The smell of fresh paint pervades the air, as one enters the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) building, Procter branch in Agripada, Mumbai. The building has been newly renovated and there was an event organised to mark the occasion. A rededicating ceremony was held at the YMCA, Procter branch on Tuesday during which the building, restored to its past glory, was opened for public viewing. The interiors of the building have been all spruced up. Apart from the doors and windows receiving a fresh coat of paint, the creaky roofs and squeaky floors have also been repaired.
The two-storey structure now boasts of a well-equipped gymnasium. “Two guest rooms on the ground floor were broken down. The gymnasium, which was already there, was then further extended. So now we have a bigger and a better equipped gymnasium,” said Paul George, Assistant General Secretary, YMCA, Procter branch. Overall the structure now looks, “better, spacious and cleaner and this is how we wanted it to be. This renovation work is the run up to our centenary celebrations, which will be held in April 2013,” said a beaming George, who lives in a flat on the second floor. George’s flat too underwent renovation. George had to shift out of the YMCA hostel for a few months, till the repair work was on. “Every monsoon, I had to fight leaky roofs with buckets. Sometimes there was plaster falling off the ceilings. The flat needed urgent repairs,” said George.
Talking of history, George said, “The first YMCA came up in Colaba. It was then know as the white men’s YMCA. The Procter branch was known as the Anglo Indian branch and the current International house branch was then meant for Indians.” George’s love for heritage structures dates back to the time when he was in YMCA, Colaba. "When I was in Colaba YMCA, I was living in a heritage precinct. That probably must have rubbed off and that’s when I wanted to preserve heritage structures. I realised that their beauty has to be admired. It cannot be neglected or marred. The beauty has to be enhanced,” George emphasized. About Rs 1 crore 80 lakh was spent in the renovation work.
Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari was in-charge of the entire project. Dilawari and his team were at it for 11 months. “All the hard work has paid off,” said Dilawari, who had earlier renovated the Lamington road branch of the YMCA. “This was our second exercise but the project was equally exciting. This building in particular was an indiscreet building and the challenge was to keep the simple colonial structure intact and highlight its features, ornamental friezes and use right colours that could gel with the rest of the architecture. It is easy to demolish a structure and come up with something new. But the challenge is to work on something, which is already there. It’s like getting a root canal done,” explained Dilawari. Another challenge was the fact that, “this was a functional building. We couldn’t ask people to leave, as this is a hostel. So we had to do the repair work phase by phase. While one side was repaired, residents were asked to shift to the other side,” added Dilawari, who insists that people should take a leaf out of this project.
He says, “This helps us in proving a point. The architecture across the city of Mumbai is fairly significant. These sort of buildings have timeless architecture, which new buildings lack. Redevelopment is a problem in Mumbai. Many housing societies are embroiled into this redevelopment tussle. This pretty much stems from the age-old pugdi system due to which landlords are not able to make money. But instead of redevelopment, the government should step in and encourage repair work by providing incentives and recognition. There are a lot of buildings in Mumbai, which are not in such a bad state and can be repaired. So why go for redevelopment?” asked Dilawari.
In a book called, ‘We serve so that life may be enriched-- A history of Bombay YMCA’, Dr M D David, Former Professor and Head of Department of History, University of Mumbai, who is also the author of the book writes, ‘Originally, Procter YMCA served the needs of Anglo-Indian apprentices but after Independence it has become another YMCA centre serving various needs of the neighbourhood. During the colonial era it was surrounded by Christians, Parsis and Jews. Now most of them have sold their properties and moved out of the area. Today, Procter YMCA is surrounded by the new rich Muslim community.
During the second World War Procter YMCA was also used by the defence forces. In 1945, the Board decided to send an official claim to the army welfare authorities for compensation for wear and tear of equipment and fittings occasioned by services rendered by YMCA during the War and also asked the Garrison Engineer to release the flat occupied by the Defence Department in the Procter branch. Procter hostel, meant for Anglo-Indian apprentices, continued to meet their need after Indian Independence. In the 1950s, the number of Anglo-Indian apprentices coming to stay in Procter YMCA dwindled. In 1951, Mrs Murray was appointed as Matron in place of Mrs Steward who had resigned, to look after the boarding and lodging arrangements of the apprentices. It was found by 1954, that some apprentices had not paid and had fallen in arrears. When the Mess was given to a contractor in 1953 on lease and license basis on payment of Rs 125 as fee, the Mess came to be separated from the YMCA and each apprentice was charged Rs 22 p.m. for boarding.
The Procter YMCA hostel was essentially meant for Anglo-Indian apprentices. Its character began to change rapidly after 1954. The Government which used to meet the living costs of the Anglo-Indian apprentices stopped giving grants. Therefore the number of apprentices who could afford to pay the charges was small. In 1955, out of 65 residents only two were apprentice boys. Hostel inhabitants came to consist of students, apprentices and working men. Most boys stayed in four large dormitories and others lived in single or sharing rooms. “In former years, our dormitories were used to house young boys who were apprentices. Most of the boys worked as technical assistants in firms, though some were employed as junior executives in firms and government offices.”
One of the special features of Procter YMCA was its monthly dances drawing a large number of men and women from far and near for an evening of entertainment. These dances were restricted to members and to those invited. These dances were accompanied by good music bands such as Hal Green or Chic Chocolate and the like. In November 1963 a grand dance was organised at Green Hotel and it raised nearly Rs 7,500. In addition to billiards, the branch also encouraged table tennis, carom and cricket. In the Table Tennis Home tournament for Juniors, 30 players took part. On the day of the finals on September 27, 1955, prominent players like Dilip Sampat, Mayur Vyas, Gautam Diwan and Baji Jhambata played exhibition games in the presence of a large gathering of the Toast Masters Club and Boys Club efficiently’.