Transcription: Introductory Remarks at the Opening of Mumbai Guidebooks

21 May 2018

My exhibitions open quietly.  No music.  While there is a fair amount of movement, there is also hush: the quiet of the Reading Room.

Photograph by Tina Nandi

Transcription from Memory of Mumbai Guidebooks and Urbs Indis launch Introduction by Robert Stephens


Thank you all for coming to the opening of Mumbai Guidebooks, and the launch of Urbs Indis. This evening will be organised into three parts: an Introduction, followed by a walkthrough of the Guidebooks, and lastly, a walkthrough of the aerial photographs you see on the walls around you. Let us begin.

Geddes, my Mentor

I would like to start with a story about the son of one of my mentors, Patrick Geddes. This story is recounted in a biography of Geddes published in 1928, written by Amelia Defries who knew both Geddes and his son Alasdair personally. One page 70 of her book “The Interpreter Geddes: The Man and his Gospel”, she recalls:

(at this point I open the book in my hands and read the below referenced quote……note to self – holding a book helps to control my nerves while engaged in public speaking, something I have feared my whole life and continue to struggle with to this day)

“I remember a pretty tribute Alasdair, later on, quite unconsciously paid to his mother – and our sex – on a day when his father had almost reduced me to tears because of my slowness of understanding. We were going to supper, and I said gloomily: “Women’s work will never be of any value in the world.” “They just hold the world together,” said Alasdair gently.

I really like this quote because it is relevant to me as an Artist. Two women here tonight:

Radhi Parekh and Tina Nandi hold my artistic world together. Radhi Parekh, founder of ARTISANS’, hold this world physically. She provides the actual space at ARTISANS’ for me to have displayed my work over the last four years. Without this reality, my work would be relegated to the gravity-less stratosphere of Facebook.

Tina Nandi, my wife, holds my artistic world together digitally. Tina has spent the last year designing my website, which encapsulates a decades worth of work.

The Exhibition and the Website

Now, coming to this exhibition. What you see within this room is a physical construct of the website – in a sense. On the walls are aerial photographs from four cities – Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi, and Ahmedabad. These are from the Galleries – of which there are 5 on the website.

Below each photograph is a book – these are from the Urbs Indis Library – my personal collection of Archival literary material which I pair with the photographs to add layers of meaning. There are currently 12 Reading Rooms on the website.

In the center of this space is the Mumbai Guidebooks Reading Room (one of the twelve on the website).

The website also features an online journal, where I will be writing about experiences in Public Libraries, interviewing Rare & Secondhand booksellers, and compiling special features on unique books.

For example, one of the articles already published is regarding a meeting I had in Chennai last week with an 82 year young rare book seller – who has been collecting books since he was 25. I asked him “How many books have you sold in your life, sir?” One expected a response in thousands……….and after some thought he responds with “20 tons”. Tons!

I tried to wrap my mind around the idea of books in tons – so I did some research – and found out that 20 tons of books is equivalent to about 30 cows. So next time you see a cow on the street – imagine 30 of them together – and then think of this gentle bookseller in Chennai.

Lastly, the website features Upcoming Series – what I hope work on for the next 5,10,15 years. This is a diverse set lined up ranging from Jaipur to Patna to Calcutta – and others. My most exciting series is on Landfills of India – which are becoming mammoth manifestations in urban centers of our (my included) unsustainable lifestyles of consumption.

My aerial photography work is like this. An attempt to step back from business as usual micro experiences – and to see the big picture again of urban centers we call home. And then, in the new macro vision, to create images of beauty which we miss in the day to day micro grind.


The above introduction was the “What” of the website and exhibition. Now I would like to talk a bit about the “Why?” Why do I do this?

Every day we experience our cities at micro scale. Up close and personal. Jammed into the train, bumper to bumper in cars. Our cities are in our face. They are grimy, dirty, intense.

I like to think of it like in a marriage – waking up to someone who has bad breath. But imagine the morning bad breath gets worse every day – and then it is not just the morning – but throughout the day. And because your married, it is not right to just get up and leave, because of commitment.

So what do struggling couples sometimes do? They go on retreats. They step away from their business as usual routine, in an attempt to rediscover one another….to see one another in a new light and find beauty again.

