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Robert Stephens: The man who reimagined Bombay right into a metropolis that it may have been

Robert Stephens’ new ebook, which got here out this month, is a rigorously researched and initially illustrated compilation of civic tasks for the Maximum City that remained on paper

Call it love. Call it conviction. Whatever you name it, Robert Stephens fell for Mumbai, arduous. One go to introduced an epiphany — Mumbai is the place for me — which when chased turned the American’s life over the subsequent few many years in a brand new path. He relocated to the town and landed a job; discovered a artistic pursuit that made him well-known in his career and past; married Tina Nandi, photographer and graphic designer; and so they had a son.

Stephens, as an architect and civic historian, has enriched the town’s tradition, however stays fairly low-profile. He is a principal at RMA Architects, which has designed, amongst different buildings, the CSMVS Visitors’ Centre and Children’s Museum at Kala Ghoda, and is engaged on different high-profile public-use constructions. In his personal life, he’s additionally a civic historian who has knowledgeable quite a lot of Mumbaiites’ perspective on how they’d like their metropolis to be developed, primarily via his newest ebook. Yet, many Mumbaiites don’t know in regards to the man who has entered their mental life in refined methods, most lately and notably via Bombay Imagined: An Illustrated History of the Unbuilt City.

Image Courtesy: Facebook/@bombayimaginedbook

The ebook got here out this month, a rigorously researched and initially illustrated compilation of civic tasks for Bombay and Mumbai that remained on paper. It’s a ebook about what may have been, additionally a ebook about what might be, for those who think about it — alternate Bombays or Mumbais, alternate timelines, for those who like.

Bombay Imagined mentions, as per his web site, “200 unrealised city visions — aspirations of an developed metropolis boasting all the pieces from humane housing and expanded parks to sanitation methods and extra. Ideas that by no means noticed the sunshine of the day are richly illustrated with archival drawings, up to date speculations and inventive overlays, illuminating long-lost futures from the town’s never-before-seen previous. Bombay Imagined is an affidavit to the audacious desires of city-lovers…”

Such audacious desires as a South Bombay (because it was known as then) solely free of personal automobiles, as envisioned by journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea, and a 400-acre park at Mahalaxmi proposed by Bombay’s first municipal commissioner and collector, Arthur Crawford. The ebook’s been coated extensively within the media, which honed in on the ebook’s subtext of missed alternatives to make Mumbai extra habitable.

As a civic historian, Stephens says, “(I’m interested in) cities, and stories of people engaging with cities in the past. We can relate to it, we experience it. We can constantly shuffle between that person’s history and engagement and what we’re facing right now. Even subconsciously we’re doing that.”

He says that one in all his considerations, an allied one, is to check initiatives to make “urban life decent… if I want to take (my son) to a park, he shouldn’t have to jump over open manholes. If we go to a fort, we shouldn’t have to cross Mahim Creek and cover our nose because it smells like shit”. He provides, “It’s these types of moments; there’s justification why they’re like that, but there’s no excuse why they’re still like that. I am actively engaged in analysing these issues and making them understandable and simple as they can be, even though they are complex, often.”

Stephens has a caveat, although: There isn’t any ‘why’ to his enquiries as a historian. He says he isn’t making an attempt to critique anybody or saying Mumbai might be higher this manner or that. “(My work) is like walking through a museum: the art is there, and it’s up to the visitors to create their own narrative, pursue what interests them and leave what doesn’t interest them,” he says.

Just a few tasks talked about within the ebook are… unrealised, fortunately. For occasion, the Bombay Municipal Corporation, in 1949, deliberate to fill within the Banganga Tank, which has historic and non secular significance, to make it a kids’s park. And additional again, in 1850, somebody whose title is misplaced to historical past deliberate to make the historic Elephanta Caves, mendacity simply exterior Bombay jurisdiction on the time, “a tavern and ballroom”, to thwart anti-alcohol activists. In more moderen occasions, plans to have an airport at inexperienced and coastal Alibaug by no means fruitened; other than inflicting ecological points, it will have made folks journey “five-six hours to get to the airport, the same as a flight to Europe”, Stephens says.

But many tasks, Stephens discovered, would have benefited his beloved metropolis. Some tasks, like Robert Fairbarn’s, have been scarily bold. Fairbarn proposed “the biggest reclamation scheme in Bombay’s history”. He wished to “reclaim all of Back Bay” (its jewel-like function is Marine Drive). Says Stephens, “The new district he would have created would be 24 times larger than (the business district of) Fort.”

