Mumbai: Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles
This is a collection of articles archived for the excellence of their content.
—The writer is founder trustee, Art Deco Mumbai Trust www.artdecomumbai.com
Built in the 1930s, Bombay’s Art Deco buildings, one of the largest agglomerations in the world, have the unique distinction of being a ‘modern living heritage’. These are buildings that we live in and have outstanding universal value in terms of their architectural and historic significance, even though they will be 100 years old over the next decade. Bombay metamorphosed quite differently from a city like Delhi, which has defining Mughal architecture. The city's identity is born out of public and residential spaces, all of which are inhabited and in active daily use today. The story of 20th century Bombay is firmly rooted in modernism.
Art Deco exudes modernity and cosmopolitan sophistication. With a port that gave traders access to both eastern and western hemispheres, Bombay became a welcoming crucible that thrived on the latest modern styles and designs emanating from Paris in the West and Shanghai in the East. They were used by Indian architects to fulfil lifestyle aspirations of affluent merchants, who only wanted the best from the West.
The great new enablers reinforced concrete, which allowed for speedy construction at lower cost, with decorative motifs and embellishments adorning facades. Buildings came up with seemingly impossible structural variations. The construct of a cantilevered balcony that could literally ‘stick out’ with no support from below became a novel reality. Warm salubrious tropical weather led to an ingenious creation, the chajja, which covered balconies and windows. This helped provide a shelter from the rain, protection from the sun, while thoughtfully placed windows caught every breath of sea breeze to make apartments ever so comfortable with just a fan. It was a climate responsive architecture — one that adapted to weather and the environment, rather than challenging it.
Bombay owes, in a large part, its cosmopolitan lifestyle to these buildings that introduced the apartment as a living space. The city saw itself transition from community-based chawls to buildings with apartments. Neighbours, landlords and tenants engaged with curiosity. Children grew up in next door apartments forging lifelong friendships. Residents discovered and celebrated communities, festivals, foods and rituals, embracing a broad swathe of cultural and social norms that holds this city, now Mumbai, in good stead.
Celebrating the Deco men
One can hardly ignore the hallowed Brabourne stadium at the Cricket Club of India in Churchgate, designed by Pierre Avicenna d’Avoine, Partner of Gregson, Batley & King. His son, Pierre d’Avoine, himself a prominent architect in London, says his father was an avid cricketer and played for the GBK cricket team in 1929. He wielded a strong bat and turned a mean arm, taking seven wickets for 23 runs against the Barnes school, Deolali. Profession and passion melded together to reflect in the design of the stadium he built. It affords every viewer a rare intimacy with the cricket match, no matter where you are seated. Sculpted by NG Pansare, the life-size bas relief elements on New India Assurance building, Fort, designed by Master, Sathe & Bhuta, fused swadeshi elements with Deco stone clad buildings. His son, Kiran Pansare proudly shows off a photo of himself working on the majestic statue of Shiva ji that his father sculpted in bronze and installed at Shiva ji Park in 1966.
Serena Vora, now settled in California, is the great granddaughter of Maganlal Vora, of Suvernpatki & Vora, architects of iconic Soona Mahal, which stands as the most iconic façade in Marine Drive’s Art Deco precinct and host to the sea-facing restaurant, Pizza By The Bay. It was 81 years later, in 2018, that Serena discovered that her illustrious great grandfather was behind one of Bombay’s grandest Deco structure. Meher Mehta still has memories of her dashing maternal grandfather, architect Sohrabji Bhedwar, who Bombay knows of because of the red Agra stone clad Eros cinema, a magnificent V-shaped tribute to the ziggurat.
If architect FW Stevens is famous for CSMT (VT Station), then the city owes no less a debt of gratitude to his son Charles Stevens for designing Regal Cinema, Bombay’s first Art Deco building, a landmark with air-conditioning, underground parking, neon lighting and, in a thoughtfulness way ahead of its time, limited seating with aids for the hearing impaired.
