Saturday, 26 July 2014

Soaring High: St Xavier’s- 145 years and counting

Soaring High: St Xavier’s- 145 years and counting

St. Xavier’s college which completed 140 years in 2009 continues to be the epitome for higher education. A coffee table book to showcase its benevolence towards superior learning and its many years of opulence history, takes one on a tour through these outstanding 140 years.

The beautiful photo filled book documents the rich history and the glorious 140 years. The coffee table book has been put together by Shabnam Minwalla and integrated with interesting images from renowned photographer David deSouza. The book titled, ‘St. Xavier’s College- Celebrating Diversity since 1869’ celebrates the heritage and deep dives into the colleges humble beginnings. It mentions that St. Xavier’s began in 1869 with just 11 students and since then this number grew to 15 the following year, reached 67 in 1880 and then 193 in 1890. By 1920, the number of students crossed the 1000 mark and today the college has a teeming 4500 students. 

Dr. Frazer Mascarenhas S.J. Principal St. Xavier’s College, notes, “This book documents the wonderful legacy: the heritage structures that form the setting on campus, the cultural and academic treasures we possess, the memories of enriching experiences and a taste of the contribution the College has made to the Indian society and to the world at large.”

A page from history also cites that it was only in the early 1800's that educational societies began to emerge and by the year 1850 the general movement for education was in full swing both for Europeans and Indians. The Jesuits visited Bombay, stayed on, glanced at the many opportunities that lay before them in educating the local folk and established schools. Some were set up within the fort walls while others dotted the seven islands. 

The Jubilee Souvenir adds, “At that time the Esplanade was one broad, bare space of ground reserved for military purposes since the time of the Napoleonic wars. On the Esplanade, St. Xavier’s new building was the first edifice to rise and it stood there in solitary splendour in the open space for some years, till gradually the courts, the Cama Hospital etc became its neighbours.”

Over the years, St. Xavier’s College has been consistently ranked the highest level award by NAAC and also features amongst the first five colleges in India by leading national magazine, India today for 20 successive years. It was also the first city college to hold a college festival, Malhar which has subsequently rubbed off to other colleges over time. Today the famous festival, which took root 34 years ago sees participation from over 1500 students. And more than 60 colleges participate in around 50 events.

Unlike many colleges that dot the city, St. Xavier’s is one of the very few and also the oldest college that specialises in subjects like botany, zoology, geology and the likes. As early as 1920 the geology department had acquired an independent status and St. Xavier’s was the only place in the city where students could work towards their MSc and PhD in the subject. The 50’s brought with them the first Indian principal Fr. Edward D'cruz and under his tutelage departments of Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology were introduced.

The college laboratories are a testimony to these many specialisations. They reap of fossils, stones and even fading leaves diverse and rare plant varieties. Many may not know that the science departments are among the oldest and best in the city and decades of nest hunting expeditions and cabinets of pressed plants, smirking skeletons and lab explosions have resulted in fabulous collections. Live snakes as well as dead iguanas that have arrived from various parts of India are also housed here. To assist students in pursuing their skill, Victoria gardens also presented the College with a lion cub, an Indian crocodile and a fox too.  Another work of art that adorns the science lab is the complete skeleton of a camel.

As part of the Honours Programme some students spend time sorting and tagging the many bones that fill the zoology department cupboards. These cupboards host the vertebra of a whale, the skull of a duck-billed platypus and even the skull of a tiger. Rebekah Athaide an ex-student who completed her honors few years back points out that the programme allows you to go beyond the regular syllabus. “It means you can get in depth into topics. You also learn how to actually apply learnt knowledge to current day and real life relevant issues. This hand on experience is good exposure. You can sign up for workshops or topics that you are interested in and the facilitators are specialized too”.

Students of botany for example, cultivate mushrooms and make field trips to observe season’s changes in the flowers of the forests, while microbiology students check the quality of water in Mumbai slums and zoology students work with the zoo authorities and attempt to educate visitors. Dr. Nandita Mangalore VP of the science faculty notes that, the honours program gives students both greater depth and breadth. She adds, “If one were to stick to the curriculum only; students will be never be exposed to research and what it can achieve”.

Another turf where students delve silently on varied subjects is the college library, which houses a collection of around 1,00,000 books. It was designed by Fr. Gonzao Palacios and dons the look of an "exquisite symphony in stone and wood".  It spans across 140 feet in length and 60 feet in breadth.

Away from the swarming laboratories, hushed library and hectic lectures, the canteen is the place where you can unwind and gobble away. The place is always abuzz; friends from different streams catching up with each other, discussing projects and the shouts of hungry food orders being given. Avril- Ann Braganza another ex-student and a journalist adds, “ When it comes to food, everything you want is under that one roof; pizzas, fried rice, biryani, dosas, pav bhaji, medu vadas, omlette pav, pastries, cakes, cold coffee, bhajiya's sweets, sandwiches... you name it and it's there! The memories are many, almost as many or more than the days I spent at Xavier's”.

Avril particularly reminiscences the foyer as the one thing St. Xavier's is also known for, she adds, she could probably write a book on it, "from the first time when I was a scared little junior, too afraid to step into the foyer to my last day when I went around clicking pictures of everything”. It was the place she would often head to either with a book to read or a crossword puzzle to solve.

The college has hosted many honorable and distinguished guests too like former President Dr. Abdul Kalam, his holiness the Dalai Lama, Hillary Clinton US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle along with many other dignitaries have visited the college over the ages.  With so much to offer its students, St. Xavier’s continues to prosper and the flying eagle, the college crest, keeps enticing her young to fly”. Fr Frazer Mascarenhas, asserts, “Seventy years ago, Fr. Gonzalo Palacios brought bulldozers and masons into a modest college and converted it into a grand institute, the alterations over the next few months will be quieter and subtler- but they could well transform a spirited college into a magnificent citadel of learning.”