Mumbai’s Asiatic society’s first woman president to focus on going digital, connecting with youth
For the first time ever, the Asiatic Society of Mumbai has a woman president. Vispi Balaporia, 78, a life-long educator, former head of the English department and former vice-principal of the city’s Jai Hind College, will now head the iconic 215-year-old institution.
Originally the Literary Society of Bombay, it was set up by the British colonial government to gather, systematise and disseminate knowledge of India and ‘the Orient’. Today, the focus is on connecting with a new generation, and taking their collection digital — initiatives that Balaporia will now oversee.
In that collection are rare and precious books, manuscripts, maps, journals, government publications and exhaustive reports going back centuries — to the early years of modern India.
While elated about her appointment — “I got so much support from the members as they voted me in by a big majority” — Balaporia says the elation subsided somewhat when she began to think of the huge responsibility, and the negligible funding at hand.
Electing a woman president is something that should have happened sooner, she says. “I don’t know why it didn’t, given that we have had so many women vice-presidents over the years.”
In the immediate future, the Society plans to make its social media presence more prominent, especially on Facebook and Instagram. Along with digitisation, Balaporia wants to focus on the conservation and restoration of the rare books and maps in their original form too. But what they need in order for any of this to happen, she says, is a lot more money. “We get a grant from the Ministry of Culture in Delhi but we desperately need more funding,” she says.
The Asiatic Society’s digitisation project was started with ₹5 crore from the state government, in 2015. “Our web portal Granth Sanjeevani has made it possible for scholars and researchers worldwide to access the wealth of information and academic resources available at the institution. This project took off well and we’re all set to start the second phase,” Balaporia says. “We have run into a bit of a legal tangle over tenders. I hope that will clear up soon.”
About four years ago, former vice-president of India Hamid Ansari visited the library and was so impressed that he formed a review committee that recommended that if the society was to progress, there should be a grant of ₹50 crore, Balaporia adds. “Nothing has come of that so far.”