospital for the college by Dr Anandrao L. Nair (1861 – 1934), physician and businessman, who announced the gift in the memory of his late mother at a benefit performance by the Maharashtra Natak Mandali at the college in Byculla on 1 April 1923. The month before, Nair had dedicated the BYL Nair Dental Hospital where the course in dental surgery would open.

Dr Nair was proprietor of the city’s largest medical instrument and pharmaceutical manufacturers, N. Powell’s & Co. From a humble soldier’s family in South India, he studied and practised medicine in Mumbai. A few years into his practice, Nair started a retail chemists shop with an English partner in 1886.

N. Powell’s & Co. manufactured medicines, surgical tools, orthopaedic appliances, aseptic hospital furniture, artificial limbs and other medical items, and were the Bombay agents for British and American suppliers. Their designs won awards in European and Indian medical exhibitions, and it diversified into chemical manufacturing, testing and research.

Letterhead of N. Powell & Co. in 1930, showing its office and showroom near Opera House and factory next to Bombay Central, the site of today’s Nair Charitable Hospital & National Medical College

The firm’s reputation helped it grow into the leading supplier to military and civilian authorities in India. During and after the first World War, when over a million Indian soldiers returned from Europe and the Middle East via the port of Bombay – bringing with them the global influenza pandemic – Powell’s were contractors for the British War Office.

The company equipped the largest war and field hospitals and troop ships docked in the city, and Dr Nair often treat wounded soldiers free of charge at its lab and showroom at Lamington Road.

Dr Nair devoted his postwar business fortune entirely to charities that still bear his mother’s name, most notably the hospital. He provided the land and funds to build the new charitable hospital and medical college next to a plot he had just sold to the railways for the construction of Bombay Central Station.

Nair endowed the new institution to “give free medical aid to poor suffering people of this locality irrespective Colour, Caste and Creed where such aid is badly needed”. The institution sought to further Gautama Buddha’s three principles of tolerance, non-violence, and universal love. A devout Buddhist, Dr Nair had started the Bombay Buddha Society years before in 1920.

The new buildings of the BYL Nair Charitable General Hospital were opened to the public on 7 May 1925. The fifty-bed hospital was managed by NMC professors and staff, with Dr RH Bhadkamkar as its first Chief Medical Officer. The hospital was built and equipped by Dr Nair’s firm N. Powell’s, with indigenously made instruments and equipment, and donations by the Bombay Red Cross Society, Johnson & Johnson’s and other firms and well-wishers.

Dr Anandrao L. Nair (back row, third from left) on a visit to Johnson & Johnson’s Laboratory in New Jersey, U.S.A. with his wife (front row, center) from Red Cross Notes (Series VIII, No.1, 1919)

Even as the hospital was nearing completion, splits in the college leadership had begun to emerge over the issue of professional licensing of its graduates. In its first three years NMC had affiliated to the the Tilak Maharashtra Vidyapeeth in Pune for granting a basic diploma, but with no license to practice. As a condition of recognition by the College of Physicians and Surgeons for the licentiate degree (L.C.P.S.), the British Surgeon General of Bombay insisted the college drop the Ayurveda and Yunani subjects in the original curriculum.

Dr Sathaye and others opposed the licentiate, which they regarded as an inferior degree. They did not wish to give up teaching indigenous systems alongside modern Western medicine, part of the college’s founding mission. Dr Sathaye resigned in protest. College co-founder and physiology professor Dr R.H. Bhadkamkar took over as college superintendent. He and Dr Kothare had to pacify unhappy students and assure them the licentiate was a step towards the more desirable M.C.P.S. and M.B.B.S. degrees.

Faced with no opportunity for its students to work as registered practitioners, and disqualification of the college under recent colonial laws against fake degrees and doctors, the College Council applied for recognition. This was granted by Government in January 1925, for a modified four-year course leading to the L.C.P.S. degree. With the new hospital for opening several months later, the NMC and BYL Nair Hospital were now on a firm institutional foundation.


