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Homi does not live here anymore

What a house on Malabar Hill tells us about the life and work of one of India’s greatest scientists.

Written by Mihika Basu | New Delhi | Published:June 29, 2014 1:00 am
The Mehrangir is shut to visitors |Source: Pradip Das The Mehrangir is shut to visitors |Source: Pradip Das

The house, watched over by tall trees, stands in the silence of a summer morning on Malabar Hill, Mumbai. From its padlocked gates is visible the peeling plaster, but also the profusion of its garden, the many tints of green shading into the pink and white of flowers. The long windows are shut, and the Juliet balconies empty. Here, once lived Dr Homi J Bhabha, the architect of India’s nuclear power programme, with his parents, brother Jamshed and his dog, Cupid. If walls could speak — and bare walls are all that remain of a thing of great elegance and beauty—they would tell of a house that came alive with people, conversations and music, its spirit warmed by the glow of a great mind.

Mehrangir, as the house on 12, Little Gibbs Road was called, was sold earlier this month for Rs 372 crore by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), despite demands from scientists to turn it into a museum. (Jamshed became a custodian of the house after Bhabha’s death, and willed it to NCPA.) Towards the end of 2011, the NCPA had gone ahead and auctioned the contents of the house, from silverware, to carpets, furniture and paintings from the Bhabhas’ enviable art collection. Those pushing to preserve it as a memorial argue the four-storied bungalow, built on a 1593.29 square metre plot, amounts to more than its considerable real estate price. “Mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus’s house in Torun, Poland, has been preserved as a museum, where visitors get acquainted with his life and work, and get inspired. We should have done the same thing for Bhabha’s house. Memorials and associated museums of great scientists and leaders do inspire young students and others,” says Dr Govind Swarup, a pioneer of radio astronomy and a honorary fellow of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), who joined the institute on Bhabha’s request in 1963. That wish might yet come true. The central government told the Bombay High Court on June 23 that it has sought the Maharashtra government’s intervention to declare it a “protected monument”.

Dr Homi Bhabha at his desk at home Courtesy: TIFR archive Dr Homi Bhabha at his desk at home Courtesy: TIFR archive

Homi Bhabha grew up in Mehrangir. Theirs was a wealthy Parsi home, where the language spoken was largely English, and where music and art were a part of everyday life. His father, Jehangir Hormusji Bhabha, was a well-known lawyer and his mother Meherbai was the granddaughter of philanthropist Sir Dinshaw Petit. Bhabha went to the Cathedral and John Connon School in Bombay where he learnt Latin and French, developed a great fondness for the poetry of Shelley and discovered his deep interest in science. He left to study mathematics at Cambridge in 1927, and went on to complete his doctorate in nuclear physics. In 1939, he returned to India for a brief holiday when the Second World War broke out. He never went back, choosing to stay on in his country, and built its nuclear research programme from scratch. From 1946 till his death in 1966 in a plane crash, he lived in the house on Little Gibbs Road.

In their 2010 book on the great scientist, A Masterful Spirit, authors Indira Chowdhury and Ananya Dasgupta write about how central the house was to Bhabha’s life. “He grew up and lived to the end, with his loving mother Meherbai (his father had passed away earlier) on the upper floor of the family mansion. An avid gardener as well, he was an expert on trees, plants and flowers, and experimented with exotic plants, cross-bred bougainvillea and roses on his terrace garden…In his letters to his family as well as in his talks with his intimate friends, he referred with gratitude to the close bonds of affection and understanding that knit together the members of his family and to which he attributed a sense of emotional security in his early years,” they wrote.

