Volume 26 - Issue 08 :: Apr. 11-24, 2009
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Forgotten classics

in Mumbai

Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings have a unique style linked to a glorious past, but they are now a fading memory.


THE BHARATIYA VIDYA Bhavan building is a classic example of the Deco-Saracenic style, which amalgamated the clean geometrics of Art Deco with Hindu architectural features.

SOME years ago, a flyover was proposed on Mumbai’s crowded Mohammed Ali Road. Reactions to the proposal were mixed, but the general sentiment among architecture enthusiasts was one of dejection because the new flyover was likely to obstruct further the already restricted view of some very fine Art Deco structures on that stretch.

But the flyover, once it was constructed, held a surprise bonus. As one cruises along its 3.5-kilometre length, detail after detail of classic Art Deco flows past – geometric window grills matched with geometric muntins (window pane dividers), industrial motifs, coastal motifs, external mouldings and, of course, the bold colour schemes so typical of this style. It is a view that one can never get from the street level.

Art Deco is one of Mumbai’s least noticed architectural styles. Much has been said, written and exclaimed about Mumbai’s neo-Gothic architecture. And rightly so. But the gorgeous intricacies, free-flowing imagination and superb climate-specificity of the full-blown neo-Gothic style meant that the comparatively quieter Art Deco largely stayed in the background. This, despite the fact that there are more examples of Art Deco than neo-Gothic structures in the city.

City historian Sharada Dwivedi and architect Rahul Mehrotra write in their new book Bombay Deco, “Few know that Bombay has one of the largest collections of Art Deco architecture in the world.” So prevalent was this style at one time that there are actually two Art Deco precincts in Mumbai. One is beside Oval Maidan and the other is along Marine Drive. It is believed that Mumbai’s Art Deco district is second only to Miami’s (in the U.S.) in size, though Mumbai and its suburbs possibly have the largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world.

THE FAMOUS FROZEN fountain sculpture in the Liberty cinema hall.

In true Indian style, Art Deco in India (and especially in Mumbai) evolved into a unique style – a sort of subclause within the parent style – that came to be called Deco-Saracenic. Essentially, it was an incorporation of elements of Hindu architecture. The 1930s was a period when members of the former princely states were building homes in Mumbai. It was only natural that they chose the prevalent style of the time. Darya Mahal, the home of the Maharao of Kutch, the Wankaner House of the erstwhile Wankaner state, and Dhanraj Mahal of the Maharaja of Dhanrajgir are a few examples of this style.

The advantage of this blended style is obvious in Laxmi Insurance Company’s building with its tower, chiming clock and a statue of the goddess Lakshmi. Describing it in their book, Dwivedi and Mehrotra write, “The Art Deco detailing in Indian motifs was in synergy with the theme of the goddess; large carvings executed by V.A. Kamat of Laxmi’s vehicle, the elephant, were placed at the canopied entrance while a frieze of carved elephants ornamented the facade. Even today the building exerts a special presence not only at the street level but also creates a distinctive visual punctuation when viewed from down the street or from across the road.” This distinctive quality is the hallmark of Art Deco in Mumbai.

THE 19TH century Vaccha agiary, a Parsi temple, was renovated with an Art Deco frontage.

Deco details touch every architectural aspect – lamps, flooring, wood panelling, lifts, railings and grills, muntins, chajjias or weather shades, plinth copings and mouldings, cornices, verandahs and balconies, bronze and stainless steel fittings, brackets, etched glass, ornamental sculptures that extended to names carved out in giant letters and, of course, motifs that ranged from agriculture and cottage industries to industrial, insurance, banking, trade and coastal depictions.

Mumbai’s Art Deco stands out not only because it uses the easy blend of Deco-Saracenic but also because architects have used a variety of materials to express design freely. For instance, many a building has been constructed entirely out of reinforced cement concrete (RCC) but has a facing of Malad stone. Bharat Tiles, India’s oldest tile manufacturers, also played an integral part in the shaping of Art Deco interiors. The company’s coloured cement processes – Maladcrete and Colourcrete – in which coloured concrete tiles were surfaced with stone chips became very popular.

The use of imposing sculptures and bas-relief added to the stature and prestige of established institutions. These examples, on the New India Assurance building, are typical of the Indo-Deco style.

Art Deco came to Mumbai at a time when the city was flourishing and construction activity and reclamation of land were at their heights. It was also the post-First World War era when there was an urge to move on with life, to modernise and to display prosperity. The march towards independence, too, contributed greatly to the overall uplifting mood and the need to express one’s individuality and power. Malabar Hill, one of Mumbai’s most beautiful areas and home to the rich, soon had buildings springing up. Most of these were in the Art Deco style, which came to symbolise a new India. Likewise, business institutions such as the Cotton Exchange, cultural centres such as the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, places of worship such as the Vachha agiary (fire temple of Parsis) and commercial establishments such as the Regal, Aurora, Eros and Liberty cinema halls chose Art Deco because it symbolised modernity and could be adapted to Indian culture. The package was irresistible and, as the book says, “reinforced the relevance of India’s rich cultural heritage for the future”.

Like most mature styles, Art Deco lent itself to buildings as diverse as the charming Sans Souci residence at Malabar Hill and the imposing Reserve Bank of India building on Mint Road. While Sans Souci has the delicacy and grace of a residential building located in a verdant part of the city, the RBI building is all about strength and security. Clad entirely in Malad stone, everything about the RBI building, from its 60-foot high ‘modern’ Corinthian columns to the flanking piers and the square-cut frontal section, is mammoth.

Bombay Deco also explains why the style did not continue despite being modern and easy on the eye and the pocket. “The lack of official patronage for the Art Deco style saw the gentle assimilation of the sensibilities and technologies that Art Deco introduced to India to be seamlessly incorporated in the Modern Movement that came to represent India’s new-found identity of Independence,” write Dwivedi and Mehrotra. Architects gradually shifted to structures that were purely functional and were hence seen as more ‘modern’ structures. In a way, Art Deco played a role in this phasing out of decorative and ornamented structures. It replaced the extravagant Gothic style in the buildings of Mumbai and, in turn, was gradually replaced by a style devoid of any ornamentation at all.

So varied and numerous is Art Deco in Mumbai that the Urban Design Research Institute thought it worthwhile for the Government of Maharashtra to apply to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for World Heritage Site status for buildings in this style. “Their conservation is vital,” write Dwivedi and Mehrotra, “for they are a great asset, which could position the city uniquely, not only for its collection of varied architectural styles but also its image as a city that historically embraced the future.” Judging by experience, it is unlikely that the city’s planners will heed this plea. After 70 years of robust existence, Art Deco, like many of the city’s other treasures, is losing out to so-called development.

Which is why Bombay Deco, with its thorough research and documentation, is such an essential publication. •

THE LAXMI INSURANCE Company building in the Fort area with itstower, chiming clock and statue of the goddess Lakshmi.

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