In a major milestone in its 215-year-old history, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai got its first woman president on Saturday after 78-year-old Professor Vispi Balaporia won the election to the post. Former Supreme Court judge Sujata Manohar withdrew her nomination for the post of president at the last minute, after which the contest was between former principal of Siddhartha College, Dr Surendra Dhaktode, and Balaporia, who secured 107 out of 163 votes.
Traditionally, the society has been male-dominated, Balaporia said. “Women didn’t put themselves forward. The way it was started, it was controlled by men in the days of the British. However, British women too have contributed to its activities. Until recently, the Gallery of Excellence consisting of imposing portraits in the durbar hall, included Indians and British. But there wasn’t a single portrait of a woman in the gallery. After some members suggested, we added a portrait of Indian scholar Durga Bhagwat to the gallery,” she said.
She added, “For some years now, the society has had women as office-bearers, vice-presidents and honorary secretaries. Maybe for the first time, a woman nominated herself for the position of president.” Balaporia, daughter of Shavax Lal, who was former Secretary to first President of India Dr Rajendra Prasad, is presently a visiting faculty at Jai Hind College having retired as its vice-principal and head of department for English. She is also a member of Association of British Council Scholars and has served in various capacities at Mumbai University.
Speaking of her vision for the society, Balaporia said her focus will be to complete ongoing projects. “A significant project taken up under the dynamic leadership of my predecessor, Sharad Kale, who just completed a six-year term, was the digitisation project. This was made possible thanks to a grant of Rs 5 crore by the state government in 2015. The first phase of this project has been completed but much remains to be achieved, provided that grant or donations are forthcoming. This project has enabled us to set up a web portal, Granth Sanjeevani, which can be accessed by scholars and researchers as well as other academic institutions. Digital is the buzz word these days and we must keep up with the times, even though we are 215 years old,” she said.
She added that another effort was to attract young members who will benefit from our rich resources, but who will also carry the legacy forward. She added, “There is a compelling need for financial inputs. Several projects depend on the generosity of donors,” she said.
Four vice-presidents, one honorary secretary and five members in the managing committee were also elected on Saturday.