September 3, 2019 7:30:33 pm
On Saturday, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, which was started by and for white European men in the early 19th century, elected the first woman president in the 215 years of its existence.
Prof Vispi Balaporia, visiting faculty at Mumbai’s Jai Hind College, an institution where she was earlier Vice-Principal and Head of the Department of English, will head the institution that is a treasure house of remarkable historical artifacts.
Asiatic Society, Mumbai
The Asiatic Society is housed in the iconic Town Hall building in the colonial-era Fort precinct and has witnessed the evolution of the city’s intelligentsia in its long history.
It is a learned society whose activities include conducting historical research, awarding historians, and running an institute of post-graduate studies.
Its library, home to over 1 lakh books, consists of rare manuscripts contributed to it by the East India Company, as well as generous donations by the likes of Mountstuart Elphinstone, Jagannath Shankarsheth, Cowasji Jehangir, and Bhau Daji Lad. The library recently scrapped its referral system for membership, thus expanding access to its resources.
Among the prized collections of the Society is an original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and coins issued by Kumaragupta (5th century), Akbar (16th century), and Shivaji (17th century).
The Society offers Junior Fellowships for research and recommends scholars for the Tagore National Fellowship of the Ministry of Culture. The Governor of Maharashtra is the Society’s Chief Patron.
A 200-year history
The Asiatic Society began its journey in 1804 as the Literary Society of Bombay. It was founded by Sir James Mackintosh, a Scottish colonial administrator who had a keen interest in Oriental studies.
In 1826, the Literary Society became the Mumbai arm of the London-based Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland and came to be called the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (BBRAS).
In its early days, membership of the Society was restricted to European “gentlemen”, and the “natives” were not allowed to join until 1841.
The Bombay Geographical Society and the Anthropological Society of Bombay merged with the BBRAS in 1873 and 1896 respectively.
In 1954, the institution was severed from its London parent and became the Asiatic Society of Bombay. In 2002, it acquired its present name.
According to the Society’s website, its journal has been in publication since 1841.
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