For many Indian women, the 1930s was a fundamental time, particularly in the political domain with their increasing participation in Independence movements. The advent of the Art Deco style (then simply known as ‘modern’ or ‘style moderne’) in Bombay at the same time, ushered in a short-lived but significant era in Mumbai’s architectural and modern history. In 1936, the field of Indian architecture witnessed another landmark event – the professional qualification of the first Indian (and even Asian) woman architect, Perin J. Mistri (1913-1989). Yet, a retrospective look at the narrative of Indian architects reveals that women architects were rarely documented when compared to their male counterparts.
Perin Jamshedji Mistri was born in the illustrious ‘Mistri’ family of engineers and ‘master builders,’ from Navsari who had been in the profession for generations before her. Her father, eminent engineer and architect Jamshedji Pestonji Mistri, founded the ‘Mistri & Bhedwar’ architectural firm (later Ditchburn, Mistri & Bhedwar), responsible for extensive works in the city such as the sublime Art Deco picture palace Metro cinema at Marine Lines and HSBC bank building at Fort (formerly known as the Mercantile Bank, until it was bought by HSBC in 1959), numerous mills, buildings in neighbourhoods like the Dadar Parsi colony, and many more. Perin’s younger brother, architect Minocher ‘Minoo’ Mistri would also go on to become a significant name as one of the founders of the Indian art and architectural publication, Marg. However, unlike her comparatively well-known father and brother, there is a dearth of information available on Perin and an even lesser acknowledgement of her works and accomplishments.
“Being the first girl, dressed in simple skirt and blouse, she caused quite a flutter in the all-male bastion, even as she showed great talent in design.”
– Madhavi Desai, Women architects and modernism in India,
on Mistri’s enrolment in J.J. School of Art’s architectural department.
Hailing from a Parsi family, Perin had access to an English education; several Parsis received an English education from Britain (the ‘land of learning’), which was viewed as a way to advancement at the time. After a Gujarati education in Bombay, she became a boarder at Miss Kimmin’s High School in Panchgani and shifted to England at the age of 10, finishing her education from Croydon High School. According to her son (Dossu Bhiwandiwala), she was originally interested in the legal profession, but joined her family’s architectural practice upon her father’s request to become ‘his eyes’ for the firm, due to his own declining eyesight. She subsequently returned to Bombay where she received her Diploma in Architecture from the J.J. School of Art in 1936. Her aptitude for the architectural field can be inferred from the fact that she stood 4th amongst the 16 successful candidates (out of 40) that passed the exam.
Being the first woman student of the architectural department was a novel happening and a turning point for women professionals. An indication of the opinions regarding women architects during her time at the School can be found when she (aptly) led the opposition in a debate with the subject ‘Women should not become architects!’ against G.B. Kshirasagar for the J.J. Literary and Debating society. Mistri joined her father’s firm ‘Mistri & Bhedwar’ in 1937, where she practiced for almost 50 years as a partner. Perin witnessed Mumbai’s transition into a ‘modern’ city, from its way of life under colonial rule, to the new ideals of modernity propagated by the independent nation.
“Think of the great opportunities then that a lady architect, trained to build and to beautify, has in shaping the destinies of great cities. And this beauty, in cement and stone and steel, is more lasting than the thin veneer of charm that some beauty parlours specialise in giving to fair and frail complexions.”
–P.P. Kapadia’s Presidential address,
July 1937 Journal of the IIA, on the ‘First lady architect’ [Perin]
Mistri was also the first woman member of the Indian Institute of Architects (IIA). The Institute began as an association of past J.J. students of architecture and evolved into an influential organisation affiliated to the Royal Institute of British Architects (R.I.B.A.) with their own quarterly journal. The Presidential address in the July 1937 Journal of the IIA (JIIA) proudly named Mistri as the ‘First Lady Architect in Bombay’ as well as the only “lady member” of the IIA. It also mentioned the influence that mothers and women had in the fortunes of the household historically, and noted that women were still said to be the architect of their family and fortunes in several ways while making their contribution felt outside of it as well. The kind of contribution that a woman architect would bring to the field is then speculated by mentioning that the building and beautification of cities (in cement, stone & steel) by them would be more lasting than the ‘thin veneer of charm’ applied on ‘frail and fair complexions’ by some ‘beauty parlours.’ Though well-intentioned and attempting to be flattering to the woman architect, the praise seems frivolous and in poor taste when seen through today’s lens. It also reveals the kind of roles and contributions that were expected from women professionals in architecture within the patriarchal settings of those times.
