How to break a glass ceiling

The Parsi Lying-In Hospital had an architect whose name I had not come across before: Muncherjee Cowasjee Murzban. Not very strangely, it was hard to find anything about him. Even rather well-known architects, engineers, or scientists are not remembered long. It was a while before I found the full text of an out-of-print biography written by his son. Since there is not even a Wikipedia entry on a person who deserves to be remembered better, let me set out a brief bio here. He was born on 7 July, 1839 to Cowasjee Furdoonjee Murzban and Hambaiji Murzban (nee Chandaru). He was married to his cousin Gulbai when he was 14 years old, with whom had a daughter, Mithibai, in 1855, and a son, Murzban, in 1857.

The attic rooms of the Yacht Club have a wonderful view of the harbour over the Gateway of India

Muncherjee’s family came to Mumbai from Surat and became very well known. The family name Murzban is an ancient Persian title given to governors of provinces in the empire. His grandfather, Fardunjee Murzban, moved to Mumbai in 1805, and became a book binder and printer, eventually starting a Gujarati newspaper called Mumbaina Samachar in 1822. The first editorial expressed strong opinions on the freedom of the press, and the newspaper was widely read during the Independence movement, since it reported speeches by Gandhi and other leaders of the movement. Interestingly for its time, women were employed to work in the press alongside men. The newspaper has been in continuous publication since, and now, two hundred years on, remains Asia’s oldest newspaper still in print.

The serene facade of Wilson College has a view of Backbay and Chowpatty across Marine Drive

A record of Muncherjee’s life reads like a case history of a brilliant engineer constantly butting up against the glass ceilings of colonial-era India. I give a bare-bones summary here, but his career became entwined in controversies about the rapid rise of a “native” Indian. His life became quite politicized, and newspapers on both sides of the political divide wrote about him. After studying engineering in the erstwhile Poona College, he joined the Public Works Department in 1857. At the personal request of the Governor, Bartle Frere, he was appointed to the Bombay Rampart removal committee in 1863. He was then seconded to the Bombay Harbour Defense in 1866. Murzban was eventually promoted to Assistant Engineer in 1872 after he took personal initiative in correcting major deficiencies in the engineering design of the General Post Office. He travelled to Europe in the next year (I found it interesting that the exchange rate was two shillings for every rupee; the rupee was not devalued until much later, under the advice of Keynes). Muncherjee visited the Tay Bridge on the Firth of Forth, then under construction, and (his son records) in his diary wrote about the likelihood of its failure. I hope the diaries are not lost, because they will be very interesting documents today.

The foundations of the Wilson College were specially designed by Murzban to float over the daily tidal floods

His fame seems to have increased soon after. Murzban was elected an Associate-Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers of England in 1874, and a Fellow of the University of Bombay in 1875. In 1876 he was promoted to an Executive Engineer (he was only the second Indian to hold this position). The newly crowned Empress of India conferred the title of Khan Bahadur o Muncherjee in the Delhi Durbar of 1877. People who visit Mumbai will recognize some of his best work of this time: not only the General Post Office (1872), but the reclamation of Apollo Bunder, where the Gateway of India stands in front of the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, which he constructed, and the J.J. School of Arts (1878) in what was then the Esplanade.

The harbour face of the Yacht Club is now blocked because of traffic routing

He was elected to the Municipal Corporation of Bombay from Ward-H in 1880, moved into his own house Gulestan (on what is now Murzban Road) in 1884, and deposed before the Royal Commission on the admission of “natives” to the Civil Services in 1886. The accomplishments piled on. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1889, appointed president of the Municipal Council of Bombay in 1890, and made a Companion of the CIE in 1891. His election as Chief Engineer of the Municipal Corporation in 1892, the first Indian in this post, created quite a controversy. He voluntarily retired from the PWD in 1893, and was re-appointed for five years in 1898. Mumbai’s most eminent engineer of his time was appointed to the Board of the erstwhile Victoria Jubilee Technical Institute in 1900, where he served for 12 years.

The annex of the Parsi Lying-In Hospital was added in 1910 and built in concrete

The buildings he constructed before retirement includes Alexandra School (1881), the Bombay High Court (1886), Cama Hospital (1886), Elphinstone College (1889), Wilson College (1889), Albless Hospital (1890), Wadia Hospital (1892), and the Anjuman-i-Islam Madrassa (1893). He is credited with changing the street lights to incandescent gas lamps, establishing municipal markets in Bhuleshwar and Colaba, installing sewage treatment pumps in Worli, and building many of the roads which now give shape to south Mumbai.

Metro work in progress on Lamington Road

His output as an architect seems to have been more modest. I’d already seen the Parsi Lying-In Hospital (1895). The Murzban Parsi Colony in Lal Chimney, on Lamington Road was another which has been written about. This was a self-contained gated complex built for low-income Parsi families, owned by a charitable trust. I read about its recent restoration, and decided to put off visiting it until the Metro construction nearby is done.

Muncherjee Murzban died in 1916, the year after Gandhi’s return to India changed the politics of the nation forever. His career spanned precisely the years in which a prickly relationship, neither a partnership nor yet Gandhi’s non-cooperation, between “native” and colonisers created the skeleton of modern India.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


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