Jagannath Shankar Sheth has a statue, a school, a street and a chowk dedicated to him. Now, he will also have a memorial. This one will be in Antop Hill, an inappropriate location given that Sheth or Nana as he was fondly called, lived and worked in south Mumbai. To call Girgaum, in fact the belt from Marine Lines to Bombay Central, his karmabhoomi would not be amiss.
Most memorials are needless monuments or emblems of political assertion. However, a memorial to Nana Shankar Sheth in the downtown would be a fit tribute of a grateful city, but political leaders apparently decided that he was not worth valuable space there. His role as an educationist, philanthropist, social reformer, quasi-political representative of Indians in British India, and a foremost man among the original makers of Mumbai remains inspirational to this day. Nana’s life and deeds are not as widely recalled as the contribution of the Parsis to the city.
Parsi men of wealth, learning and stature — from Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy and Cowasji Jehangir to Dadabhai Nowroji and Dr Pherozeshah Mehta — scripted the development of Bombay in the 19th century.
David Sassoon, a Jew, was not far behind. And Nana Shankar Sheth was in step with the best of them literally and figuratively, especially with Jeejeebhoy, in that first wave of urban transformation of Bombay. The Parsis are duly acknowledged even today — and rightly so.
Nana and his contribution, though recorded in history volumes, have slipped into the margins of our contemporary narrative.
Nana’s 150th death anniversary on July 31 went by without a stir in the city to which he gave so liberally of what he owned. A few papers carried photographs of the Governor of Maharashtra inaugurating his bust at the memorial site. Accompanying him was the Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray who, presumably, had little to say about the location.
The Sena once wanted the contentious Indu Mill land in Shivaji Park for Nana’s memorial. Then, all of a sudden, it went silent.
Hailing from the well-endowed Murkute family of goldsmiths, Nana (1803 – 1865) conducted his trade and business with great success and respect. Legend has it that Arab and Afghan merchants kept their monies and treasures with him instead of the banks. The family lived in a large wada in Girgaum. The wada was recently demolished for a high-rise.
Nana gave up the land he owned for public purposes. He founded societies and institutions that make a mile-long list — among them the Native School of Bombay that became the Board of Education and later the Elphinstone College, an English school, a girls’ school, Sanskrit library. He helped set up the university and co-founded the Bombay Association to represent traders and businessmen. He donated to setting up museums and g ardens. With Jeejeebhoy, he helped set up the Indian Railway Association, which was later incorporated into the Great Indian Peninsula Railway, now the Central Railway.
Nana played the role of community leader-reformer to an extent that the British enlisted his help to outlaw the practise of Sati in Bombay presidency. He was the first Indian to be nominated to the Legislative Council of Bombay and a member of the Asiatic Society of Bombay, when Indians were not welcome there. Nana joined forces with Sir George Birdwood and Dr Bhau Daji Lad to initiate major reconstruction projects in Bombay to give it planned buildings, streets and avenues. Nana’s use of personal wealth for the city’s development would put today’s wealthy Mumbaiites to shame, as they go about adopting a hospital here and a school there.
Nana Shankar Sheth’s philanthropy, indeed his philosophy of underwriting the city’s physical and social infrastructure as that of the Parsis, helped transform Bombay into a city of trade, commerce, and social and intellectual capital. The city has not acknowledged it in full measure.
If Mumbai and its minders have not gone beyond token gestures to one of its founders, it is because Jagannath Shankar Sheth did not become a political icon. But if a Maharashtrian must be held up as an exemplar citizen, there is no one more ideal than he.