The June 2018 inscription of the ‘Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Bombay’ as a UNESCO World Heritage site celebrates the city’s modern living heritage. The inscription affords a layer of protection to 76 Art Deco buildings in South Bombay. It will largely be the city’s consciousness that has to keep this rich legacy alive for future generations. We remain accountable to them. If we let them down, they will certainly not look at us kindly.
Across the length and breadth'
Bombay’s Deco embraces both typologies and the city’s geographical expanse, creating an emotional quotient for Bombayites, since it is a city built largely by its residents and many of its public buildings were gifts of philanthropy. These buildings are treasure troves of history and endearing stories. Several generations have studied at Don Bosco High School in Matunga. In the Fort district, the first insurance policy available to Indians came from swadeshi firms such as Lakshmi Insurance (1938) and New India Assurance (1937), both designed by Master, Sathe & Bhuta.'
A generation remembers seeing 007 Sean Connery in Goldfinger, in 1964, at Regal Cinema. In 2006, a new generation thronged to catch 007 Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Regal still holds its own across generations. Late Nazir Hoosein, the owner of Liberty cinema, a Deco showplace of the nation, narrates how artist MF Husain danced barefoot every evening in the aisles of Liberty cinema, throwing coins at the screen, captivated by Madhuri Dixit, dancing in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.
Liberty was designed by MA Riddley-Abbot, in 1949. The Udwadia family healed the city’s elite at Breach Candy Hospital, one of the many buildings designed by Gregson, Batley & King, who Prof Mustansir Dalvi of Sir JJ College of Architecture identifies as “the largest practice, amongst the Bombay architects during the 1930s and the 1940s”. Maithili Ahluwalia who created an epochal concept store, Bungalow Eight, often heads to catch a conversation over a drink at West End Hotel’s chic deco bar Chez Nous, saying, “it’s a rewind where she loves to unwind”. Built on the philosophy “a hotel is meant to be a home away from home”, this hidden jewel was built in 1948.
Deco’s geographical breadth spreads across Bombay. Its landmarks define neighbourhoods. Matunga has cafe Koolar & Co, while Aurora cinema, by Marathe and Kulkarni, fed a different nutrient, the best of Rajnikanth to a largely South Indian community. Vile Parle has Nanavati Hospital, while Chowpatty boasts of Ideal Café at Phoolchand Nivas. Deco bungalows in Juhu and Chembur still hold their own against the onslaught of high rises affording the area a quality of life you can’t find today. With its majestic sweep of 35 Deco buildings, Marine Drive remains Bombay’s pre-eminent public open space that is an affirmation of diversity, harmoniously bringing together people of all cultures, age groups and ethnicity. Oval Maidan straddles two centuries of architecture.
Bombay’s place on the global map is secure. It hosts the second largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world, 552 to be precise, and we are still counting. Matunga, not South Bombay’s Marine Drive holds pride of place as the single largest Deco neighbourhood. Last year, the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies took cognisance of Bombay’s Art Deco by making it a member of this prestigious international body – a recognition that belongs first to the city.
2018: Unesco World Heritage status
The feat makes Mumbai the second city in India after Ahmedabad to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.
This inscription gives Mumbai the distinction of having three Unesco World Heritage Sites (Elephanta, Chhatrapati Shiva-ji Maharaj Terminus and the Victorian & Art Deco Ensembles).
It was a euphoric day for Mumbai on Saturday. Fourteen years after the idea was first mooted, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) finally declared the city’s Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles, straddling two heritage precincts of Fort and Marine Drive, a World Heritage Site.
The feat makes Mumbai the second city in India after Ahmedabad to be inscribed on the World Heritage List.
The announcement from Bahrain, where the Unesco World Heritage Committee meeting was held, came around 1pm when conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, part of the Indian delegation, sent a message to TOI: “Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco Ensembles inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.” CM Devendra Fadnavis, who had endorsed Mumbai’s nomination, said: “This is a huge victory for Mumbai.”
“We are very happy. Mumbai has always been a world city, now it’s got another Unesco heritage site,” CM Fadnavis said.
TOI was the first to report on May 5, 2018, that Unesco’s Paris-based technical adviser had recommended the prestigious tag for the enclave.