My aerial photography work is like this. An attempt to step back from business as usual micro experiences – and to see the big picture again of urban centers we call home. And then, in the new macro vision, to create images beauty which we miss in the day to day micro grind.

On a more academic level, the photography and archival text references are intended to re-establish the idea of “regional characteristics.” Essentially, to identify unique features of each city, and to draw them out, to explore them artistically and historically.

For example, the Delhi series addresses the rich birdlife which the capital city has been traditionally known for. The Mumbai series delve into unique geographic features – an extensive coastline of the island city, as well as diverse natural ecologies of the suburbs. Ahmedabad will look specifically at the Walls of the Old City – which comprised more than 100 million bricks.

Dr. Simin Patel of Bombaywalla inspects Bombay in the Making.  I did not know Simin before this exhibition – but a brief meeting introduced me to her and her blog

Before I knew anything about Simin – her PhD credentials in Oriental Studies from Oxford, her Bombaywalla blog, etc, I only knew her as an exceptionally engaged audience member – and I remember realising how helpful it is for a nervous speaker to receive that kind of engagement.  Thanks Simin! 

Photograph by Tina Nandi

Please Touch

Now, a bit about the Guidebooks Reading Room before you. Many of these books are very old – they are fragile – and I have put them here for you to touch, to explore personally. My one request is that you do so with gentleness and love.

Many people have asked me “How can you allow people to touch these books, they will destroy them!” And this reminds me of a another Geddes quote:

Patrick Geddes loved gardening. He was passionate about gardening – but many other gardeners would scold him for allowing children to pick flowers: How can you allow the children to pick flowers!

He was defiant – insisting that children must pick flowers – and they must learn to do so keeping in mind that others will want to pick – so they must not do so destructively, but in reverence and respect. Geddes insisted that flowers are meant to be enjoyed!

So, my philosophy of books is the same. Books must be enjoyed, and please do so in reverence and respect, so that my son’s grandkids can have an exhibition of Mumbai Guidebooks 100 years from now and include these same books.


Before we close, a few words about Patronage. Everything you see around you is possible because of patronage. Your support, your choosing to acquire photographs supports me, and allows me to keep doing what I am doing. Please do consider acquiring some of my work – and you can be assured that we will carry your support over into realising the next exhibition – Ahmedabad Walls – which is in October 2018 at the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum in Shahibaug.

(At this point, Radhi Parekh mentions that the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum is also special because it is a project which also happens to be designed by our office, RMA Architects. She is very correct! It is a rare opportunity to realize an exhibition within a space one has also designed. You can see photographs of the Kasturbhai Lalbhai Museum here: )

In discussion with Mr. Farrokh Jijina, Senior Editor of Parsiana.  During the evening I make a number of references to my mentor, Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes….and towards the end of the evening Mr. Jijina walks up to me, introduces himself, and informs that he has some unique material on Geddes…..

The next day, I faithfully receive an email from Mr. Jijina with the material referenced – pure gold – a rare manuscript illustrating the influence Geddes had on one of his students in Bombay.  Thank you Mr. Jijina!

Photograph by Tina Nandi


Thank you very much for coming once again. Please do take one of these cards with you – they are small signed limited edition prints – which also includes details of my website, Thank you, and please do stay for the Guidebooks walkthrough which will commence in about five minutes.

All photographs are taken by my multi-talented wife, Tina Nandi, who also designed

Tina is an introvert, so most of what she does, she does quietly. After the evening was over, Radhi Parekh of ARTISANS’ asked Tina “Oh, so it seems you didn’t get to take any photographs?”

To which Tina replied, “Oh, I most certainly did take photographs!”

To which Radhi replied: “Really? I didn’t even see you taking them!”

To which I replied: “Radhi, Tina is a wonderful introverted photographer – she does her work so quietly you don’t even know it!”


Urbs Indis is an urban aerial photography studio and archival library founded by Mumbai based architect and artist Robert D Stephens (RMA Architects). Since 2007 he has been documenting urban India from 10,000 feet above sea level, in black and white as well as colour photography.

© Robert D Stephens
Website design by Tina Nandi Stephens