Long before Mumbai’s heritage conservation movement began in the 1990s, a quiet man with a camera and a passion for the city had already begun documenting its culture and architecture. That man was Foy Nissen, the human encyclopaedia that students, historians, architects and heritage lovers turned to for more than half a century, when they wanted to learn about Mumbai’s built history.

Nissen died in August 2018 at the age of 88, leaving behind a void in the city’s cultural sphere and a rich archive of photographs that was given to the non-profit Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation for preservation. Some of those photographs are currently on public display at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. The exhibition, titled Foy Nissen’s Bombay, showcases rarely seen images of Mumbai’s monuments, natural landmarks, festivals and people that Nissen captured over the course of 50 years.

“Nissen had been photographing Bombay from the 1960s, documenting the old precincts, the architecture, the colonial bungalows and all their little details,” said exhibition curator Kamini Sawhney. “His work is incredibly valuable to the city.”

Nariyal Poornima at Banganga tank, Mumbai. Photo credit: Foy Nissen.
Nariyal Poornima at Banganga tank, Mumbai. Photo credit: Foy Nissen.

De facto historian

Born in 1931, Nissen was of Danish descent. His great-grandfather Georg Nissen had migrated from Denmark to England in 1857 in the hope of a better future. But soon he found himself on a ship to colonial India, and finally ended up serving in the private army of the Maharaja of Baroda in what is present-day Gujarat. He married a British woman, and their son, Foy Nissen’s grandfather, became the commander of the maharaja’s army. After India’s independence, the Nissens stayed on in the country.

Although Nissen was born in Pune, he spent his school and early college years in Mumbai (then called Bombay). He completed his master’s in art from England, and then returned to Mumbai, where he built a long career as the cultural representative of the British Council.

Alongside his official work, Nissen assiduously pursued what he loved the most: exploring and documenting the history and architecture of Mumbai in as much detail as possible. He soon came to be known as the city’s de facto historian. Writers, artists, students and heritage enthusiasts flocked to him for conversations and learning.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, Mumbai did not have other architectural historians like him, and he became one of the most knowledgeable and valuable resources on the city,” said architect and conservationist Vikas Dilawari, who considers Nissen his mentor. “He was like the Google of Mumbai at the time, and he freely shared his knowledge with everyone who came to him, whether it was a PhD scholar, a visiting student or someone involved with the heritage movement.”

Invaluable resource

One of Nissen’s most significant contributions to the city was his foundational role in developing its heritage conservation movement in the 1990s. “He mapped all of Mumbai’s heritage precincts and provided the first list of 90 buildings that were included in the official heritage list [of buildings to be protected by the civic authorities],” said Sawhney.

Western Railway head office, Mumbai. Photo credit: Foy Nissen.
Western Railway head office, Mumbai. Photo credit: Foy Nissen.

Dilawari describes Nissen as the “hidden foundation” of the city’s heritage movement. He first met Nissen in 1998-’99, after he had completed his master’s and was restoring the stained-glass wing of the Rajabai Tower, the 150-year-old clock tower in the University of Mumbai campus. Since the project was supported by the British Council, Nissen would frequently visit the site along with British stained glass experts to see how the work was progressing.

As a conservation architect, Dilawari has worked on restoring several landmark heritage structures in Mumbai, such as the Bhau Daji Lad Museum and the municipal corporation’s main hall. “I would always run my projects by Nissen, and he always had guidance to offer,” said Dilawari, who eventually became a close family friend of Nissen’s. “He would put me in touch with other building experts too.”

Nissen was widely respected for his expansive knowledge of Mumbai’s culture and heritage. Authors such as Suketu Mehta and Gillian Tindall have acknowledged his contribution to their books (Maximum City and City of Gold, respectively).

But Sawhney believes that Nissen’s photography skills were just as invaluable. “His photos are important not just for documentation from an archival point of view – he was also a great photographer,” said Sawhney. “He felt a great sense of ownership and love for the city, which he wanted to translate to his viewers.”

Sawhney has also dedicated a portion of the exhibition to the photographs that Nissen shot in other parts of India. “He chose to shoot photos mainly in black and white, and we have put the cameras that he used on display too.”

Nissen died in 2018 after battling Alzheimer’s for several years. For history and heritage lovers in Mumbai, the exhibition of his photographs is a way of ensuring that his work remains alive in public memory. “He was a very shy person, so it is good to see the spotlight fall on him and his work in this way,” said Dilawari.

Foy Nissen in his youth. Photo credit: foynissen.com
Foy Nissen in his youth. Photo credit: foynissen.com

‘Foy Nissen’s Bombay’ will be on view at the Jehangir Nicholson Gallery at Mumbai’s CSMVS till June 16.