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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 32, New Delhi, July 25, 2020

Conlon on Kidambi and Kamat and Dwyer, ’Bombay Before Mumbai: Essays in Honour of Jim Masselos’

Friday 24 July 2020

Prashant Kidambi, Manjiri Kamat, Rachel Dwyer, eds. Bombay Before Mumbai: Essays in Honour of Jim Masselos. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 336 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-006170-8.

Reviewed by Frank F. Conlon (University of Washington) Published on H-Asia (July, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

In January 2017, an international conference organized by the University of Mumbai’s History Department with support of the University of Leicester and SOAS, University of London, was convened at the University of Mumbai. “Power, Public Culture and Identity: Towards New Histories of Mumbai” drew together an international and intergenerational group of historians whose research exemplifies a broadening range of themes in the city’s history. The conference was intended to honor the distinguished historian of Bombay Jim Masselos.

Prashant Kidambi, one of the volume’s editors, opens with an insightful survey of the many facets of Masselos’s scholarly explorations of the life of the city and its residents, positing four rubrics: community, spatial templates, power and nationalism. The volume’s essays are presented within these categories, but readers will find many fruitful connections and comparisons across the thematic boundaries. In each essay Masselos’s work is acknowledged. A useful consolidated bibliography of cited English-language (but, regrettably not Indian-language) publications is included.


Murali Ranganathan resuscitates a prominent but not well-known Konkani Muslim figure of the city’s early nineteenth-century elite in “Mohammad Ali Rogay: Life and Times of a Bombay Country Trader.” Rogay was associated with the eminent Parsi merchant Jamsetjee Jeejibhoy in conducting trade with China. Ranganathan characterizes his essay as a preliminary work in piecing together a connected account of the man. However little of his career is known today, he was a formidable influence in Bombay, recognized as the community leader of Konkani Muslims, an accomplished merchant-trader, and an early supporter of education and public improvement in the city.

Jesse Palsetia’s “Parsis and Bombay City: Community and Identity in the Nineteenth Century” investigates the dynamics of the Parsis’s growing prominence and influence in the city. Economic growth, particularly stemming from the China trade, underlay the emergence of a new merchant class that became prominent in both community and cosmopolitan affairs. Charitable initiatives by newly wealthy Parsi elites promoted welfare and education, while enhancing their status in relation to colonial authorities. Palsetia sees in this creation of “the template of the modern, cosmopolitan Bombay citizen” (p. 55).

Bombay’s influence extended well beyond its limits, even beyond India: Simin Patel’s essay, “The Great Persian Famine of 1871: Parsi Refugees and the Making of Irani Identity in Bombay,” reveals how a foreign crisis that affected Zoroastrians in Persia contributed to a redirection of Parsi philanthropy and a flow of refugees to Bombay in the nineteenth century. As the title suggests, the Persian refugee migrants, while recipients of Parsi charity, were not integrated into that community, but remained distinct. Known as “Iranis,” they would become known for their iconic café that made a distinctive contribution to the city’s dining culture.

Of all the “communities” of Bombay, none had a more contingent and transient identity than “Europeans”—a broad amalgam of national origins, language, and class. Douglas Haynes, drawing primarily on British evidence, explores notions of community and identity among Europeans residing in the city between the wars, particularly in the 1930s. It was a period of quantitative decline in European population as well as qualitative decline in political and economic influence. Noting a male predominance in population, Haynes explores patterns of residence, sociality, sports, and consumption which reinforced the declining remainders of colonial racism.

Spatial Templates

Erica Wald’s “Reading Social Spaces: The Life of the Bombay Theatre: 1770-1843” chronicles the career of a theater building erected in the European-dominated “Fort” district primarily for the entertainment of British audiences and as an alternative to Indian nautch parties to which European women would not be attracted. Wald argues that the theater provided “an important location for the articulation of urban life by those who claimed to represent Bombay Society … and … functioned as a shared social space for the colonial elite and their Indian collaborators” (p. 100). Declining interest and rising deficits closed the theater in 1834. No theater would exist until a new structure was erected at Grant Road, on what was then the far side of the “native town.” While offering English-language plays at the outset, by 1853 the first productions of what came to be known as the Parsi theater were staged. The dramatic life of the city turned in new directions no longer dependent upon European patronage. New spatial and cultural templates were developing.