The latest inscription gives Mumbai the distinction of having three Unesco Sites, alongside Elephanta and CSMT. Maharashtra leads the states with five Unesco tags (including Ajanta and Ellora). India now has 37 World Heritage inscriptions in all.
The city’s 19th century collection of Victorian structures and 20th century Art Deco buildings includes the row of public buildings of the High Court, Mumbai University, Old Secretariat, NGMA, Elphinstone College, David Sassoon Library, Chhatrapati Shiva-ji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Western Railways headquarters, Maharashtra Police headquarters to the east of Oval Maidan and the Art Deco buildings consisting of the first row of Backbay Reclamation scheme, buildings such as the Cricket Club of India and Ram Mahal along Dinshaw Wacha Road, the iconic cinema halls of Eros and Regal and the first row of buildings along Marine Drive.
The eastern edge of the property is defined by Mahatma Gandhi Marg and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Chowk within the designated historic precinct of Fort area. This marks the edge of the 19th century fortified city of Bombay (now Mumbai). Though the fort walls were mostly torn down in the 1860s under the governorship of Sir Bartle Frere, the name persists in public memory and is a protected heritage precinct under the Heritage Regulations for Greater Bombay 1995.
The western edge of the property is defined by the Arabian sea that lines the 20th century Art Deco buildings of Backbay Reclamation and Marine Drive. The northern edge of the property is defined by Veer Nariman Road and the southern edge by Madame Cama Road.
TOI was the first to report on May 5, 2018 that Unesco’s technical adviser, the Paris-based International Council of Monuments and Sites (Icomos), had recommended the prestigious tag for the landmark south Mumbai enclave. Once Icomos gives its stamp of approval to a proposal, it is generally accepted by Unesco.
Lambah, who prepared the nomination dossier, said, “From 2004, when I first presented this idea at the Unesco conference on representation at Chandigarh, it’s been 14 long years to get all stakeholders, citizen groups and government on board to make this happen. This inscription acknowledges Mumbai’s position in the world as the finest collection of 19th and 20th century modernism; a city where heritage does not just include dead monuments but a living, breathing, dynamic urban centre with buildings in active use by citizens. This is the first case in India’s 37 world heritage sites where the nomination process was a citizen-driven initiative.”
The idea found resonance with local citizen groups: UDRI, Kala Ghoda Association, Oval Cooperage Residents Association, OVAL Trust, Nariman Point-Churchgate Citizens Association, Heritage Mile Association, Federation of Residents’ Trusts, Observer Research Foundation as well as the MMR Heritage Conservation Society. It was also endorsed by eminent Mumbaikars such as Amitabh Bachchan, Fadnavis and Shaina NC, who wrote to the Central government endorsing this nomination.
Lauding this effort as a unique partnership among citizens and government bodies in making this nomination successful, Shirin Bharucha and Nayana Kathpalia representing the various civic groups and NGOs said, “It recognizes the value of the unique Victorian Gothic and Art Deco architecture to the urban form, history and soul of a city.”
Atul Kumar of Nariman Point-Churchgate Citizens Association said, “Stakeholders and residents are delighted to celebrate a historic and milestone moment in the history of Mumbai’s Victorian and Art Deco architecture and thank the state government and Indian government for this initiative.”
The nomination dossier was submitted by the state government to the Ministry of Culture in 2014 and it was endorsed by Fadnavis. In January 2015, the CM wrote to the Centre urging it to send Mumbai’s nomination as India’s official entry to Unesco. “Mumbai’s tourism and culture would be hugely benefited if this nomination succeeds. Mumbai will be brought on the international tourist map. Being the financial capital of our country, Mumbai attracts many businessmen like London and some European cities. It would have the unique distinction of being both a financial capital and a world heritage site,” he had said.
Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, while calling this a proud moment for the city, said the Victorian Ensemble selected and nominated was minimal. “The Fort area has much more to offer like all other public buildings facing Cross Maidan and Azad Maidan, DN Road etc. Hopefully these will be included in the next phase, just as how it started with one building — CSMT — in 2004 and has now reached an ensemble scale.”