ON the evening of September 22, 1852, a number of friends and admirers of the late businessman and philanthropist Framjee Cowasjee convened for a meeting in Mumbai. The Framjee Cowasjee Testimonial — as that gathering was called — had collected a sizeable fund after Cowasjee’s death, and met to discuss a suitable memorial to erect in his name.
“This is the first instance that has been known in which persons of the classes and denominations, of both natives and Europeans, have come forward to raise posthumous testimonial in honour of a native of this presidency,” announced P LeGreyt who was chairing the testimonial, terming it an “extraordinary occasion”.
Having been instrumental in the formation and success of the Elphinstone College, Cowasjee was also a long-time benefactor of the student’s Literary and Scientific Society (LSS). His first contribution was a number of lamps when he heard that they needed those for their meetings, and henceforth, he took an interest in all their proceedings.
In memory of Cowasjee’s efforts to extend education in society, it was decided that the funds be used to construct a memorial institute to further Cowasjee’s very ideals.
The result was an institute and a museum in collaboration with the LSS of Elphinstone College. The institute would house a lecture room, a laboratory, a museum of arts and industry, a library, and would be called the Framjee Cowasjee Institute.
Almost 150 years later, the institute still houses the library, the administration of which has now been handed over to the Wadia Trust. The library is still availed of by students at no cost, as was wished by Cowasjee himself.
Says Pervez Jokhi, the administrator of the institute for the last five years, said, “The institute earns from the leasing of its auditorium and hall on the ground floor, and the renting of parking space in its courtyard. The amount is meagre, but we run a tight ship and make do.”
The heritage structure now stands, elegant and serene, despite the everyday mundaneness of the discount sales and exhibitions hosted in the hall.
The institute’s records also show what hurdles were overcome in the construction of the structure.
While a committee was formed after the testimonial, what followed was years of going back and forth with the government and the Framjee Cowasjee Institute committee unable to decide on the proposed land and funding for construction.
In 1857, the committee had accepted a plot of land on the south-west corner of the Framjee Cowasjee Tank, that bordered what was then the Esplanade, acres of undivided rolling greens that are today the Oval Maidan, the Azad Maidan and various structures, including the Metro Cinema. The tank was possibly one of Mumbai’s oldest, built in the late 1700s or early 1800s when a drinking water crisis hit Bombay.
The site was agreed upon, but a further dispute arose over the presence of a bullock-shed on the edge of the premises. That and other obstructing structures had to be removed and eventually, nine years from the date of the original proposal, the foundation stone for the Framjee Cowasjee Institute was laid in February 1862.
There is no trace of the tank any more, though a nearby well remains a popular point for water tankers to refill.