Another proposal broached reclaiming all of Mahim Bay. But many tasks, like one which might have constructed reasonably priced housing close to Churchgate station so it will not grow to be an space just for the wealthy, would have made the town extra various. And Arthur Crawford’s 400-acre park at Mahalaxmi would have been a leisure, restorative present to the overcrowded metropolis. As he researched the unrealised proposals, Roberts discovered the data modified him as an individual, broadened his perspective about himself and his apply, which mirrored in his work.

Stephens’s analysis, whether or not strolling or textual exploration, has given him a “set of values”: Scale. As ideas go, it’s a Swiss military knife. He defines scale as greater than excessive rise or low rise. He says, “Scale (is) more in the sense of how a human being or book or any artistic creation relates to both its end user and people around it. It’s that relationship. That’s the scale.”

He continues, “I think one of the greatest values we have as a firm and me as a person is trying to build on a scale that doesn’t necessarily mean high rise-low rise. Even if it’s high rise, it’s designed in a way that it can relate to its users and others, without turning its back on the people who the building is not designed for. So it’s a little sensitive to others, that’s kind of the bottom line… Scale means you don’t just do something for yourself, you do it with the knowledge it will impact others.”

He discovered many proposals, both workable or not, in uncommon books. Some of those books he collected; it’s his different ardour. Aiding him within the nice errand are the ebook sleuths who arrange store close to Churchgate Railway Station — the second hand ebook sellers. “(The number of booksellers) is reduced, but it’s still there, at Flora Fountain especially. I thought the pandemic would wipe them out, but they’re all back,” he says.

They see him searching their stacks of books on the broad footpaths each week. For different outdated reference books, Roberts additionally, throughout work journeys overseas, visited libraries such because the Royal Institute of British Architects and the British Library, each in London. Besides these, he additionally received 28 different libraries from varied international locations to scan and ship him pages from books of curiosity, and he needed to pay scanning and different charges.

Third, his ebook showcases one other of his passions, maybe the one which ties all the pieces collectively: A thirst for discovery.

Flashback: As a Bachelor’s in Architecture scholar at Virginia Tech, USA, Stephens was given to taking automobile rides within the Virginia backcountry and soaking in its distinctive structure and inexperienced landscapes. Later, in December 2006, two faculty associates of his from Mumbai selected their Christmas holidays to go to their households. He accompanied them, stayed at their Mumbai properties and soaked of their hospitality, their sense of group and connectedness. And whereas he was right here, he took within the metropolis he was visiting for the primary time, and fell for it. It resonated along with his sense of scale.

The solely connection between the Virginia backcountry and Mumbai’s urbanity was specificity, in addition to the urge to discover that drives Stephens. He mentioned, “The buildings (in Virginia) have their own character, the landscape has its specific character. Bombay, when I first came, had that also. Its own specific character. It was by and large a low-scale city in 2007. I walked to Fort from Tardeo through the bazaar district, there was a certain scale. I could feel the culture of the place that has existed and evolved over three-four hundred years.”

With this angle, the long-time Mumbaiite sees the town altering. He says, “Today, I miss that cultural specificity. It is getting changed by a increasingly generic tradition. Whereas on the bungalows in Bandra, the compound partitions are simply jaalis, you’re feeling a way of group, camaraderie, there’s a way of scale being created. I’d say that’s the best worth, being conscious of others… Like in Bandra, the brand new developments you’re seeing, an enormous tower comes, a compound wall comes, that’s it. There isn’t any engagement between inside and outside… That’s one thing that’s sort of scary for me, it’s disappointing. I feel it’s going to be actually arduous to right, if it may be corrected.”

An opportunity to impression Mumbai’s sense of scale got here Stephens’s manner. The yr after his preliminary, epiphanic go to, he was requesting a famend architect in Mumbai, Rahul Mehrotra, founder principal of RMA Architects, to present him a job. Says Stephens, “I told my boss Rahul, I’m going to work for you. I was so confident that this was the place I wanted to work. He asked me, ‘Have you been to Bombay’, and I said, ‘Yes’. He, in a very nice way, said, ‘You’re crazy. Let’s try it out for six months.’” Stephens joined as an apprentice (intern), and started dwelling as a paying visitor, initially, at Tardeo in South Mumbai. Remembering his keep there, he brings to thoughts the perception that “no one in Bombay has great infrastructure”. But the place was near work, and gave him time for his nice love, exploration.

