The city of Bombay has always attracted me because of its fast-paced ness, independence and rich colonial history. It is a city to get lost in, to be one with, and yet discover oneself in the process. Coming from an academic background rooted in History, Bombay’s colonial architecture had a tremendous appeal to me. It is an exciting blend of Gothic, Art Deco, Victorian, Indo-Saracenic and Contemporary styles– tracing the story of the city’s growth from a British trading post to one of the biggest metropolises of the country. And yes, I am going to refer to the city as “Bombay” and not “Mumbai”, as what follows is from the times when the city was called so.
After all, for the most of part of the population, it still is, “Bombay”.
In this case I decided to search for lesser known historical buildings in and around South Bombay. I found a Pandora’s box – a store of rich architectural heritage hidden under the chaos of city-life, ignored and forgotten by all in their unceasing race for survival. These buildings stood by, against the test of time- acting as silent witnesses to the unfolding of the grand story of the city of Bombay.
The above comment is best exemplified by the Watson Hotel located in Kalaghoda District of South Bombay. It is now called the Esplanade Mansion, and is in complete ruins, the rooms being divided and given on rent to shopkeepers, tailors and even families. Built in February 1871 with a “Europeans only” clientele, it was the pride of Bombay and the swankiest hotel in town. Visiting dignitaries included the likes of Mark Twain and Richard Burton. It is India’s oldest cast iron building, the frame being fabricated in England and put together in Bombay. What remains of the hotel’s grandeur today is only this cast iron frame with the “W” logo peeping out from under the overgrown shrubs and overflowing garbage. The decline was gradual beginning with its sale to another owner and the growing competition from J.N.Tata’s Taj Mahal Hotel in 1903. The Watson Hotel closed down in the 1960s.
I found some other interesting architectural marvels in the same vicinity of Kalaghoda, one of the easiest to spot being the David Sasoon Library. It is bang opposite the Jehangir Art Gallery and hence hard to miss. Built in the Venetian Gothic style around 1870, the purpose of the building was to function as a museum and library for the Royal Mint and Government Dockyard. The architectural style combined Gothic arches with Byzantine influences, the desire for lightness and grace in the structure being extremely important. This characteristic is easily visible in the library – being adorned by intricate details and yet not giving the impression of heaviness.
Sir David Sasson, an influential banker, later funded the completion of this building as a mechanical institute. It is named after this same person and is an active library and reading room today.
On the other side of the road is the lane that passes by Rhythm House and leads to another beautiful building contributed by the Jewish Community to the city of Bombay – The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. Another such synagogue stands in the area of Byculla, called the Megan David Synagogue. These buildings hint towards the presence of an abundant and rich Jewish population in Bombay, now no longer so. The former of the mentioned synagogues is an aesthetically pleasing building coloured in aquamarine blue, standing two floors tall. The stained glass windows and carved wooden doors give away the colonial influence. Once here, one should not miss the Kalaghoda Café on the opposite lane – a quite little place that serves great food and also exhibits photographers and painters.
Bombay’s day-to-day life holds a storehouse of historical buildings – in the form of movie theatres, libraries and coffee houses. Next thing on my agenda was to remove the present and uncover the past of these buildings. Eros Cinema, situated at Churchgate, was built around 1935-38. It is in the Art Deco style as is evident from the cylindrical spire with rings around it. It used a range of materials from Red Sandstone from Agra to Black Marble and Gold. The cinema is still in function today. Other than Eros, the first of Bombay’s Art Deco cinema theatres was Regal Cinema (Colaba) and the Metro Cinema (Princess Street), built and run originally by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), and later indianised and now transformed into a multiplex.
Another section of south Bombay abounding in Colonial Architecture is Horniman Circle, in the Fountain District. Originally called the Elphinstone Circle, after independence it was renamed to commemorate the Editor of The Bombay Chronicler, Benjamin Horniman. The area houses a large garden originally called the Bombay Greens (now The Horniman Circle Gardens) constructed in the Neo-Classical style, surrounded by Gothic buildings used for commercial purposes. Most interesting is the elegant curved Neo-Classical buildings built in accordance with the turn of the streets. Some of the buildings today house leading banks, international brands like Hermes and India’s first Starbucks Coffee Shop.
Overlooking the Horniman Circle Gardens is the Asiatic Society of Bombay, located in the Town Hall. The Society has had associations with the Royal Asiatic Society of Britain, and the Literary Society of Bombay, but is today run by the Central Government. The library boasts of a huge collection of rare manuscripts, two original remaining copies of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” being one of the most valuable. The Town Hall that houses the library was built around 1804, around the same time of the formation of the Literary Society of Bombay. Its architecture is heavily influenced by Greece and Rome evident in the eight Doric columns, a large flight of 30 stairs leading to the portico followed by a wrought iron loggia and topped by a cornice and frieze at the entablature.
Bombay has been the cultural hot-plate of India since its birth. In fact, Bombay as a coherent, unified city came into existence for reasons of inter-continental commerce and trade. Cross-cultural inroads and developments were inevitable in such a scenario. This inter-cultural germination is evident in architecture as much as in the lifestyle of its residents. Bombay today is home to a cosmopolitan crowd, ranging from the old “bawa” reminiscing about days gone by, to the French traveller who fell in love with the city at first sight.
What intrigues me about Bombay’s history is how these heritage buildings lie hidden amongst our everyday lives – moving along with us, changing with the times, fulfilling their present duties. Today they serve commercial, official or civil functions acting as offices for the Railway or the Police, as lavish restaurants for the rich or as dilapidating homes for the poor.
It is only when one stops awhile to ponder, one sees how these buildings mean so much more – like those old Banyan trees which have stood at the same place for years, seen a People grow and die, and when you look up at those strong branches and dropping roots in awe, they look down at you with a knowing smile.
Art historian and Writer at ARTINFO India