TRACING THE LEGACY OF JAGANNATH SUNKERSETT
Jagannath Sunkersett was a city father who left his mark – and name – on Bombay through his immense contribution to its arts, culture, and education. Mrigank Warrier goes on a tour of South Bombay, tracing glimpses of the past that live on in the present.
The evil that men do may live after them, but the good isn’t always interred with their bones. A few good men built this city, and their names survive, appended to their legacies: Elphinstone, Jeejeebhoy, Kennedy, Sassoon…and Sunkersett.
Jagannath Sunkersett (1803-1865) was a city father who wore many hats: businessman, landowner, educationist, reformist, founder of institutions, and benefactor of the poor; a polymath who spoke up for his native brethren to their British masters and did much to improve their lot. From Legislative Councillor to Member of the Committee Appointed for the Administration of the Hill-Station of Matheran, he accepted diverse roles and performed each with singular excellence.
By digging into digitised books and journals from the 19th and 20th centuries – and rambling around Mumbai in the 21st – I have attempted to carve out a pilgrim trail linking some of the many, many sites associated with the perseverance and largesse of Jagannath ‘Nana’ Sunkersett. Walk with me.
British South Bombay
We set off from Elphinstone College, which evolved from the Native School of Bombay – established by the eponymous governor who was favourable towards educating Indians – to the Board of Education to the Elphinstone Institution. Nana was Chairman of the Elphinstone Funds and member of the Board.
Let us not tarry overlong at Mumbai University, itself a descendant of the Elphinstone Institution, where six Sanskrit scholarships endowed by Nana’s son Vinayakrao Jugonnathjee Sunkersett in his memory in 1866 continue to sponsor students. Let us pay but a moment’s obeisance at the iconic Asiatic Society, which holds within its hallowed halls a statute of Nana, the first Indian member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland in London and one of the Bombay Society’s founders. We must not omit to swing by Borabazaar’s Gunbow Street, which derives its name from a corruption of Ganbasett – Nana’s grandfather, who migrated from Murbad to set up a mercantile business within the fort walls.
We take a moment’s respite by the western face of much-photographed Victoria Terminus; the sculpted visage at the extreme right of the row of faces is Nana’s. He and Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy formed the Indian Railway Association to lobby the British to bring railways to India; this grew into the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (now the Central Railway), of which Jeejeebhoy and Nana were the only two Indian directors. Its first ticket office was set up at Nana’s premises in Girgaum, and he was on board the first train from Boree Bunder to Tannah on April 16, 1853.
We now veer west and pad lightly between the two peaceful plots of Bada Kabrastaan. A bust of Nana catches your eye, nestled in a private crematorium named for the man who strove to prevent the Sonapur (Chandanwadi) burning grounds from being shifted elsewhere. One-and-a-half centuries later, the secretary of the Bombay Hindu Burial and Burning Grounds Committee remains a Sunkersett.
Traipse into a parallel lane, and you will find yourself at SL and SS Girls’ High School. Ages ago, ‘a crop of Indian graduates from Elphinstone College in Fort, under the umbrella of the Students' Literary and Scientific Society, decided to set up a network of schools for girls. Young and relatively poor, they turned to leading shetias (merchant elites) of Bombay.’ Nana ‘donated a beautiful little cottage in his own compound to be used as a school-house...rent-free’, and against stiff opposition, enrolled girls from his own household in the school.
We come now to Girgaum Road – renamed Jagannath Sunkersett Road – a long chain of wadis from Dhobi Talao to Opera House. A nine-storey apartment building christened Sunkersett Smruti was once the site of the ‘country mansion at Girgaum’ of the ‘rich Hindoo banker’. In a report of a party thrown here to welcome Lord Keane, Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army, an 1840 issue of the Asiatic Journal reports that ‘The mansion of Sunkersett is one of the handsomest on the island, and is particularly distinguished for the beauty of its garden...the courteous attentions, hospitality, gentlemanly, and indeed highly polished manners of the host could not fail to impress all his guests with sentiments of esteem and respect.’
Behind the bygone mansion is Nana Sunkersett Wadi, now a morose mix of chawls, godowns, and a BEST substation.
We take a flying leap to the Victoria and Albert Museum and Victoria Gardens, now known as Bhau Daji Lad Museum and Jijamata Udyan. Nana was President of the Museum Committee, and his portrait hangs on its staircase landing. He was also President of the Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India, which laid down exquisitely landscaped gardens at Mount Estate. Try to picture Nana at its opening, escorting Lady Frere through the arbour.
As we make our way back west, we pass through Play House, which got its epithet from the Grant Road Theatre, constructed in 1846 on land donated by Nana. With this, the onus of funding entertainment moved from elite patronage to tickets sold to the hoi polloi. In 1853, it hosted its first non-English play, Vishnudas Bhave’s Ramayana, in Marathi. Raja Gopichand and Jalandhar in Hindustani and Parsi theatre’s Rustom Zabooli and Sohrab soon followed. The theatre building itself is long gone, but it cradled the aforementioned vernacular theatre movements – ancestors of the Hindi film industry as we know it today.
Soothe your weary feet with the assurance that your journey is almost at an end. As you descend Frere Bridge, you may ignore Sunkersett Municipal School on your left, now unrecognisable as the brick-red Door Step School. Gaze upwards at the cable-stayed hydra of the aakaashi paadchaari pul (skywalk) that crouches over Nana Chowk, home to a bust of Nana unacknowledged by motorists whizzing past. Turn right and stop for a photo-op at Bhavani Shankar Mandir. Constructed in 1806 by Nana’s father, its low, Konkan-roofed structure silently resists the oppression of the tasteless towers that hem it in. Next door is Sunkersett Mansion, an angular building that replaced another of Nana’s residences. Its grounds included a dharamshala and the Sunkersett Babulsett Charitable Dispensary founded by Nana in his father’s memory.
When we turn into Jagannath Lane opposite, you will not be surprised by the signboard claiming that East and West Villa – old, squat buildings – are property of the Shankarsett family. Nana is long gone, but his descendants and his gifts to the city live on. As you move to take your train home from Grant Road station by walking through Shankarsheth Lane – better known as Bhaji Gully – you may join millions of others before you who have sent a silent prayer of thanks to Jagannath Sunkersett and thought to themselves: ‘What a man! What a legacy! What a life!’
Photographs by Suruchi Maira