Bhabha’s favoured place was a vast room on the top floor of the house, with a spectacular view of the sea. A room that belonged as much to the artist and the lover of music as to the man of science. “Glass from floor to ceiling let in a breathtaking, panoramic view of the Arabian Sea. At the far end, an alcove served as a bedroom; on the right, was a writing desk behind which was his own painting inspired by Mozart’s Aria, nearby was a draughts-board with sketches on it. On the opposite side was a recess with a music stand, manuscripts and a violin ready to be played; close by, there was an easel, palettes and brushes for painting. The room lead out onto a spacious terrace filled with botanical specimens from all over the world. Homi seldom returned from an overseas visit without samples of rare plants and herbs and never without a bottle of perfume, which his mother treasured (A Masterful Spirit)”. In Homi Bhabha as Artist (1968), Jamshed wrote that “there was hardly a single free evening at home when Homi would not be listening to music after dinner and before taking up again his mathematical work till late at night”.

A mural by MF Husain at TIFR, commissioned by the scientist | Source: Amit Chakravarty A mural by MF Husain at TIFR, commissioned by the scientist | Source: Amit Chakravarty

Chowdhury, who is responsible for setting up the TIFR archives but is no longer with the institute, visited the house in 2011 when its contents were being auctioned off. “It was quite sad. As I walked through the house and saw the contents, the rare pieces, I realised it was a treasure trove and each piece could be used to tell a story.” She recalls older generations of scientists speaking about being entertained by Bhabha on the top floor. “While he was very much part of the elite social set in Bombay, he wouldn’t necessarily bow down to the wishes of the wealthy. N B Prasad, who had worked with Bhabha at the Atomic Energy Establishment told me that when he hosted a private dinner for the Queen of England at his place, he chose only to invite his professional colleagues and not the wealthy or powerful of Bombay. He was approachable, but if you were not at his intellectual level, you would probably not be part of a casual conversation with him,” she says.

Homi Bhabha’s greatest legacy is, perhaps, the institutions he created: places where science and art were joined in harmony. The TIFR was born in the Cosmic Ray Unit of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore in June 1945, and shifted to its permanent location overlooking the Arabian Sea at Colaba in 1962. In a letter to the then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhabha wrote about the great beauty that was integral to his visions on institution-building, “I think both Trombay (which later became BARC) and TIFR will be architecturally and botanically beautiful when they are completed.”

A sculpture from the TIFR art collection A sculpture from the TIFR art collection

Architect Rustam BJ Patel calls Trombay his “monumental vision”, a “dream of a Versailles among the research centres of the world”. Patel says that in the layout and planning of the parks and gardens in which the laboratories of BARC were placed, Bhabha drew heavily from “old masters” like the 17th century French landscape architect Andre Le Notre, “emulating” in principle what they had done, but “seeking always the new”. While describing his visit to Bhabha’s home in 1954, German artist Rudi Von Leyden wrote about the grand imagination that was shaping Trombay: “Near his desk stood an enormous drawing board with huge printed plans pinned to it. It appeared that they were the first layout for the afforestation scheme and suggested gardens at Trombay. He spent many hours at night poring over these plans, trying to visualise in his mind’s eye the setting of this new city which he has founded and built mostly below the flanks of Trombay hill..it was typical of him that he could visualise the final shape of his city only in its complete harmonious integration into the surrounding landscape”.

Bhabha (right) with his  parents and brother Jamshed | Courtesy: TIFR archive Bhabha (right) with his
parents and brother Jamshed | Courtesy: TIFR archive

Through his spectacular career in science, Bhabha kept in touch with his inner artist. In Cambridge, contact with a brilliant group of scientists nudged him onto a career in physics, but no less was the impact of the galleries and museums of Europe, which stimulated him to change his drawing and painting from the “dull academic manner learnt in Bombay to a more vigorous individual style”. That legacy is evident in the TIFR art collection, the largest single pool of artwork by the Bombay Progressive Artists, including FN Souza, M F Husain, SH Raza, KH Ara, Tyeb Mehta and their contemporaries.

During his speech at the condolence meeting in Trombay on January 25, 1966, physicist Vikram Sarabhai said: “Those of us who had a personal contact with Bhabha know that science was an important part of life, but that he was a complete man in the best sense of the term as we understand today…He represented the best in the modern educated world, the best of science, the best of the arts.” Thought emptied of its wealth, a house on Malabar Hill remains witness to that glorious life.

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