Abigail McGowan, in “Selling Home,” explores how, following their arrival in the 1890s, elite retailers imported new forms of merchandising and a gradual expansion of trade in Western-style goods. These firms and Indian manufacturers “shaped an image of the home in interwar Bombay” promoting markets for upscale goods targeted for both European and Indian consumers (p. 119). McGowan analyzes commercial advertising and also taps a significant resource—the archives of the Godrej consumer goods company—tracing the dynamics of retail merchandising of home furnishings. McGowan’s path-breaking contributions on the modern history of handicrafts and material culture lead here to opening a fresh field—the history of consumption.

Ashwini Tambe, widely recognized for her excellent monograph Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay (2009) and other publications on the subject, here offers “Social Geographies of Bombay’s Sex Trade, 1880-1920,” emphasizing the “complex relationship between spatial and social stratification in Bombay” (p. 148). One aspect of stratification was denoted racially in the presence of European prostitutes in Bombay. Focusing on the red-light district of Kamathipura, Tambe documents how the spatial templates of prostitution were shaped by policing practices and housing scarcity. This neighborhood, notorious for the sex trade, was adjacent to residential areas of other, “respectable” Bombay citizens who had to endure the impact of disorderly brothel patrons. Though focused upon the world of brothels, this essay also underscores a more general insight that urban geographical stratification was somewhat fluid, with delineations often made on a street-by-street basis.


Preeti Chopra’s “Worthy Objects of Charity: Government, Communities and Charitable Institutions in Colonial Bombay” examines the dynamics of charitable and philanthropic activities between the colonial government and leaders of various Indian communities. Chopra argues that Indian philanthropists entered into partnerships with the colonial regime to launch institutions for the general public good. Here she offers a nuanced assessment of this “joint enterprise” of philanthropy and charity, through case studies of various projects—a proposed asylum for widows and orphans of the Bene Israel community, the Sailors’ Home for Europeans, and Muslim orphanages and asylums. In each instance she notes significant internal distinctions perceived among the proposed beneficiaries: Bene Israel vs. Baghdadi Jews, European merchant sailors vs. European vagrants, or the variety of religious and social divisions within the Muslim population of the city.

Historians have long given attention to “the crowd” as a phenomenon of urban life, often with reference to government policies and actions to maintain public order. In “Proletarian Bodies and Muslim Festivals: Disciplining Pleasure in Colonial Bombay,” Nile Green offers an absorbing exposition of the questions of nongovernmental disciplining of crowds and public behavior through the career of a Sufi sheikh. Habib ‘Ali Shah (1821-1906), a native of Hyderabad, came to Bombay in the 1870s. There, at his khanaqah on Dockyard Road, he soon attracted a following drawn from Muslim millhands and dockers. Various Muslim shrines in the city hosted widely attended periodical festivals whose participants were drawn from the city’s Islamic proletariat. Habib ‘Ali Shah sought to promote observance of a restrained “bodily etiquette” among working-class celebrants. The essay, richly documented with indigenous sources, also draws parallels to other self-improvement teachings current in late nineteenth-century India and beyond.

Vanessa Caru’s “A Powerful Weapon for Employers? Workers’ Housing and Social Control in Interwar Bombay” concentrates upon the ongoing problem of housing conditions for the working class of the city—an issue that received the attention of colonial administrators particularly after the disruptive onset of the plague in 1896. Official projects to clear slums and erect hygienic dwellings followed over subsequent decades, with limited results: slum dwellings were destroyed without complete replacements, exacerbating scarcity and insanitary conditions. Bombay’s mill owners showed little interest in investing in residences for their own workers, while workers manifested equal disinterest in becoming residential tenants of their employers. Caru’s essay skillfully weaves together the many contradictory strands of British colonial policies, anxieties of Lancashire interests, the economic dislocations of the First World War, and the emergence of labor militancy in Bombay, particularly with reference to the textile industry and the concerns of mill owners and municipal authorities. Special attention is given to the Bombay Development Department, launched after the First World War to carry out major land reclamations and construction of thousands of working-class houses. She examines this example of “colonial paternalism” as it related to efforts to control an increasingly militant working class.


