First look: New and improved Crawford Market in South Mumbai

The cheap-deal mega-bazaar gets a shot in the arm in a first restoration effort since it was built in 1869. With Phase 1 wrapping up, mid-day took a tour of the partially spiffy interiors

Shoppers in the bustling quarters of Crawford Market have ample reason to give their bargaining a break and set their eyes on the fresh look sported by the market’s façade. Shedding its old grimy coat, the heritage block of the 147-year-old market has returned to its former glory, marking the conclusion of phase one of its restoration that kicked off in September 2014. This included restoration of BMC offices housed on the first and second floors, and sprucing up a ready-to-chime clock in the central tower.

The clock tower, offices and facade of Crawford Market have been restored in the first phase of Crawford's restoration. Pics/Datta Kumbhar
The clock tower, offices and facade of Crawford Market have been restored in the first phase of Crawford's restoration. Pics/Datta Kumbhar

Restoration has been carried out by the Municipal Corporation of Great Mumbai (MCGM) and conservation architect appointed by the BMC, Abha Narain Lambah, and the project’s goal is to give the market, renamed Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Mandai in independent India, a makeover before its sesquicentennial year celebration in 2019.

The balconies overlooking DN Road had concrete laid in the 1970s. Now, they have restored with woodwork, as was intended by Crawford's architect William Emerson
The balconies overlooking DN Road had concrete laid in the 1970s. Now, they have restored with woodwork, as was intended by Crawford's architect William Emerson

mid-day visited the restored Grade-I heritage block, which, on first impression, looks understated. But roll back a few years, when the structure’s neglected interiors ousted the BMC’s market department for fear of crumbling down, and you can tell the difference.

A bas-relief by Lockwood Kipling and students of JJ School, depicting scenes of the city, has also been restored......The original chimer from the clock tower
A bas-relief by Lockwood Kipling and students of JJ School, depicting scenes of the city, has also been restored

Un-sarkari office
"The purpose of restoration is to ensure longevity of a historic structure and to enhance its original design," says Sanaeya Vandrewala, associate conservation architect with Lambah. The restoration team have saved as much as possible from the historic structure while using original material that was used in the structure’s construction. Rotting rafters made of Burma teak, for instance, haven’t been replaced entirely; just the decayed bits were substituted. Hexagonal ochre and earth brown Minton tiles, originally imported from Britain, have been painstakingly removed by hand before floor-repair, and then replaced. Broken tiles have been switched with new ones, but it will be hard for you to tell the difference.


The original chimer from the clock tower

Designed by architect William Emerson, the Gothic market was named after the first municipal commissioner of then Bombay – Arthur Crawford. Standing at the intersection of DN Road and LT Road, it was built in the fashion of Victorian markets back in Britain, but keeping in mind the warmer Mumbai weather. Crawford comes with four elegant balconies, far wider than their British counterparts, to offer better ventilation. “The most satisfying aspects of the restoration were the balconies that overlook the DN Road side. Sometime in the 70s, the timber balcony facing DN road had been removed and replaced with reinforced concrete. We restored it to the authentic timber design,” says Lambah.

The clockface, changed by the BMC to Marathi writing, will soon start ticking once the architects finalise the mechanism
The clockface, changed by the BMC to Marathi writing, will soon start ticking once the architects finalise the mechanism

The restored balconies and the bas-reliefs made by Lockwood Kipling and students from the JJ School of Arts are sure to draw the attention of passers-by. But rather than Juliets, we should find BMC officials standing at the balconies, for these floors will see the return of the market department, which currently functions out of Dadar. “When we initially saw the space, the ceiling was propped up with rods; there were aluminium partitions added over the decades, layers of pink green and blue paint, and the rafters of Burma teak were rotting at the ends. With no structural repairs performed since construction, the building has seen 146 monsoons as is,” says Lambah.

