In the 1870s, British journalist and politician James Mackenzie Maclean said about Bombay, where he had lived and worked for many years – “The city, in many respects, is one of the most remarkable in the world.” He praised the city for being “the most Anglicised in India” and observed that within a mile-and-a-half of the crowded Parell Road (presumably near present-day Parel) one could see Hindu temples, mosques, a Parsi fire temple, a synagogue and church.

Decades later, a pamphlet presented to European troops in the country in the 1940s warned them: “No, India is not a ‘Hello Cutie’ country. Maybe sad, but it’s is not easy for Indians to make allowances for our informality.” It advised soldiers not to speak to Indian women unless they were introduced, not to make comments about people while riding the bus and not to stare at girls (“You’ll see pretty ones; look the other way.”). Another advisory issued to Europeans troops during the same period cautions them not to expose their heads to the sun before 4 pm, eat overripe fruits, drink alcohol during the day, or fraternise with “low class people”.

These and other fascinating, or peculiar, insights on the city can be found at an exhibition of guidebooks at ARTISANS’ gallery in Kala Ghoda from May 18. Mumbai Guidebooks 1880-1890: A Tactile Exhibition of Rare Books includes 16 texts that chronicle the city over a century. The books are from the personal collection of architect and photographer Robert Stephens and the exhibition coincides with the launch of his website, Urbs Inds, which is an online gallery for his photographs. As Stephens puts it, the books are “a century’s worth of introductions to the City of Dreams”.

Robert Stephens' collection of Mumbai guidebooks. Photo credit: Artisans'/Facebook

The books will be on display at the centre of the gallery room, while the walls will display Stephens’ aerial photography from Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Ahmedabad. Visitors can peruse the books at leisure, which was important to Stephens. “A lot of people say, ‘How can you [display] old books that are valuable? People will damage them, they’ll ruin them’,” Stephens told “Part of the desire to exhibit is to allow people to touch, but to do so keeping in mind that others will also want to touch. It should be done with care and gentleness. I find that very exciting.”

The Mumbai guidebook collection was pieced together over 11 years, from the time Stephens moved to the city and has been sourced from around the world. “The best books on Bombay typically come from the UK,” he said. “Some are from the US. For whatever reason in the history of world book movement, a lot of good books have ended up in the UK. Part of my aspiration in all of this is to ensure there are some good books on India in India.”

Why the focus on guidebooks, though? “It’s an interesting narrative,” Stephens said. “These books [plot] how guidebooks for the city have changed in the last 100 years. First, they were for European travellers specifically. Then during the War, they’re for British and American troops. Then post the World Wars they’re for more cosmopolitan tourists, which included Indian and foreign. So, [there were] three very clear sets of intended users, in which I found an interesting narrative.”

James Maclean's 'Bombay: Historical, Statistical, and Descriptive', 1880. At the back of the book is a directory, like the yellow pages, for visitors.

A city’s story

While the earlier texts in the collection double up as a guide for Europeans to survive in the city, the later ones stress more on where to go and what to do. India’s transition from decades of colonial rule to Independence is also reflected in the authorship of these books. They were first all written by Europeans living in India, or agencies of the colonial government, and later, by Indian citizens or local authorities.

When put together, the books show the staggering growth of the city over 100 years, but for Stephens, the similarities are more striking than the differences – “The first thing that’s obvious when you look at the books together is that you see the growth of the city, physically. Up until about the 1950s, you never saw a map beyond Dadar, and primarily it was just Fort area that was Bombay. Then after the 1950s, the World Wars ended, Bombay stars expanding rapidly, and then you find suburban maps in guidebooks. But in terms of the description itself, I find them quite similar.”

'A Guide Book to Calcutta, Agra, Delhi, Karachi, and Bombay' by the American Red Cross of China-Burma-India- Command , 1940s. The book includes an advisory for soldiers, adivising them, among other things, not to criticise their allies or voice opinions on local politics.

For instance, Stephens said, the city has always been about its residents. “The oldest guidebook in this collection, from 1880, starts with saying Bombay is about people,” he said. “[The author, Maclean] calls it ‘suspended animation’, it’s very active. The most recent book in this collection is from 1984 and the very first page is about the Koli fishermen. So I find it fascinating that in 1880, the first paragraph describing the city is about its people and in 1984, the first page is still about people.”

The old and the new

Present-day Mumbai’s pervasive problems like overpopulation, expensive real estate and land shortage were relevant even in the early 20th century. “The 1960s publication, by the government of Bombay, talks about skyscrapers…and now we see that in an extreme,” Stephens said. “I…see it more like an avalanche that’s building on itself rather than something growing and evolving with time in a productive way.”

What also stood out to European researchers was Mumbai’s vibrancy. “James Maclain, in the oldest guidebook, says that when you go to Calcutta or Delhi, you see monuments, what India was. When you come to Bombay, you see what India is,” he explained. “Even from my perspective, I love all the cities, but when you come to Bombay, you feel that [way]. Because the city has many layers – arts, finance – all these different ecologies packed into the city, with bad infrastructure of course. And that’s something phenomenal to have carried out for a century and half.”

A map of Bombay from HA Newell's 'Bombay (The Gate of India)'; 1924, which extends up to Dharavi in the North and Colaba in the South.

Over time, the quality of the books has diminished as they went from being beautiful objects printed in hardback with gilt covers or edging to becoming inexpensive paperbacks. The newer books, Stephen finds, are also less analytical – “Once you get into the 20th century, there’s less introspection, because in the earlier books, they’re not only describing the city but also analysing it. After that it becomes more objective – colder, just facts – less interesting as literary piece of work. But, they’re accessible to a wider range of audience.”

By the late 20th century, however, that analytical thrust returns – “I would say the research quality improves. I think the more recent travel books are much more specific. One thing that comes to mind is Fort Walks (1999) by Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi. That’s a very unique guidebook for a specific part of Bombay. Then there’s Saurav Roy and Ruchita Madhok’s City by the Sea (2014). [These books are] interesting ways to introduce the city in spite of the fact that there are dozens of guidebooks on the city. So I think the research content has gone up.”

'Greater Bombay Tourist’s Companion', by the Public Relations Department Municipal Corporation of Greater Bombay, 1962.

Visual storytelling

This analytical and literary backbone is an integral part of Stephens’ work as a photographer as well. In all his exhibitions, every photograph is accompanied by an excerpt from a book, which sheds light on the city. More importantly, it shows what a city has lost out on over the years. “As a collection, each set tries to tell a story,” he said. “It picks up on what I like the call the regional characteristics of a place. So the Delhi series speaks about the unique bird life of the city, which is the second most bird-rich capital in the world after Nairobi.”

The idea behind the ornithological perspective was to point out how the national capital has missed out on the chance to preserve this rich repository, he said. Each photograph is also accompanied by information on the pollution levels on that day, as measured by the state’s pollution control board. Through this, he said, he hopes to draw attention to the worsening toxicity in India’s cities.

Thane City and Creek, SO2: 8 NOX: 53 RSPM: 164. Credit: Robert Stephens.

All of Stephen’s photographs have been captured from airplanes, using a simple point-and-shoot camera. How has he managed to cover such varied stretches of multiple cities – for instance, from Marine Drive to Carter Road and Saki Naka in Mumbai – from this narrow viewpoint? By familiarising himself with the flight paths of the routes he frequents. “I know, depending on my final destination, how the plane will turn and which window seat I need [to capture which part of the city],” he said.

Mumbai Guidebooks 1880-1890: A Tactile Exhibition of Rare Books is on display at ARTISANS’ gallery in Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, from May 18 to May 27.