In an essay that looks less at Bombay and more at the life and hard times of a Mumbaikar at home and abroad, Dinyar Patel documents the career of a Bombay-born, self-taught scientist and inventor who conceived a number of modern objects yet who, even with encouragement from prominent nationalists, failed to attain success, in Bombay, London, or New York. Shankar Abhaji Bhisey, dubbed an “Indian Edison,” was inspired by reading Scientific American to invent a number of potentially useful products including, most significantly, a typecasting device superior to existing linotype technology. Bhisey enjoyed limited support from nationalist figures like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, yet was unable to bring his Bhiseytype machine to production. He ended up in America, where he later created a “spirit typewriter”—a sort of technological improvement over the Ouija board. The story grows out of Patel’s significant recent study of Dadabhai Naoroji, and perhaps for that reason is editorially placed in the section on nationalism. It is a fascinating story, but seems an outlier among a collection of essays that focus primarily upon Bombay.

Robert Rahman Raman’s “Civil Disobedience and the Working Classes in Bombay, c. 1930-32” offers significant insights into the countervailing interests of Indian National Congress leadership and mobilizations among the working classes of the city. Noting the ambivalence of the Congress leadership toward the working classes in the period after communist influences became predominant, he documents the limits and changing objects of Congress mobilizations. Giving attention to activism among Muslim mill workers, Raman illuminates the sporadic contradictions arising from the imperatives of anticolonialism, working-class activism, and movements of spiritual and communal revitalization. This essay whets one’s appetite for the author’s further writing on Muslims in the working classes of Bombay.

Danish Khan’s “The Politics of Business: The Congress Ministry and the Muslim League, 1937-39,” illumines connections between urban economic interests and a growth of elite communal sentiment in Bombay. The Congress ministry’s legislative program was soon perceived by many of Bombay’s urban elites as being favorable to rural interests and biased against the welfare of the city and its economy. In line with the Congress’s commitment to introducing prohibition, the government sought to offset lost revenues by adding a new taxation of immoveable urban property. Apart from the fact that the Bombay Municipal Corporation already relied significantly on house taxes, the impact was felt particularly by Muslim property owners—for whom property holdings were a preferred target of investment. Khan’s exploration of the impact on the city of the Congress’s “rural turn” are of interest not only for the epoch of the first Congress ministry, but also as a prelude to a long-term tension, extending even into this century, between the interests of the countryside and the city.

This rich collection concludes with an afterword by Jim Masselos, “Remembering Bombay: Present Memories and Past Histories.” Here he revisits his arrival in 1961 as a student from Australia holding a Commonwealth fellowship to pursue his doctoral studies. Upon reflection he sees how his early wanderings about the city led to ideas about “the nature of urban space and its relationship with group identity” (p. 311). His demonstrated openness to new ideas and fresh interpretations lay the foundations of his continual engagement with the city and his many contributions to our understanding of its dynamic development. In response to this collection he observes: “This group of scholars came to discuss a unique city. Their essays give an idea of just how distinctive a place is Bombay and are a reminder that each place has its own characteristics mediated through its own spaces: its houses, shops, offices, factories or entertainments and, of course its especial pasts. So while the conference and the chapters pick out the particularity of one city, they also provide the basis for locating general contexts that enable comparisons with other cities” (p. 305). I can offer no better valediction for this remarkable assemblage of scholarship. It is a fitting tribute to Jim Masselos and to the study of Bombay’s history to which he has made so many distinguished contributions.

This review is reproduced from H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

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