The Victorian Society | Prof. Chopra Lecture “Enviable Reputation: An Indian Engineer and the Construction of Victorian Bombay”

Professor Preeti Chopra

Enviable Reputation: An Indian Engineer and the Construction of Victorian Bombay

Tuesday, February, 13th, 2024 |  1:00–2:30pm CT | £6 | Register here

In most architectural histories of Bombay, native engineers are either ignored or summarily dispatched because they are not seen to be the originator of ideas but, rather, functionaries who carried out orders. But is this all they were? For example, Macaulay’s Minute (1835) articulated the aim to create through missionary education “‘a class of interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern–a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect,’” or as V. S. Naipaul dubs them, “mimic men.”

In this lecture, the role of one prominent Indian architect and engineer of the Victorian era, Khan Bahadur Muncherji Cowasji Murzban (1839-1917) will be expolred, examining issues such as: how does one examine Murzban’s role in the construction of colonial Bombay? Is Murzban an ideal type of “mimic man,” (someone who could imitate the architectural forms desired by the British in his designs and yet forge no independent path of his own)? Or are there other, more revealing, ways of analyzing the work of Murzban and others like him?

Murzban’s official career will be examined from his meteoric rise to his role in the construction of Victorian Bombay. Murzban’s abilities as an engineer, his facility in nurturing mentors, the wide-range of official activities he undertook that made him indispensable to the colonial elite, his role as an intermediary between the government and Parsi philanthropists, and his membership in Masonic lodges, all contributed to his success. In other words, if we accept that Murzban was an excellent engineer, what is otherwise striking was his ability to participate in diverse though sometimes overlapping arenas and networks of power. By examining Murzban’s varied involvements my analysis will reveal how we might understand what meaning many members of Bombay’s citizenry would have read into Murzban’s public buildings.

Preeti Chopra is professor of modern architecture, urban history and visual studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in the visual, spatial, and cultural landscapes of South Asia and the British empire. She trained as an architect (CEPT, Ahmedabad), landscape architect, urban planner, and architectural historian (University of California, Berkeley) and has conducted research in western and southern India. Chopra is the author of A Joint Enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) and is currently working on a second book on colonial Bombay.

All attendees will be sent a recording of the talk.

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