“One of the most significant contributions of Mistri as part of the IIA was being a member of the ‘Entertainment Committee’ which organized the pivotal 1937 Ideal Home Exhibition held in Bombay. Termed as a ‘one of a kind exhibition’ in India back then, it has been recognized over the years as an influential event in the discourse of modern Indian architectural history.”
Mentions of her activities as a member of the IIA in their journals serve as a source of documentation of her time there. One of the most significant contributions of Mistri as part of the IIA was being a member of the ‘Entertainment Committee’ which organized the pivotal 1937 Ideal Home Exhibition held in Bombay. Termed as a ‘one of a kind exhibition’ in India back then, it has been recognized over the years as an influential event in the discourse of modern Indian architectural history. It heralded a new era that contributed to the rise of apartment living and showcased to the public the premise of an ‘ideal home’ and the various amenities offered by modernity. Pictured below is Perin Mistri, seated with the rest of the members of the organising committee which consisted of prominent (male) architects of India at that time. The committee included luminaries like Yahya C. Merchant, several presidents of the IIA like the thrice-elected P. P. Kapadia, J. B. Aga, and S. H. Parelkar among others who contributed immensely to the growing landscape of modern architecture via numerous building designs, articles on town planning and civic design, advocacy of architectural education and public awareness through talks and exhibitions, participation in municipal committees etc.
The 1935 January JIIA recorded architects’ opinions during the discussion following Claude Batley’s talk ‘This new architecture,’ conducted in the previous year on the emerging styles of modern architecture. Perin was stated to be on the side of the ‘new architecture’ from a ‘woman’s standpoint,’ wherein she opined that if men were compelled to do housekeeping, they would realise how avoiding cornices, carved ornament and other ‘dust-traps’ was an ‘advance.’ Her contribution was recognised as being ‘practical’ by one of the other members of the discussion (F. J. Bilia) who pointed out that the elimination of dust-traps was imperative to maintain the hygienic conditions of an increasingly populated city; he was also pleased to see sons and even daughters of prominent architects taking up their mantle while absorbing newer ideas. Perin’s opinion from a woman’s point of view showcased a fresh perspective that perhaps the male architects would not have considered, as domestic spaces were relegated to women during those times. Her critique was not just of the style of architecture, but also an empathetic take on the difficulties faced by women in the household (and possibly even domestic workers), while also pointing out the lack of support by men in domestic issues. Perin was not afraid to make her point about design by bringing her gender to the forefront, a remarkably bold position to take in 1934 given that she was only 21 entering a male bastion.
“Batley’s pedagogy prepared Perin Mistri for practice in her father’s office. Both Batley and her father designed in the Art Deco style as a bridge between Indian tradition and European modernism.”
– Mary Woods, Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi
Unearthing official records of Mistri’s works is a difficult task due to the unavailability of information. The paucity can be attributed to several possible reasons, such as a lack of organized documentation of women architects (though it is not ascertained that this was in the case of women architects only) and the conservative atmosphere of the times. Naming of firms after male family members, and roles relegated to women being subordinate in nature to the ones given to men in the professional sphere, have also been stated as reasons for women architects going largely unrecorded. The sketches and records of her building designs that do survive, exhibit several typologies from residential to commercial, public and private buildings, from hospitals and factories to mills, offices etc, demonstrating her wide range of expertise and scope of work.
