The departure of Virchand Dharamsey signifies the loss of a collective memory that he embodied within himself. Memories of an era which had long before ebbed away. Memories of old Mumbai, its thickly populated inner-city neighbourhoods around Masjid Bunder and Kalbadevi where he grew up and lived for most of his life. Memories of the myriad communities that populated them, their lifestyles, their livelihoods, their obsessions and their insecurities. Memories of localities in various stages of gentrification, of old buildings long demolished, of roads that had changed beyond recognition. Memories of the numerous people, famous and obscure, he had met.

Also memories of a past before his time, carefully constructed from a variety of sources: long discussions with men and women who were born two or three generations before he was, photographs and other visual material, obscure memoirs, crumbling newspapers and architectural ruins, all held together by a cohesive imagination that could recreate lost worlds. If one heard him talk of the silent era of Indian films, one would think he had been a ringside witness to its meteoric rise in the 1910s and ’20s and its fading away in the early ’30s. Oftentimes, he would be taken in by his own performance. But he was quick to point out that he was born only after the silent era of films had ended.

Even more remarkable was his ability to imagine the 19th century. For instance, he had delved so deep into the few Gujarati texts associated with early Parsee Theatre that his descriptions of the plays, their fantastic scenes and the star artistes who performed in them sounded like eyewitness accounts. But all this was to come later, much later.

A youth made up of books, travel

Much of Dharamsey’s early life was circumscribed by the community (or gnyati, as he distinguished it from jati or caste) he was born into. The Kutchi Dasha Oswal Jains were a 19th-century splinter group from the larger Oswal community. They found their niche as commodity traders once they began migrating to Mumbai from their native villages in Kutch since the 1850s. By the 1940s, the community had followed trade patterns and the diaspora was dispersed all across India.

Dharamsey’s father was a trader in kopra (dried coconut kernel) and also dabbled in peppercorns, sourcing them from Alleppey in Kerala and selling them in the Mumbai wholesale market. Growing up in a middle-class household with relatives across India, Dharamsey’s childhood was filled with books and travel. Formal education and certificates were not particularly important in this milieu, and when Dharamsey dropped out of school before matriculation, not many eyebrows were raised. Henceforth, he would be an autodidact.

Shuttling on the local train between Masjid and Mulund, Dharamsey could observe an entire city being built anew. Mulund, then a distant suburb that the Dasha Oswals later adopted as their headquarters, was a good starting point for his rambles with cousins and other friends from the community. The caves at Kanheri, a brisk two-hour walk from Mulund across forested country, were a particular favourite.

Ghatkopar was yet another port of call. Originally a site for sanatoriums and community guest-houses where refuge could be sought from the plague epidemic that raged in Mumbai during the 1890s and early 1900s, Ghatkopar had, by the 1950s, developed into a fountainhead for Gujarati culture and literature in Mumbai. And Dharamsey was at hand to witness its efflorescence.

Next to the celebrated mime artist, Marcel Marceau, in Mumbai in the early 1960s. Courtesy: VK Dharamsey Collection.

In 1956, Dharamsey, now a young man in his 20s, stepped on the public platform for the first time by establishing Ajanta Arts, a society of arts and culture with associates from the Dasha Oswal community. Besides organising cultural exhibitions and lectures under the auspices of Ajanta Arts, Dharamsey also co-edited a magazine called Ajanta. This venture, largely aimed at the community, lasted a few years before funds ran out. More importantly, it allowed Dharamsey to get a toehold in the numerous cultural circles with which Mumbai teemed.

For two decades until the mid-1970s, Dharamsey held a day job at a trading firm. But the evenings found him in the cultural precinct of Kala Ghoda where he could be chatting with the leading painters of the day at the Jehangir Art Gallery or keeping tabs on a literary group which met across the road. But his favourite haunt was the library of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai housed in the Town Hall at Horniman Circle.

Dharamsey (centre) with Karamshi Pir and Jyotindra Jain, suburban Mumbai, mid 1960s (Courtesy: V K Dharamsey Collection

Most of the other circles withered away as the years passed by but his relationship with the books and manuscripts at the Asiatic Society survived till the very end. And along with the books came their readers with many of whom Dharamsey forged enduring relationships. As innumerable scholars and researchers walked into the portals of the Town Hall, he frequently sought them out, was genuinely curious about their work, and, if he found a kindred soul, shared his incisive insights on their subjects.

Dharamsey was also involved in the film society movement which was then in its heydays and worked closely with the Amateur Cine Society organising film screenings and discussions. This brought him in close contact with some of the leading avant-garde film makers from India and elsewhere.

By the time he was 40, Dharamsey had read and seen enough to develop a deep understanding of numerous aspects of cultural history including architecture, photography, the performing arts, film, theatre, literature and much more. Though he had published sporadically, he was, self-confessedly, a poor writer in Gujarati and English. Nor was he a good public speaker. His forte was the informal adda and interactions mano a mano.

With filmmaker Satyajit Ray in Mumbai in the late 1960s. Courtesy: VK Dharamsey Collection.

The middle decades

The loss of a regular salary opened new doors for Virchand Dharamsey, pitchforking him into situations where his unique skill set was particularly relevant. He began collaborating with international scholars researching the history, culture and archaeology of western India. Though he would initially be hired as an interpreter, guide, or research assistant, it would soon become obvious that he was a scholar himself with a deep understanding of the subject at hand and then some more. Many of them acknowledged his collaborative role, even designating him as co-author of the books that followed, while a few were not that generous.

