Eleven years ago, when Robert Stephens, newly graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology, moved to Mumbai after accepting a position with city-based RMA Architects, he was assailed by doubts about this big change that he had made. “But that was just for a day or two,” he says, “Later, when I looked out of my windows at the city, I was fascinated by what I saw.” From then on, whenever he found a little time — sometimes during the week, but mostly on the weekends — he would stroll through the streets of Mumbai, frequently stopping at the famous pavement book stalls around Hutatma Chowk (Flora Fountain). Almost every time he browsed through the stacks on display, Stephens found that he couldn’t help but buy a book — often a mouldy volume dating back to a few decades ago and which discussed such obscure topics as the transactions of the Bombay Medical Congress of 1909 or the abolition of ‘Bombay’s Vice Areas’.
Since those early days, Stephens has amassed nearly 300 books, many of which document the emergence and growth of Mumbai as a major Indian city. He began looking for additions to his collection in used book stores in the UK and the US, as well as online. Among the many rare and valuable books and documents that he has acquired is a copy of the First Development Plan of Bombay (1964) and a copy of the first edition of History of The Bombay Electric Supply and Tramways Company Ltd (1936). Stephens has also built what is arguably the largest collection of books in India about one of his personal heroes — Patrick Geddes, the Scottish polymath and pioneering urban planner, who had written exhaustive town planning reports on a number of Indian cities, including Bombay and Ahmedabad. “I began collecting these books casually, but by 2014, it had become quite serious. When I put them all together, I realised that they were very valuable. For me they are objects of art and of storytelling, but for serious historians, they could be a valuable resource,” he says.
A good example of this, Stephens explains, is the part of the collection which focuses on guidebooks about Mumbai and which was recently displayed at an exhibition at Artisans’ in Kala Ghoda. The earliest guidebooks, written for what Stephens has dubbed “The Ambitious European”, include volumes such as Maclean’s Guide to Bombay: Historical, Statistical, and Descriptive by James Mackenzie Maclean, published in 1880, and Picturesque India: A Handbook for European Travelers by WS Caine, published in 1891. These are both heavier and more richly detailed than the guidebooks that were written later, such as those for what Stephens calls “The Obedient Soldier” and “The Imprisoned Indian Resident”. Stephen points out, “Looking through these books, you understand how history was lived out. For example, for British soldiers stationed in Bombay, it was important to have something that was small enough to be tucked into a pocket and which could be referred to at any time. It’s also interesting to see that these little books, which were given to soldiers, often came with moral instructions, telling them to be respectful to women and to avoid eating overripe fruits or exposing their heads to the sun.” Similar instructions may not have been necessary for European travellers who came earlier, looking for adventure and business in India, or, later, for Indians in newly Independent India, who had tentatively begun to explore the country. He adds, “After 1947, when the market for domestic tourism grew, you can see it reflected in the guidebooks. There was a huge volume being produced and these books had to be cheap so that they could be accessible to all tourists, Indian or foreign. The research quality is lower than before and the maps became smaller.”
Stephens’ engagement with Mumbai goes beyond just collecting books about the city. He has been taking aerial photographs of the city and exhibiting them, with some of his successful exhibitions being “Mumbai Article” in 2014 and “Mumbai North” in 2015. However, it isn’t simply Mumbai that fascinates Stephens. While the city remains his main muse, the 34-year-old has also photographed and collected books about other Indian cities, such as Patna, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Chennai, as well as birds of Delhi. “That’s why the name of my project is Urbs Indis, not Urbs Prima in Indis, which is how Mumbai is often described,” he says, “Ahmedabad is another city that I love and in October this year, I’ll be having an exhibition called ‘Ahmedabad Walls’ at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum, in which I’ll be showing my aerial photographs of the locations of the old city’s walls.” The exhibition will be centered around Geddes’ Note on Ahmedabad, in which the urban planning pioneer had advocated the preservation of the city’s ancient walls.