Fiona Fernandez: Showcase the 'real' Ballard Estate

The weekend festival in this well-planned business district ought to celebrate its rich history instead of being a mere staging area for live acts

Always referred to as Mumbai’s first business district, to many Mumbaikars who have little or nothing to do with this part of SoBo, Ballard Estate exudes a certain aloofness and exclusivity that doesn’t draw interest, let alone enthusiasm to make a trip to soak in its sights around tree-lined broad roads. The estate’s commercial establishments — many reminders of our colonial and seafaring past — and a culinary landmark (Britannia & Co) are how we have come to define the sub-precinct.

A few months back, when the Mumbai Port Trust had decided to organise a weekend festival at Ballard Estate, it was welcomed by many who felt that the area was underutilized, and opening it for a community event would mean exposure to this quaint, lesser-seen side of vintage Mumbai. Constructed between 1918 and 1924 on land owned by Bombay Port Trust, it was designed by architect George Wittet, who had earned acclaim for his plans for Gateway of India and the Prince of Wales Museum (now CSMVS). It was developed as an office district on land reclaimed from the sea. The visionary Wittet was inspired to replicate business districts from late 19th century London. The end result — a beautiful harmony of buildings, basalt stone facades, and landmarks at junctions lined by wide open spaces and shaded sidewalks. It was named after Colonel JA Ballard, the first chairman of the Bombay Port Trust.

Cut to the present. Music, dance and temporary pop-ups meant this otherwise sleepy district would draw in crowds from all over the city on weekends. While this is a great way to introduce a new space for entertainment and culture, we would have loved to see people get a dekko of the area’s treasures. Walking tours, aesthetically sensitive facelifts of its landmarks like the Port Trust Memorial and culinary trails in and around this stretch would do wonders to bring it to life and in the true spirit of the weekend festival. The stretch is a celebration of architectural detail and is regarded as a landmark in urban planning among the architectural community. Celebrating Wittet’s designs with public photo exhibitions, talks and studies of Ballard Estate’s positives would have possibly thrown open refreshing ideas. And even if all of this sounds far-fetched, an effort must be made to at least introduce citizens to a rich historic chapter of their city.

While the organizers have promised ‘interesting additions’ in the coming months, we’ll be keeping a close watch to see if the space and soul of Ballard Estate comes alive, or as in many others cases, it remains confined to a character-less playground to stage events. Another case of a missed opportunity.

mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones... wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to mailbag @mid-day.com

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