On one such assignment, Dharamsey found his métier in a pottery yard at an archaeological excavation site deep in the heart of Saurashtra in Gujarat. As a member of an Indo-American archaeological project, Dharamsey spent many seasons in the 1980s at Rojdi, an important Indus Valley Civilisation site, sifting through large quantities of potsherds.

His job involved painstakingly classifying the red ware pottery, recognising patterns and broken edges, and identifying the occasional symbols made of Indus Valley script-symbols. This ability to work with huge amounts of fragmentary material and identify patterns and similarities from them stood him in good stead when he ventured deeper into other areas of investigative research.

The antiquarian remains of India had always fascinated Dharamsey. He had been exploring the huge number of sites in and around Mumbai from his teenage years. As his range of travel increased, he had studied many archaeological sites in India and once visited Sri Lanka. It was not therefore surprising that a serendipitous encounter with the diary written by the archaeologist Bhagwanlal Indraji (1839-1888) when he visited the Ajanta caves in 1862 led Dharamsey into a historiographical rabbit hole.

Virchand Dharamsey in Sri Lanka in 1969. Courtesy: VK Dharamsey Collection.

Dharamsey would emerge from this maze only 20 years later. And he emerged in 2012 with a landmark biography of Bhagwanlal that restored the archaeologist to the high pedestal where he once stood.

Dharamsey’s investigations led him to discover so much material – unpublished diaries, personal letters, official accounts of archaeological expeditions, landmark photographs, original cloth rubbings of inscriptions, reminiscences and memoirs – connected with Bhagwanlal that he could reconstruct the charged atmosphere in which historians and archaeologists of the nineteenth century functioned.

His nuanced reading of the many historical essays and books published during this period helped him determine the pivotal role played by Bhagwanlal in their writing even if the authorship had not been ascribed to him. The book has triggered a wholesale reassessment of the historiography of Indian archaeology.

Dharamsey’s involvement with the film society movement further developed his interest in the history of Indian cinema, particularly the silent era (pre-1934) about which there was scant information. He revised and substantially enlarged the filmography of the silent era. His pathbreaking work with the available visual material provided new insights into the history of film. As the decades rolled by, his reputation as the leading authority on Indian silent movies was widely recognised by film historians.

Dharamsey receiving the Silver Medal for his book on Bhagwanlal Indraji from the President of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, Aroon Tikekar, Mumbai, 2012 (Courtesy: V K Dharamsey Collection)

The final years

Virchand Dharamsey was at work until his last days. Collaboration proved to be the key cornerstone of his research and writing in the final decades. But the tables had turned. It was now he who was seeking collaborators who would open up new publication sites for his work, help him write books and essays, and excavate the memories that welled up within him.

A series of collaborators were drafted into his service; some stayed for an essay or two while a few others lasted longer. Numerous scholars would be requested to work on a book chapter or two; their substantial contributions would meld into each other, making it difficult for Dharamsey to attribute and acknowledge their assistance in a rigorous manner.

Dharamsey was the subject of a number of interviews in his final years. Starting from a landmark interview on Parsee Theatre conducted in Hindi to many others on the history of film and a few on the city of Mumbai, they have helped to preserve the depth of his nuanced understanding of these subjects.

Dharamsey with Hemant Dave at the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, 2018 (Courtesy: Hemant Dave)

Perhaps his two most important collaborators in the last decade are Iyesha Geeth Abbas, now curator of the National Film Archives of India, and Hemant Dave, an archaeologist by training who teaches history. Dave has collected the scattered Gujarati writings of Dharamsey, completely revised them to the highest academic standards, and edited them under the title Avanava (to be published later this month by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai).

Abbas, a film scholar in her own right, has co-authored several essays on film history with Dharamsey. Their most important collaborative project is a book tentatively titled The Archaeology of Early Indian Cinema, which is almost ready for publication.

The range of his expertise on subjects he never wrote about could be impressive; a scholar working on advertising in the 20th century could acknowledge that Dharamsey “helped me understand historical patterns of electricity use in Bombay”, while yet another working on 15th century Gujarat could thank him for sharing “his extraordinary scholarship and knowledge of the many histories of Gujarat.”

Dharamsey (left) with historian Makrand Mehta in Ahmedabad in 2016.

A reluctant writer himself, he often encouraged others to wield the pen. For example, he provoked the celebrated music critic, Batuk Diwanji, to embark on a writing career. More recently, he midwived the articles on Gujarati print history by the reclusive Mehali Bhandoopwalla.

Dharamsey leaves behind a valuable collection of film memorabilia: photographs, posters, stills, songbooks, trade magazines, and even the original film script of the 1924 silent film, Gul-e-Bakavali. He has also amassed a large collection of books on art and history. These collections need to find an appropriate repository where they can be conserved.

Besides the two books awaiting publication, Dharamsey’s book on Bhagwanlal Indraji, which is out of print, deserves to be republished by a mainstream publisher. This would ensure that Virchand Dharamsey’s oeuvre gets the recognition, sometimes missing in his lifetime, it deserves.

Murali Ranganathan is a historian and translator. His most recent book is a translation of a Parsi Gujarati war memoir, The First World War Adventures of Nariman Karkaria (HarperCollins, 2022).