On Budha Jayanti, 6 May 1926, foundations were laid for a large new building for the National Medical College in the compound of BYL Nair Hospital, which was opened by the Governor of Bombay on 28 November 1927. Six years since its foundation in Byculla, over two hundred students were enrolled, and many of its graduates had entered practice and service.

In addition to the main hospital, the college also operated a maternity home in municipal chawls at Mahalaxmi. and an Ayurvedic dispensary in the textile mill districts in Parel. In 1933 the BYL Nair Dental College was started from the Dental Hospital which had housed the dental surgery course since 1923.

In 1931, Dr Nair inaugurated Mumbai’s first Buddhist temple and monastery, called “Anand Vihara”, in the hospital and college compound. Run by the Bombay Buddha Society which he had started in 1920, it held weekly lectures and prayers, published a periodical called Buddha Prabha and new translations of Buddhist texts in Indian languages. The resting-house and public shrine was open to visiting monks and pilgrims who came from across Asia, Europe and America.

After Dr Nair’s death in 1934, his business and charities were run by his brother-in-law, radiologist and physiotherapist Dr M. Venkatrao, who was elected chairman of the college in 1927 and stepped into Dr Nair’s role as its chief benefactor and manager in the following years.

The number of hospital beds was increased to 75 in 1934, and new nurses’ and staff quarters built. During World War II, more beds and staff were added, even as the cost and demand for medical care increased manifold.

By the end of World War II in 1945, the college and hospital approached a financial crisis as its expenses had tripled. In its first 25 years, from its inception during Non-Cooperation in 1921 to 1946, the college and hospital was entirely supported by donations and fees, without any government grants.

In the year before Independence, 1946, the college embarked on a major expansion and fund-raising drive, to eliminate its debts and qualify for introducing a full-fledged M.B.B.S. degree course. Dr M.D. Gilder, who had lectured at the NMC in its first years in Byculla, was by this time the Education Minister to the Bombay State Government, and pledged further state support.

Dr M. Venkatrao, chairman of the college council for over two decades

The Silver Jubilee Expansion Committee in 1946 was chaired by professor of anatomy and surgery Dr S. Patrao, who had supported the college from its earliest days and ran the Byculla Nursing Home opposite the hospital-college in Bombay Central. Dr Patrao had taken over from Dr Venkatrao and under whose leadership over fifteen lakhs were raised to upgrade facilities.

The faculty and students organised a city-wide fund-raising campaign through public exhibitions, performances and parades for the Silver Jubilee. Dr Nair’s family donated the former N. Powell’s & Co. factory at Bombay Central, which was remodelled into an annexe to the first hospital, with new operation theatres, wards and staff quarters. The hospital grew to 300 beds, and the college’s laboratories and equipment were upgraded to M.B.B.S. standards.

Dr S. Patrao, who led the expansion in 1946-48 to qualify for M.B.B.S. recognition

Also in 1946, local merchant and manufacturer Seth Motiram K. Desai “Topiwala” donated five lakhs the college, which in 1948 was officially renamed Topiwala National Medical College (TNMC) after himself and his late father Raobahadur Anant Shivaji Desai (who became known in the city as “Topiwala” for his skilled craft of making hats and turbans).

By Independence, the college and hospital were taken over by the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) by agreement with the trustees and management. The TNMC became one of the public hospitals and medical colleges in the city, with a full-fledged MBBS degree recognised by Bombay University.

Honouring the legacy of its pioneering founders, in 1948, the erstwhile Lamington Road – which runs north from the old N. Powell’s showroom and office near Opera House to the campus at Bombay Central – was renamed by the BMC for Drs Nair and Bhadkamkar, and the old Benham Hall Lane in Girgaon renamed for Dr D.D. Sathaye.

Motiram K. Desai Topiwala, businessman and philanthropist, after whom the college was officially renamed in 1948

A decade later, the college and hospital acquired additional land north of the original campus, and in 1968 the college and hospital were completely demolished and rebuilt as the modern multi-storeyed structures known today as the TNMC and BYL Nair Hospital.

