Mumbai is bursting with energy, chaos, and a breathtaking diversity, whose essence is captured in the millions of stories that have lived and flowered in it through generations. It has a unique spirit — and it is this intangible soul, or the 'Bombay feeling', that Foy Nissen brilliantly documented in his photographs, displayed recently at the ‘Foy Nissen’s Bombay’ exhibition at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya’s (CSMVS) Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) Gallery in Mumbai. A man of Danish descent, Nissen — who passed away in August last year at the age of 88 — was smitten with the city, and became a living encyclopaedia of its memories and milestones in the last five decades.
Besides photos, the exhibition also featured the cameras that would hang around Nissen’s neck, as he got on his Vespa and drove around the city of dreams, photographing it. “He used to drive only when it was not hot, in the evening, when he had the right clothing, right shoes – very precise”, explains conservation architect, Vikas Dilawari. Recipient of 12 UNESCO awards for his heritage restoration work, Dilawari considers Foy as one of his mentors. “He was a friend, philosopher, guide...all these things combined,” he says, adding that the man “was just phenomenal, [a] perfectionist to the minutest of details.”
Foy Nissen. Photo credit: foynissen.com
Foy was a keen documentarian of Bombay.
Dilawari is one of the many people who met Nissen due to his deep involvement with the city. Scholars, writers, researchers, architects, and absolutely anyone interested in Mumbai, would flock to the late photographer. Despite being remembered as shy and distant, one also recalls him feeling easy around visitors, as he had built an entire network of Mumbai-enthusiasts in the city. “When he realised that you are interested, and you are there to improve the city, then he really opened up.”
Nissen's deep-rooted passion and knowledge of the city earned him the moniker of ‘the internet of his times’, as he would willingly share all he knew with interested listeners. “His knowledge was amazing and he shared it with so much warmth with everyone,” recalls Dilawari.
Nissen, who first met Dilawari at the Rajabai Clock Tower restoration project in south Mumbai, was actively involved in preserving the city's heritage, and even helped compile Mumbai's first heritage list for the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH). Artists and authors, whose works revolve around Mumbai, regularly acknowledge his contribution to safeguarding the city's legacy, including author of Maximum City, Suketu Mehta, and City of Gold author, Gillian Tindall. Foy left a lasting impression on them all — some whom he met through his work at the British Council, including artist Howard Hodgkin, who later painted Foy Nissen’s Bombay that lends its name to the JNAF exhibition.
Foy Nissen’s neighbours and friends, Manju and Mona Mehra, bequeathed the collection of photographs to JNAF after his passing. He had photographed broadly and well beyond Mumbai, travelling to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Goa, Nepal and Bhutan, among other places.
(Bundi, Rajasthan in the 1970s. Photo credit: JNAF)
Kamini Sawhney, the exhibition’s curator, recalls sorting through piles of boxes full of photographs left behind by the man. “I thought, let’s focus first on Bombay, because this is the city that he loves, this is the city where he did some amazing work, and it was relevant for the people of Bombay to see that work," she says, explaining her reason behind focusing on Mumbai for the exhibition, whose overarching theme was certainly 'the spirit of Bombay', as skilfully portrayed by Nissen.
“He captured such fabulous moments. So it’s not just moments in isolation, it’s always the people of the city. He’s reflecting the city and its soul”, Sawhney says about the photographs, adding that the artist "was always able to capture that particular moment in time.
Sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t take this photograph into the exhibition because it’s that moment where you’re almost intruding into somebody’s space.
It’s that moment that you capture that tells you a whole lot.” Nissen not only captured the people of Bombay, but was also mindful of the particular Bombay space his subjects inhabited, and tied the two together to tell a story. “I think he just captures that perfect moment in a space which tells you so much. He’s capturing a whole lifetime.”
One such moment immortalised by Nissen is of an old man sitting alone in an Irani café, staring off forlornly to his left, laying out the story of someone who has grown old in the city, frequents Irani cafés, and is now lonely.
(Brabourne Restaurant, Dhobi Talao, Mumbai. Photo credit: JNAF)
About this photo, Sawhney says: “There is this old man who’s sitting in this Irani café. So you already get a sense of what Bombay was [at the time]. Irani cafés are so iconic and typical of Bombay, they recreate a whole time when they were popular. The food, the furniture of that time, the Parsis who have come...These Parsi cafés, where people came together, to eat, to chat, to do things and have a good time, over food and drink and camaraderie. Here, you see this old man, sitting there and staring almost in actual loneliness – you see the loneliness of old age. So the absolute juxtaposition of an old man who’s lonely in a place where food and drink and laughter and camaraderie would be the norm. It’s so intricate. That moment.”
Foy Nissen’s legacy is a constant quest for stories — it's a synergy between the people of the city and its various corners. The photographs are simply moments, often poignantly lucid, that are stolen from the vast history of the city of dreams. “It’s not that you lose your identity. You have your identity, and still you’re part of the whole,” Sawhney says.
Another photograph showcasing the grittier side of the 'Bombay spirit' has two tailors sitting in a dilapidated room.
(The tailor’s shop. Photo credit: JNAF)
Sawhney analyses the mood and narrative of this photo as rather telling of the "absolute boredom" that prevails in it. "This is the trade – he probably used to use skill, stitch in the older days, so it’s a skill lost to machine, and the sheer boredom of having to sit day in and day out at a machine, peddling away. And the whole [representation] of people who can find that space in Bombay where space is such a constraint. Space is so limited, so valuable, so expensive, so people [are] crammed into little spaces, being machine-like in their lives and what they’re doing. And the sheer boredom and difficulty of going through that, day in and day out.”
Given the vast body and variety in Nissen’s work, Sawhney’s aim was to deliver an exhibition that did justice to the artist. "I didn’t go with preconceived notions. I looked at the material and then decided to form certain themes around that,” she says about her process. The exhibition was structured in such a manner simply because “so many themes seem to come forward.”
Besides Bombay, other motifs that strongly emerge in the exhibition include India's colonial history, where Nissen photographs statues that were built by the British, later toppled during the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement. He documents not only the greatest heights and falls experienced by the empire, but also the local people and their interaction with these symbols of a bygone foreign legacy.
(Prince of Wales (The original Kala Ghoda) in the 1980s. Photo credit: JNAF)
Among his favourite places in the city were the Afghan Church at Colaba, St Thomas’ Cathedral at Fort, and Banganga at Malabar Hill, the last one being a special obsession that he returned to every year.
(Naariyal Poornima at Banganga, 1973. Photo credit: JNAF)
The exhibition — which was supposed to end on 16 June, but continued for another two weeks on popular demand — wrapped up on 30 June, and has received a favourable and enthusiastic response. “We’ve had people from Czechoslovakia to Sholapur — that’s the range, that’s what’s so thrilling,” Sawhney says.
The entire collection is now slated to be archived and made accessible to anyone studying or working on Mumbai, the city immortalised by Foy Nissen.
Banner image: Crawford Market, one of the monuments he photographed. Photo credit: JNAF