One of her first works was the charming ‘Shengre La’ building, a ground plus one Art Deco residence (sometimes spelt as Shangrilla or Shangrila) tucked away in a bylane at Carmichael road, Cumballa Hill. The influence of Claude Batley’s (as well as her father’s) teachings on the amalgamation of Indian traditional features of verandahs and balconies, and colonial bungalows with that of modern architecture is visible in the building. Nearly concealed by the foliage present in its surroundings, it is adorned with multiple curvilinear balconies and contains an entrance canopy. The wide long balconies, ample windows and open spaces enable cross ventilation and capturing of natural light. The building was made for a relative of her father, Sir Behramji Karanjia. It also features ornamental metal grilles in the Deco style, a central tower structure and a streamlined form.
Design sketches and photographs of her other works in Mumbai showcase that they were mostly executed in the modernist style, which was seen increasingly from the 1950s onwards. These include the impressive St. Stephen’s Church at Nepean Sea road, with some influences of Le Corbusier’s style and Art Deco inspired elements in its interior. She also designed the Khatau mills in Borivali, several health centres for the Salvation Army in Mumbai (Byculla) and Ahmednagar, an extension to the Bombay Scottish School in Mahim, the Cable Corporation of India office, the Ganges Printing Inks factory, renovated the St. Elizabeth’s Nursing Home in Malabar Hill, and ‘Kanta’ building for Dr. L.H. Hiranandani amongst others.
Mistri not only designed works domestically but also internationally, with several of her works both in India and abroad earning her acclaim. According to her son, she was invited by the Queen to Buckingham Palace for her work as the Chief Architect of the Salvation Army hospitals in Africa and India, received a German award by the company ‘Siemens’ for a cable factory and a Belgian award for ‘saving’ a hospital in Mumbai through innovative design. She was also consulted by the then American media corporation giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), for the building of Metro theatre, wherein all of her modifications for the building were incorporated. Most of her works contained inventive and practical designs, while also keeping in line with the modern materials and styles of the times. Another honourable point of her professional career occurred when she was requested to design the family home of famed architect Sohrabji Bhedwar (who designed the Art Deco Eros Cinema in Bombay) at Forjett Street – a singular recognition of her practise considering who made the request.
Perin was also the Founder President of the first Indian ‘Soroptimist Club’ in Bombay, started after receiving a charter from the London Club to begin one in India. In a rare instance of a press interview, she mentioned that it had 21 women members who were executives or in other high positions in their respective fields, and listed some of the main objectives of the club such as the advancement of the status of women, maintaining high ethical standards in professions and even environmental issues etc; she also mentions that it was possible to balance her home and professional life due to the support of her husband. Perin married Ardeshir H Bhiwandiwala, the founder of the Great Eastern Shipping Company, though she kept her maiden name for her professional works. Her hobbies, as colourful as her design sketches, included gardening and hockey (she formed the first women’s hockey team and club) along with some considerably eclectic ones like Herpetology or the study of snakes at Haffkine’s institute. She also owned a farm in Karjat, something that was almost unheard of for a woman, and introduced the ‘Friends of the Trees’ society, these being only some of the instances that showcased her passion for nature and environmental issues. She was also passionate about music and adept at singing and playing the piano, often hosting musical evenings at her home. Perin’s niece and Minocher’s daughter Tina Sutaria shares, “The musical soirées at her home are spoken about even today. Musicians and vocalists from everywhere were invited to perform in exchange for an interval of high tea, laid out Buckingham Palace-style with butlers, damask table linen and enviable silverware.”
According to her son, she had an independent and strong personality, and was not one to compromise on the design of the buildings; she was also known for being tough on contractors. He further states that she had not mentioned any gender-related difficulties faced by her in the male-dominated field, and only those related to corruption. However, architectural historian Mary Woods’ book briefly mentions Perin’s frustration regarding the limitations of working in a family business in her later years, as told to her by another woman architect.