Leprosy and Renewable Energy in British India

This is an expanded version of my lead feature published in Sunday Mid-Day on 2 December 2018 as “The Lights Go Off in Matunga” (PDF). Thanks to Dr Shubhada Pandya and Dr Pratibha Kathe of the Acworth Municipal Leprosy Hospital and Museum.

A pioneering innovation in the quest for renewable energy will soon lose a landmark first made in Mumbai. The site of one of the world’s first succesful bio-gas plants – built in 1901 by British civil engineer Charles Carkeet James (1863-1942) – will be cleared in coming weeks for a new medical students’ hostel to be developed at the historic Acworth Municipal Hospital for Leprosy in Matunga.

Charles Carkeet James, M. Inst. C.E. (1863-1942), sanitary and water engineer to the Bombay Municipal Corporation, author of “Oriental Drainage” (1902) and “Drainage Problems of the East” (1906) (Photo circa 1902 from irishwaterwayshistory.com)

C.C. James was a sanitary and drainage expert from Cornwall, England fascinated by problems of waste disposal in tropical conditions, where organic matter decomposed rapidly. His techniques for extracting combustible gas from sewage using air-less or “anaeorobic” composting are used in cities across the world today.

After coming to Bombay to design the Tansa Dam Water Works to increase piped water supply to the Island City in 1889, James was deputed by the new Municipal Commissioner Harry Arbuthnot Acworth (1849-1933) to work on the drainage of what was then known as the “Homeless Leper Asylum”. Established in 1890 in response to public panic of contagion from destitute lepers begging in the streets of Bombay, seven wards for 300 inmates were built on the site of an old rifle range in Matunga, through a campaign for public subscriptions led by industrialist Sir Dinshaw Petit.

Situated on a sloping ridge near the villages of Gowari, Khara and Wadala, and with no existing drainage network, the colony’s sludge soon overflowed the sinks and cess-pits James first built on the ridge. Already fearful of the lepers in their midst, the villagers threatened to file suit against the Commissioner for pollution in 1893.

Plan of the Acworth Leprosy Hospital in 1901, showing pipe lines (in red) from patients’ wards draining to the sewage farm (in green) started in 1895 by C.C. James (Courtesy of Sri Prakash Jekate, Municipal Secretary, Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation)

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इंदू मिलच्या अंतरंगात मुंबईत साकारतेय वस्त्रोद्योग संग्रहालय

This is a Marathi translation by Avadhoot of Inside Indu Mills: A Textile Museum for Mumbai which was published in Loksatta on Sunday 11 November 2018. You can read the story online here or download the print version as a PDF.

मुंबईतील ६० सुती कापड गिरण्यांपैकी बहुतांश गिरण्या गेल्या २० वर्षांमध्ये बंद पडल्या अथवा त्यांच्या जागेचा पुनर्विकास करण्यात आला. जनतेसाठी कायमच अदृश्य राहिलेला हा प्रचंड वारसा आता शहरातून जवळपास लुप्त झालेला आहे. या गिरण्यांची आवारं अवाढव्य भिंतींनी बंदिस्त केलेली असल्यामुळे आतील भाग नजरेपल्याडच राहायचा, पण २०००च्या दशकात उड्डाणपूल व उंच इमारती उभ्या राहू लागल्यावर नजरेचा टप्पाही पलटला. जागतिक औद्योगिक क्रांतीच्या काळात निर्माण झालेल्या अगदी पहिल्या काही कारखान्यांमध्ये मुंबईतील कापडगिरण्यांचा समावेश होतो. ‘पूर्वेकडील मँचेस्टर’ म्हणून ओळखल्या गेलेल्या तत्कालीन बॉम्बे शहरात मध्यवर्ती ठिकाणी या गिरण्यांना जागा मिळाली.

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Inside Indu Mills: A Textile Museum for Mumbai

This is an expanded version of my lead feature published in Sunday Mid-Day on 9 September 2018, Back from the Dust: India United Mills 2-3 to Reconnect with Mumbai City. You can download the shorter original cover story as a PDF here.

