Art deco buildings in Mumbai have found a new legion of fans after a stretch of structures built in the 1920s, 30s and 40s became last year one of two Indian bids to be declared as a Unesco World Heritage Site (the other site was in New Delhi).
Unknown to many, Mumbai has one of the largest concentrations of original and surviving art deco edifices in the world, second only to Miami, Florida, in this respect. And much like the resilience Mumbai and its people are known for, the art deco buildings here have, for the most part, withstood the test of time and official whimsy, thanks to the dedication of some of its residents.
History of art deco in Mumbai
Deco buildings cropped up at a time of exuberant optimism and opulence in Mumbai. In their book, Bombay Deco, the late Sharada Dwivedi, a social historian, and the architect Rahul Mehrotra relate how post-First World War Mumbai was home to thriving local businessmen and educated professionals who wanted to flaunt their wealth with opulent residences and flamboyant offices.
This was also a time when the heirs of India's former princely states were creating bases in Mumbai and were looking to establish majestic homes that could host the city's glitterati. The blossoming Hindi film industry in the city did its part, too, and added lavish glamour to the popular architectural style through its film sets. Moreover, the liberating cries of the independence movement added to the spirit of optimism.
Thus, a thriving architectural landscape full of elegant sumptuous art deco structures became a noticeable facet of the south of the city.
What gave art deco an edge over the Gothic and neo-Gothic style (as seen in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the railway station near the south-eastern shoreline of the city) was its veneer of modernity and its flexibility to adapt to Indian motifs, such as sculptures of deities as well as plant and flower elements.
South Mumbai pockets such as Malabar Hill, known to attract affluent Indians, saw some of the earliest art deco development. Horniman Circle, Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan area also slowly filled up with handsome structures such as the Sans Souci residence (now a part of the Masina Hospital) and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) building. These were followed by gradual deco development in the western suburbs.
After the Second World War, art deco suffered a decline. This period was marked by functionalism all over the world. However, the movement saw a resurgence in the 1960s and 70s, albeit a brief one.
Today, art deco is slowly regaining popularity through the inspired nostalgia of designers, architects and fashionistas.
Key deco elements and features
Navin Ramani, who wrote Bombay Art Deco Architecture, says Mumbai is second only to Miami in terms of the number of art deco buildings constructed more than 50 years ago.
"From entire clusters of office blocks and low-rise, spaciously built apartment buildings to hotels and cinema halls built in the 1930s and 40s, the art deco architecture of Mumbai is a visual delight and a design enthusiast's dream come true," he says.
Ramani, who is now based in Canada, grew up in an art deco building owned by his family - Court View Apartments, in Churchgate - before moving to the United States. "While not all the surviving art deco architecture is stellar, many of these buildings are glorious in their timeless beauty and elegance," he says.
"The deco style in Mumbai was characterised by elegant features such as fountains, stylised plants and flowers, imposing motifs, set-back upper levels and so much more. Some of the architects and designers - a small group of first-generation modern Indian professionals - were educated in the western architectural style, if not actually in the West. Gajanan B Mhatre, responsible for many of the art deco buildings in the Oval-Cooperage area of Mumbai, was one such architect.
Some of the most gorgeous structures include the New India Assurance Company Ltd building at Fort, the charming Eros cinema with its Parisian influence in Churchgate, the opulent design of the Liberty cinema at Marine Lines, the New Empire cinema hall at Fort, and the numerous private residences in some of the most elite areas of the city."
Some of the best examples of the genre can be found in five cinemas in south Mumbai - Liberty, Regal, New Empire, New Excelsior and Eros.
Liberty is probably one of the most well-maintained commercial deco structures in the city, thanks to the relentless efforts of its proud owner, Nazir Hoosein, 73. The cinema is known for its rich, opulent interiors.
"The construction of the cinema and building started in 1947, hence the name Liberty," he says, referring to India's independence from Great Britain.
"Wood has been used extensively in the cinema, and consists of a blend of Canadian cedar and Burma teak. The carpeted foyer is another unique feature. The actual heavy-duty maintenance at the hall is done almost daily. The carpets and the woodwork go through daily cleaning."
But thanks to high entertainment taxes and stiff competition from the abundant multiplexes in the city, Liberty has brought the curtain down on its film screenings.
"For a cinema hall such as ours, the combination of entertainment tax and the electricity bill proved to be a double whammy. We pay 45 per cent entertainment tax, plus for three shows the electricity bill runs to Rs400,000 (Dh27,000 per month). This has made running movies completely unviable for us. We now only let out the hall for music concerts, stage shows and the like."
Given the historical importance of these old buildings, a few community groups have sprung up with the aim of preserving the structures. One such group is the Oval-Cooperage Residents Association (Ocra), which was initially focused on the conservation of a large recreational park in the south of Mumbai called Oval Maidan.
"In the initial years after being established, the focus of Ocra was more on keeping the vast expanse of the beautiful Oval Maidan free of dirt and illegal construction," explains Nayana Kathpalia, executive committee member of Ocra.
"However, since the last decade or so, we have begun focusing on the art deco structures dotting the Oval and Cooperage stretch. Those of us born and brought up here knew we grew up in art deco buildings, but I guess we all pretty much took the fact for granted.
"Then, the Urban Design Research Institute (Udri) began documenting the Fort area with all its heritage buildings and, in the last few years, there were a couple of books written on the subject of Mumbai art deco."
But Kathpalia says one final push changed the focus on mere conservation to involving the Unesco organisation. "Also, at around the same time, the conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah presented a paper on the unique architecture of the Oval Precinct, where on the one hand there were these gorgeous neo-Gothic structures from the 19th century and then right across the road, there were these opulent art deco structures built exactly a hundred years later, in the early 20th century.
"The paper talking about these two unique architectural styles straddling opposite sides of the Oval Maidan was very well received and there was renewed interest in the architecture of the city. Today, Ocra, along with Abha Narain Lambah and Udri, has been working towards getting the entire Oval-Cooperage-Marine Drive stretch declared a Unesco World Heritage Site."
The Ocra, Udri and MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) funding efforts have received some help from the Mumbai art community, too. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of some old art deco jewellery last year by the private auctioneer Saffronart will be used to help fund the bid.
"Mumbai's bid to confer Unesco World Heritage Site status to the Oval-Cooperage-Marine Drive stretch is a truly wonderful citizen initiative," says Dinesh Vazirani, the chief executive and co-founder of Saffronart.
"Putting together a dossier for the bid is an expensive matter. Every part - every tree and lamp post in the area - has to mapped carefully. When we read about the fund-raising efforts of Ocra, we thought it would be a great idea to back the initiative with our art deco collectables' auction.
"The auction, held in November last year, was a success. We have pledged five per cent of the earnings on select lots to this initiative."
Past, present and future
The efforts of citizen groups and civic authorities in Mumbai at getting the nod from Unesco may be just the impetus needed for the Art deco architecture of Mumbai to survive and thrive, and will hopefully help preserve these historical wonders for future generations. After all, art deco in Mumbai remains a great symbol of its spirit of survival.