He works in the identical agency in the present day. He is now a principal (one of many high managerial posts). His weekends are spent being a dad and household man, and fortunately so. Earlier, on weekends he’d stroll from Tardeo to Fort, letting the town plant its hooks in him. He’d speak to folks on the road. He had some serendipitous discoveries, he mentioned, comparable to discovering probably the final artist in Mumbai who hand-painted film posters — at Alfred Talkies, Kamathipura. The artist, whom he calls Rehman bhai, was commissioned to make two posters for him. Sometimes Stephens even ventured exterior Mumbai by way of native trains, and walked there.

The thirst for discovery, which resulted on this ebook, didn’t cease there. Working at RMA, Stephens needed to journey throughout the nation and overseas for ongoing tasks. He knew plane routes have been predictable, and would word what metropolis was under him, and would {photograph} it along with his pocket digicam, which he nonetheless has. These aerial images, shot via a aircraft window, not directly led to the ebook. The images, which he started posting on his Facebook, have been ‘liked’ by many, and likewise occurred to attract the eye of Radhi Parekh, founding father of Artisans, a gallery within the taking place artwork district, Kala Ghoda, Mumbai.

She invited him to exhibit his images at her gallery. What ensued was ‘Mumbai Articles’ in 2014, which confirmed 24 of his aerial images of Mumbai paired up with “obscure fragments” of the town’s historical past gleaned from outdated books. For instance, an aerial photograph of Bandra-Worli Sea Link was coupled with just a few strains of textual content from the 1930s, speaking about unhealthy visitors circumstances seen on the time. A later exhibition was known as ‘Mumbai North’, black and white aerial images of Mumbai’s suburbs from Bandra onwards to cities comparable to Vasai. Other exhibitions adopted, images paired with archival textual content, as Stephens was usually flying, and photographing avidly from his window seat. In 2016, he formally named his apply ‘Urbs Indis’, a civic historical past archive centered on visible and textual content narratives. Across the years, Stephens has exhibited his work throughout India — Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Hyderabad — and in Edinburgh, Scotland.

His newest work is the ebook. He had the thought for it after coming throughout Arthur Crawford’s (Mumbai’s first municipal commissioner and collector) concept of getting a 400-acre park at Mahalaxmi; he’d discovered the reference in a ebook Professional Papers on Indian Engineering (1869) at a bookseller in London in 2014, and he used that reference to search out, again in Mumbai, (as per Stephens’s interview with Jane Borges for Mid Day) Crawford’s ebook The Development of New Bombay, which had extra element.

The concept made him curious to search out what different schemes had gone unrealised. He started researching, even wrote a bit, however, he says, one thing was lacking. He put away the manuscript and analysis in a cabinet. It was solely within the lockdown that he discovered the time and spark to renew it. Sticking to his concept of mixing textual content with visuals, he commissioned 3D artist Aniket Umaria to make visuals of the tasks had they been realized (hypothesis artwork). Deshna Mehta and Carol Nair of Studio Anugraha designed the ebook, and Fauwaz Khan managed the challenge. They coordinated over Zoom.

This month the ebook was launched — 1,500 self-published copies, out there from the Urbs Indis web site. His spouse Tina is dealing with communications and promotions for the ebook. The ebook represents a giant chunk of Stephens’s private funds; and even when the entire print run goes, he received’t recuperate all his cash, he says. He has priced the ebook fairly, in order that many individuals can take part within the dialog about how their metropolis has developed and the way it may. The explorer needs to share his findings with as giant a group as he can.

Over our dialog, Stephens says that he doesn’t go strolling across the metropolis any extra, as a result of he’s specializing in “being a good dad”, and fortunately at that. His son, Kairav, and he are already quibbling jokingly about who will get to take a seat on the window once they fly. He hopes someday his son can even wish to stroll with him down some Mumbai avenue. Perhaps Stephens has nonetheless received tales to inform in regards to the metropolis he has made dwelling. Perhaps he needs to share his love for exploration along with his son. Or each.

Suhit Kelkar is a Mumbai-based author whose journalism, poetry and brief fiction seem in India and overseas. 

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