Over the past 20 years, as most of Mumbai’s 60 cotton textile mills have closed or redeveloped, a vast heritage that was always invisible to the public has almost entirely disappeared from the city. Hidden from view behind massive compound walls — until the coming of flyovers and high-rises in the 2000s — the mills of mid-town Mumbai were some of the first factories of the global Industrial Revolution, when Bombay was known as the “Manchester of the East”.

While most of these enormous compounds have since gentrified into the offices, malls, banks and towers of a new global economy, a handful of Mumbai’s most historic mills remain managed by the Centre-owned National Textile Corporation (NTC). The erstwhile India United Mills nos.2-3 in Kalachowky — one of NTC’s fifteen shuttered mills given to the Municipal Corporation — are now being planned as the city’s newest and largest museum.

Devoted to the history of textiles and industry in Mumbai, Maharashtra and India, the restored mill compound is due to open in phases beginning in 2019, 150 years after it first opened as a textile mill in 1869. The new Mumbai Textile Museum will give most citizens of Mumbai their first view past the gates of one of the city’s earliest cotton mills — and into the rich industrial heritage earlier only visible to the workers, staff and owners who built India’s first modern industry.

India United Mills no.2-3 (Alexandra & E.D. Sassoon Mills), Kalachowky, Byculla East, 2017
Weaving Shed, India United Mills no.2-3, January 2018
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Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay

This is a summary and outline of my doctoral and post-doctoral dissertation research in the Program in Science Technology & Society (STS), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) submitted in late 2013 and developed as a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS), 2016-17.


Empire’s Metropolis: Money, Time & Space in Colonial Bombay is a social history of technology and urbanisation in the “commercial capital” of modern India. It spans the period from Bombay’s first boom and bust during the American Civil War – when the city emerged as a gateway for the global cotton trade – to its rise into one of Asia’s largest industrial centres following World War I.

The principal sources for this historical study are newly opened municipal archives and private papers that chronicle the growth of the colonial port city from the 1860s to 1920s. Six interlocking themes and periods are explored in chronological chapters on the history of share trading and merchant banking; railway, shipping and telegraph infrastructures; urban land acquisition and valuation; clocks and time-keeping; cadastral surveying and property rights; and the place of street networks in the city’s built environment.

Modern Bombay developed within and against empire. Imperial hegemony was often most insecure in its urban seat of command and control, even as external trade and factory industry fuelled the city’s rapid expansion. Attempts to impose modern practices of commodity exchange, standard time, market value and private property were neither taken for granted, nor simply resisted or rejected. Neither “urbanisation” nor “industrialisation” unfolded smoothly, as elite strategies and mass struggles over finance, labour and land shaped the paths of technological and social change.

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Experiments with Post-Truth

Last week, in time for Gandhi Jayanti, the Supreme Court admitted a public interest litigation seeking to re-open the question of who assassinated Mohandas K. Gandhi at Birla House, New Delhi on 30 January 1948. This follows an online signature campaign launched on Gandhi’s birth anniversary this month as well as an earlier PIL dismissed by the Bombay High Court in mid-2016 filed by Dr Pankaj Phadnis.

Founding trustee of a Mumbai-based NGO Abhinav Bharat started in 2001, Phadnis is a self-described devotee of Hindu nationalist Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, convicted but acquited as a co-conspirator in the conspiracy to murder Gandhi, for which Nathuram Godse and Vinayak Apte were convicted and hanged on 15 November 1949.

Phadnis’ petitions to the courts and online since 2016 have been based on an entirely unsubstantiated theory of a “fourth bullet” and probable “second assassin” allegedly reported by U.S. vice-consul in New Delhi, Herbert T. Reiner. Phadnis claims Reiner sent three diplomatic telegrams to the American government on the murder at Birla House that day, of which one, allegedly still classified, may contain heretofore unrevealed evidence of a conspiracy beyond those of the convicted assassin Nathuram Godse and his eight co-conspirators.