Her family and the Press described her as a charismatic, focussed and larger-than-life individual with a ‘hands-on’ attitude who preferred to do the work herself; yet she was also understated and modest at the same time. Her nature was personified in her works, as Tina Sutaria recounts –
“Her style was rather distinct from that of her father’s and brother Minoo. It was more simplistic with cleaner lines and less ornate. In fact, it personified her no nonsense, no frills thinking. Her buildings, very much like her, seemed to say, “Let’s get on with it”. They were functional, practical, easy to maintain and still spoke loudly of character.”
Her building designs included openness, space, and light, with no felling of trees in the process – amenities that were especially necessary for the overcrowded city of Mumbai. If any trees had to be cut, she would personally ensure that they were re-planted on the same property in a way that would add to the green view from inside.
On a personal level, her siblings shared a respectful and affectionate relationship with their father, the late great architect J.P. Mistri. When Perin inquired about the formidable list of works under his belt, her father had replied – “Don’t worry about what I’ve done, tell me what you’re going to do with yours”– emphasising the need to be independent of the family firm’s legacy and instead creating one of her own. Although the three architects in the family had differing styles, an underlying sense of pragmatism and an unassuming, focussed nature can be said to have been shared by all.
Today, a greater recognition of Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings has brought an appreciation of the significant role of Indian architects and firms in embedding the style onto the urban landscape of the city. However, even a cursory look at the partner names of these well-known firms shows a glaring lack of women architects. One can only guess the daunting atmosphere that surrounded the only woman student at the J.J. School of Art’s architectural department (though she was said to have enjoyed her time there) and later the only woman member of the IIA at the time. Her background and upbringing certainly aided her in her professional life. Access to an English education – thanks to Bombay’s Parsi reformists in the late 1800s who advocated women’s education in the community – allowed her to attend her college classes, and her family firm’s established name in the architectural and engineering field was an added bonus.
Despite these privileges, it would have been an intimidating and lonely experience, albeit a necessary one, if women were to foray into the architectural field and make their mark. Women architects like Minnette De Silva who followed shortly after Perin, worked at ‘Mistri and Bhedwar’ as an apprentice after being suggested by the Khataus. She would later become a founding member of Marg along with Perin’s brother Minocher Mistri. Perin’s comments and actions (such as setting up the first Soroptimist Club in India), suggest that she was empathetic towards women’s issues and actively tried to advocate them; possessing a tough persona would also have been a requirement to be taken seriously as a professional in a male-dominated field.
“She was unrelenting in her demands professionally and was a hard task master. However, there was an artistic and very feminine side to her.”
– Tina Sutaria on her aunt Perin’s disposition
Ditchburn, Mistri and Bhedwar closed down in 1993. Perin and the firm’s legacy ended in 2009 with the death of her brother Minocher, who was the last surviving member of the firm. Their family remains committed to preserving the legacy by creating a logbook of the firm’s priceless archival documents like drawings, blueprints, survey maps, renderings on Irish linen or tracing paper, etc, archiving and digitising 3000 out of 5500 of them till date. Piecing together the scarce information available on her life and works depicts a skilful and determined individual who led one of the oldest and most reputed Indian architectural firms for more than half her life. There is a need to not just commemorate her pioneering role as the first woman architect in India, but also to study, document and acknowledge her in a larger context as a versatile and inventive architect of the modern Indian era, in the same manner we document male architects.
Perin Mistri passed away in 1989. Tina remembers the words whispered to her by Ardeshir Bhiwandiwala (Perin’s husband) at the time – “She was an amazing woman. The world will never see the likes of her.” As Perin effortlessly donned numerous skins as the first Indian woman architect, head of a prestigious firm, founder president of the Soroptimist Club, a passionate advocate for environmental issues, a music aficionado, a dedicated family person and many more, one can conclude that the statement was true.
Theertha Gangadharan for Art Deco Mumbai
Theertha is a researcher with a Master’s degree in History from the University of Mumbai. Her main research interests include the making of modern Bombay and its art, architectural and natural history.