There are book launches and book launches... then there is this one. There was no way I could refuse Ayesha Taleyarkhan’s request to launch her sixth coffee table book titled Under The Sun. For one, Ayesha was my junior at school. For another, I have always admired her body of work as a pioneering photographer in an environment that doesn’t always support such a career choice. She started off her career with a national magazine, moved on to advertising photography, and finally found her metier as a chronicler of Mumbai — the city she lives in and clearly loves. More than just being a fan of Mumbai, Ayesha is a concerned citizen, with a strong point of view. Her latest book is a tribute to the hawkers and street vendors of Mumbai.
She took three years travelling the length and breadth of the city, capturing the activities of this itinerant, energetic lot, engaging with those who peddle anything and everything from screwdrivers to bangles, in trains and on pavements. There are several contrary views about hawkers and hawking zones in an overcrowded metropolis like Mumbai, but Ayesha strongly believes hawkers form an integral part of the cityscape and without them Mumbai would be poorer on many levels. She sees it as a case of mutual dependency (we need what they sell, they need us for their livelihood) and it’s time to acknowledge as much. Given the background, I was delighted that Maharashtra’s 22nd governor, the erudite and elegant 74-year-old lawyer-politician Chennamaneni Vidyasagar Rao, very graciously threw upon the doors of Raj Bhavan for the launch event.
Here’s a governor with all the right instincts and attributes. He has launched several initiatives that are far more inclusive. During his short address, the governor made several points. He talked about a yoga platform open to the public, which was launched at a location within the sprawling Raj Bhavan complex on World Yoga Day. Mainly patronised by senior citizens from the area, it soon became very popular, partly for the free tea and biscuits served by his staff. Encouraged by the governor’s hospitality, the elderly yoga crowd pushed their luck still further and demanded their tea be served in the official Raj Bhavan crockery which features an impressive crest. Noting their enthusiasm, he promptly complied! Now they proudly click pictures, showing off the emblem on the teacup. As he put it, “Raj Bhavan is not meant only for the governor — it is meant for the people.” He has been taking an active interest in tracking the developments after the discovery of spacious underground bunkers on the property, with 13 large chambers and a secret tunnel.
When he spoke about Ayesha’s book (which he had clearly scrutinised thoroughly the previous night), he mentioned how “democratic and secular” her images are — and also, how inclusive. “These are the qualities Mumbai has always represented — historically too, it was a melting pot. People from all communities and walks of life came to Mumbai to better their future. The book is a tribute to the common man of Mumbai. Ayesha has captured democracy and secularism in action.” This bold statement, coming at a time when a political party was busy issuing threats to Pakistani actors to leave the city within 48 hours, is significant. Being a BJP man (he was minister of state for internal affairs in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government), he was certainly not shying away from expressing his views at the book launch.
Most importantly, he raised the spectre of starving children in Palghar district — a mere 150 km from Mumbai. He urged everyone present to do their bit during this terrible crisis, pointing out there were “more rich people in Mumbai today”, and philanthropy was the desperate need of the hour, with 7,500 children having died of malnutrition already. The same held true for Dr Sanjay Deshmukh, vice-chancellor of Mumbai University, who was appointed to the prestigious post in July 2015. Now, with a five-year term ahead of him, Dr Deshmukh, a botanist, professor of life sciences and considered an expert in the ecological preservation of mangroves (at 25, he may be the youngest Ph.D. holder from Bombay University), outlined ambitious plans to create a world-class campus at Kalina. He mentioned that he has already raised `300 crore for it, and hopes to construct a hostel for students that compares with the best internationally. Plus, housing for visiting faculty, so students enjoy access to the best global professors.
He charmed the small gathering with his suggestion that Ayesha should consider a new project: “Under the Moon”, that would reflect the vibrant nightlife of Mumbai. The governor added: “Why not ‘Under the Rains’ given the beauty and power of Mumbai’s monsoons?” But what really won hearts was Dr Deshmukh’s acknowledgement of the two Raj Bhavan photographers who were busy clicking pictures. He praised them for their hard work, which involved long hours clicking every function hosted by the gregarious Governor Saab. As a respected academic, Dr Deshmukh is the person students are looking at to get things going at the university, and fast!
Next year will see Bombay University celebrating 160 years. Dr Deshmukh has big plans for the occasion. Given his credentials and personality, he is sure to make an impact with fresh initiatives that benefit the student community. He is keen to start a University Museum, like other similar museums across the world. And with his background in botany, what’s the bet we will see the greening of the 40-acre Kalina Campus... with a lake to prettify the surroundings? Ayesha couldn’t have asked for a better book launch. Along with me, there were other ex-students present to cheer her as she shyly gifted a copy to our beaming governor. As for me, I felt like a mother hen, watching a chick from her brood take her rightful place in the world.