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Bombay Between the Wars: Politics, Information & Institutions in Late Colonial India

This is a proposal and summary of my ongoing research project on Bombay City between the two world wars. Bombay Between the Wars is a social history of urban politics, information and institutions in late colonial Bombay City, from the years before World War I until the outbreak of World War II. Through this study, I seek to understand the transformation of colonial rule and urban governance in the inter-war period, using the city as a window into networks of people, ideas and power in South Asia in the final decades of British rule. In this period, India’s commercial capital witnessed rapid social and technological change, with the rise of mass politics, state formation and the development of civic and local institutions which have remained under-investigated.

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From Pathan Menace to Frontier Gandhi: Afghans in Early 20th Century Bombay

Please click here to download the full audio (MP3) and click here to download the presentation (PDF) of my keynote lecture on 20 April 2017 at Mountstuart Elphinstone between Local & Global Forces: Colonial Knowledge, National Histories & Regional Realities, organised by Professors Shah Mahmoud Hanifi from James Madison University and the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) at Jnanapravaha Mumbai from 20-22 April 2017.International Conference - Mounstuart Elphinstone between Local & Global: Colonial Knowledge, National Histories & Regional Realities, 20-21 April 2017

Insurrection 1946: Meanings of Failed Action

From 17-25 March 2017, I worked as curator and archivist in this public exhibition and installation at the Coomaraswamy Hall, Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum of Western India), Mumbai with artist Vivan Sundaram, archivist Dr Valentina Vitali and media artist Dr David Chapman from the University of East London and scholar and lead curator Ashish Rajadhyaksha.

Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 is a collaborative art project that revisits an episode of India’s struggle for self-rule: the 1946 insurrection of Royal Indian Navy (R.I.N.) sailors. On 18 February 1946, a strike was declared on H.M.I.S. Talwar, the signal training establishment of the R.I.N. at Colaba, Bombay. Within a day, a total of 10,000 naval ratings posted across the Indian Ocean took charge of sixty six ships and on-shore naval establishments. On the fourth day of the strike, Bombay’s industrial labour force joined the struggle in a show of solidarity, and the city closed down. Ranged against the strikers was the might of the British armed forces, threatening to destroy the Navy.

The Indian national leadership, then at the threshold of Independence, refused to support the uprising. The curfew that followed ended with over two hundred people killed on the streets and the surrender of the sailors on the dawn of February 23. Widely considered a ‘failure’ in its time and since then conveniently erased from Indian nationalist history, seventy years on the February 1946 uprising refuses to be assimilated into any single narrative. Based on archival material sourced in India and the U.K., Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946 revisits these five days as a memory that flashes up at a moment of danger, an episode that challenges India’s present trajectory.

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Plotting & Scheming: Land Acquisition & Market Values in Colonial Bombay, 1898-1926

On 18 January and 3 March 2017, I gave versions of this talk and presentation on my book manuscript to the Cities Cluster of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences (FASS) Research Division, National University of Singapore (NUS). the faculty and students of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (CSSS) Calcutta/Kolkata. These talks were chaired by Professor Tim Bunnell in Singapore Professor Lakshmi Subramanian and Dr Prachi Deshpande.

In the late 1890s, an epidemic of bubonic plague swept through the ports of the British Empire in Asia, dramatising the vulnerability of imperial power in its urban centres of command and control. Colonial cities like Calcutta and Bombay served as gateways to regional and global flows of people, money and machines, centralised and accelerated by networks of steam, rail and electricity. Freedom to trade and the rule of law underpinned both business and politics. Within these cities, power was shared and contested between colonial rulers, Indian elites and urban populations.

My presentation explores the social and spatial restructuring of early 20th century Bombay in the wake of the plague epidemic, through a study of the construction of Sandhurst Road, an east-west arterial avenue. Since 1955 known as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel (SVP) Marg, Sandhurst Road was named after the British Governor of Bombay Presidency who tackled the outbreak of bubonic plague in western India in 1896 by establishing the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) to “clean up” the city.

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