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Priorities and Funding: Asiatic Society's First Woman President Is Aware of Her Tough Journey Ahead

The first woman president of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Vispi Balaporia (78), has had an illustrious career as an educator. It also helps that she has had several years of experience working as the society’s secretary.

Simantini Dey | News18.com

Updated:September 3, 2019, 8:11 PM IST
Priorities and Funding: Asiatic Society's First Woman President Is Aware of Her Tough Journey Ahead
FIle photo of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai's first woman president Vispi Balaporia. (News18)

On Monday, Vispi Balaporia grabbed headlines by becoming the first woman president of The Asiatic Society of Mumbai in its 215 years of history. Balaporia is aware that this is just the beginning of a challenging journey ahead.

“One just wonders why it took so long,” says Balaporia when asked why no other woman member became a president until now.

"Women have been a part of the Asiatic society, especially in education and research, for years. Some had even become vice-presidents. I was the secretary before this. Durga Bhagwat, a renowned scholar, was one of our women members, and the famous sociologist, Meera Kosambi, also did a lot. But for some reason, the post of president was always occupied by men. Of course, they were good and competent, but even then, it was always men,” she adds.

Balaporia (78) has had an illustrious career as an educator. She had taught at the Wilson College and was also the vice-principal of Jai Hind College, Mumbai. However, this new position as the Asiatic Society's president comes with a unique set of challenges and responsibilities that Balaporia has embraced with wholehearted enthusiasm. It helps that she has had several years of experience working as the society’s secretary. Her first job as president, she said, is to preserve history.

Keeping History Alive

Most Mumbaikars know The Asiatic Society as the unmissable white Romanesque structure opposite Horniman Circle with massive Doric columns and a flight of stairs where locals and tourists like to rest their legs, take selfies, eat rolls bought from Bade Miya and chill out. However, inside the hallowed Town Hall building, in Asiatic Society's basement, resides some of the world’s rarest manuscripts along with approximately 2,50,000 other books.

There is one of the only two surviving original scripts of Italian writer Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy and Firdausi's Shahnama. There are also manuscripts of Vasupujyacharita and Aranyakaparvan. Sir James Mackintosh would have indeed been proud of the society that he founded in 1804 to create a pool of knowledge resource about Indian culture in the ‘intellectual desert’ that apparently Mumbai was, at the time.

Through this society, many international scholars, in fact, became acquainted with the rich and diverse cultural histories of India and other orient countries, and it serves as a treasure trove for literary knowledge seekers from across the globe even today.

The problem with history, however, is that it is in constant need of attention. The many books housed in the heritage building have to be bounded, preserved, digitised and saved with diligence, and this whole preservation process, of course, comes at a cost.

“We have plenty of fund issues and I will have to think of ways to resolve them,” says Balaporia, adding, "One of our biggest problems is that after the 7th Pay Commission, we are supposed to pay a higher salary to the staff. We are absolutely willing to pay them, they work hard and deserve it. But, we don't have the funds.” However, she says that despite being slightly unhappy for not getting paid according to the new pay scales, the staff do their work with due diligence.

The Asiatic Society of Mumbai is funded by the Union Ministry of Culture and not by the state government. "The ministry has been cutting down on funding rather than increasing it. In a sense, we are autonomous. We have our constitution. We come under the Charity Commissioner, as a society. So, the ministry is saying that we have to raise our own resources to run the place and that is becoming more and more difficult,” she says.

"All our letters to Delhi and the ministry don't even get replies. I don't know where they go. I suppose we figure somewhere really low in the ministry’s list of priorities,” says Balaporia, adding "Even CSR (corporate social responsibility) funds are not really forthcoming, because they prefer to give donations to educational institutions and we are more of a research library.”

The repairs and renovation work are mainly looked after by Public Works Department and officials concerned haven't been proactive in helping out either.

"We have had leakages, we had to move our books. Some of the books suffered damage in the rain, so we have had a fair bit of infrastructural issues. For any internal infrastructural improvement too, we need clearance from several bodies,” the newly appointed president says.

Delhi Chalo

Although these are major issues, Balaporia is already trying to tackle them pragmatically. Before retirement, the ex-President of the society, Sharad Kale had decided to send a delegation to Delhi to persuade the authorities for some funding. However, before the delegation could be finalised, Kale's term came to an end.

Balaporia plans to follow Kale’s footsteps and send another team to Delhi for funding. A major need for money is to continue with the digitisation process that is already underway.

"We were very fortunate that a few years ago, without even asking, we were given funding of Rs 5 crore from the state government and it was earmarked for digitisation. That's how our whole digitisation project began. We had to clear space and bring in all the machines, scanners and other stuff for digitisation because we didn't want our precious books to go out. Many books were also microfilmed. Most of the fund money we had received has been used up in the process and now we want to start the second phase. How do we do that unless some funding comes in?" she says.

Public Display

Although the Asiatic Society of Mumbai has some wonderful collections of books, coins and stamps, there are very few occasions when the society had opened its doors to the public. The reasons for this, Balaporia states, are security and space.

Although the Town Hall building is synonymous to The Asiatic Society, there are, in fact, other offices and library in the building, and the Asiatic Society, with it 2,50,000 books have a major space crunch.

"The entire building is not ours, we just occupy a section of it. There is the town hall and then we share the place with the state library, which is called the Central Library. Central Library is a public library, unlike us. We have very limited space and then there are other offices. There is the women's council office on the ground floor, the stamp paper section is occupied. We only have a part of the building, which comes under the collector of Mumbai,” she adds.

“We need space and proper display units to allow the public in. Our coins, books and artefacts are very precious, so if we are letting the public in, security systems have to be installed and the place has to be manned. This again needs funds," Balaporia says.

"We can do an exhibition for a couple of days, but we don't want to keep pulling out our books for display, because over-handling may lead to damage. So, we can’t do displays. But, we are trying to make things as visible as possible. We have microfilmed many books, so sometimes we can put them up for display. I think we have put them up on our web portal as well,” she says, adding that she would love the public to see all the treasures that have been stowed away on shelves and dark alleyways of the basement.

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