After four to five years’ worth of work, mere months before its completion, a fire destroyed a long cherished dream project of Dr Jamshed J Bhabha — creating a world-class performing art space in Mumbai. But the 83-year-old is said to have simply said, “Tomorrow, we begin reconstruction.” Two years later, in 1999, the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre (JBT) — designed to stage every kind of performance from large format orchestras to full-scale operas — was opened to the public. “He was not the type to give up. Once he got an idea, you could be sure that he would make it work,” says Khushroo N Suntook, chairman of the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), which houses JBT.
It is that singularity of vision of Jamshed — founder of the NCPA and younger brother of nuclear physicist Homi J Bhabha — which is being celebrated in a permanent exhibition now; that will open in the foyer of the JBT on May 16. It will aim to illuminate the life of a man who, despite being one of the most vocal supporters of the arts in the country, remains largely unknown to the wider public. “He was like an arrow. He went straight for what he wanted,” says Suntook. From rare photos of family and celebrated personalities, priceless objects from the Bhabha family collection to the honours he received from various countries, the exhibition paints a detailed picture of a man immersed in the arts.
Born to Meherbai and Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, the two brothers grew up in a home filled with music, books and art. Meherbai and Jehangir were closely connected to two of the most prominent Parsi families in Bombay. Meherbai was the granddaughter of Sir Dinshaw Petit — founder of the first textile mills in the country; and, Jehangir’s sister, Mehri, was married to Jamsetji Tata’s older son, Sir Dorab Tata. The Bhabha family lineage was no less illustrious: Hormusji Bhabha, Jehangir’s father, was the first Indian inspector-general of education in British India.
Homi’s love for art manifested in his early inclination towards painting and drawing, and, later, in his role as a patron and collector of modern Indian art. Jamshed’s proclivities lay more towards music and other performing arts — he grew up idolising Ludwig van Beethoven. But, it was the death of his brother in an air crash at the age of 56, which finally spurred Jamshed into acting upon his passion. Even as he remained busy, serving on the boards of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), the Homi Bhabha Memorial Trust and the Homi Bhabha Fellowships Council, he began working to set up the NCPA in 1966.
Jamshed’s artistic pursuits assume importance when seen in the context of the times. In independent India, with the shrinking of the nobility — and in 1971, the abolition of the privy purse — patronage for the performing arts was rapidly drying up. The early years of nation building meant that most of the state’s resources were dedicated to solving the more immediate problems of bijli, sadak and pani. If India’s once-thriving traditions of music, dance and theatre were to survive, the need of the hour was someone like Jamshed, who was committed to that cause and could mobilise the necessary support and funds for it. In 1966, when he began pursuing his vision for NCPA, Jamshed was not shy about using his family connections. He was close to JRD Tata — who backed him strongly when it was time to build NCPA — as well as to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who inaugurated the NCPA’s Bhulabhai Desai auditorium in 1969, and, 11 years later, the Tata Theatre, when the centre moved to its present location in Nariman Point.
Jamshed also recruited Pritzker Prize-winning architect Philip Johnson and acoustics expert Cyril Harristo to build NCPA’s Tata Theatre; and, assembled eminent figures such as Yehudi Menuhin, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Satyajit Ray, Andre Malraux, Vilayat Khan and PL Deshpande to be on the centre’s first board of advisors in 1968. However, more than his social network or capital, it was Jamshed’s determination to succeed against all odds that held him in good stead. “When he asked the Maharashtra government for land to set up NCPA, he was told that there wasn’t anything available in Mumbai; and was offered space near the Ajanta Caves,” says Suntook. That was not a location that Jamshed was willing to accept. Eventually, he hit upon the idea of reclaiming land from the sea to set up the NCPA in Mumbai. It took eight years of filling the allotted portion of the sea near Nariman Point before construction could finally begin. “Not that he was disheartened,” Suntook says. After making the Bhulabhai Desai Memorial its home for 11 years, the centre’s Nariman Point structure was finally opened in 1980.
Jamshed died in 2007, following medical complications after an accident at home, aged 93. His wife, Betty, had passed away in 1999 and, after her death, Jamshed had kept himself busy with his work as trustee for various institutions including NCPA. But he never slowed down in his efforts to expand space for the arts in the country. Suntook says, “Even till a month before his death, he was making plans for NCPA’s future. He had every intention of living till the age of 100, bringing in his birthday by listening to Beethoven.”