The facade of the heritage block of Crawford Market, before restoration
The facade of the heritage block of Crawford Market, before restoration

The new office interiors continue with the woodwork theme, rather than the stainless steel cupboards or unremarkable cubicles that we often associate government offices with. The non-AC rooms have allowed for wide ceiling space, and non-stuffy cabins, with glasswork cut into wooden partitions to allow light to penetrate. Even lighting will now emit from vintage-looking lamps, commonly seen across Mumbai’s Irani cafes, instead of tubelights.

The BMC's market department as it existed in the upper floors of the block; Lambah's associate, conservation  architect Sanaeya Vandrewala at the BMC market department's new office which continues with the woodwork theme
The BMC's market department as it existed in the upper floors of the block; and the BMC market department's new office which continues with the woodwork theme

We have time-travelled to a century-old office, but with all the amenities of this era, we realize when Vandrewala says, “While we haven’t changed the design, we don’t wish to museum-ise the market.”

Will so much wood survive Mumbai’s humidity? “Good quality wood lasts the ages. If regular maintenance is done, it means an overhaul can be prevented later,” she thinks.

Preserve and progress
A fire in the main market in October 2015, which gutted almost 60 shops, threw up concerns about the need for fire-proofing across the cubby hole shops. Measures have been taken in the restored section towards fire-safety by fitting sprinklers, smoke detectors, wet-risers and PA systems. The extensive woodwork has received a fire-retardant lacquer coat. But the spiral staircase still poses a challenge as the only exit out of the building, says Lambah. “As a Grade-I heritage structure, we cannot build a new staircase. We have done our best with the heritage block to provide enough fire-safety measures,” she says.

The restoration of Crawford was set to initially commence in 2007, but dilly-dallied over a redevelopment scandal that proposed the building of two towers in the rear portion of the heritage wing. The BMC wished to sell the prime market property to a developer, for which the then municipal commissioner Jairaj Phatak received much criticism. When things finally kicked off in 2014, Lambah and her associates did not find old plans for the heritage portion of the market. “While plans for the main market existed, for phase one, we didn’t have a choice but to refer to photographs of other structures from the time as reference. We asked ourselves, what would a Victorian market of the same vintage be like? The answer lay in London’s iconic Smithfield Market, built around the same time as Crawford,” says Lambah.

While a year may seem like a long time for a partial restoration, Lambah says this is normal. “Each basalt stone had 150 years of soot and oil pollution smothered on it. We did not use acid or high-pressure cleaning. Restoration is a labour-intensive process, and we were careful not to clean more than necessary.”

The conservation architect, who is a UNESCO-awardee, says the MCGM’s team of officials, engineers and staff have been instrumental in the restoration, which will now commence in the main market area. While restoring public heritage buildings comes with its own set of challenges – and scandals – Lambah is clear she would rather be doing this than picking fabric for a luxury private home.

Ticking time
Crawford Market’s clock tower was built almost a decade before the Rajabai Tower. “In the urban landscape of erstwhile Bombay, these were not just the landmarks, but also the time everyone followed. The tallest buildings of that time were Crawford, Rajabhai tower and the belfry of St Thomas’ cathedral. In some way, these iconic institutions indicated three things – commerce, a temple of learning, and religion,” says Lambah.

The historic clock tower, which has undergone changes in the last few decades, was the part of Crawford that needed urgent attention. In the mid-20th century, the old chiming bell was replaced with a modern mechanism for the clockface, which has also become defunct now. Lambah and her team are currently working on a new mechanism for the clock, which bears Marathi writing since the 70s, and passers-by will soon be able refer to the trusty clock and its new chime.

The bell, which is the same age as the market, is a story in itself. It was made by Dent and Co, ‘Clockmakers to Her Majesty’. Lambah estimates that given its size, installing the bell must have been an engineering feat. It is most likely that the clock tower was finished off after the bell had been installed, and not in the reverse way. The retired bell will continue to rest in the tower, since it is primarily difficult to transport it out of the structure. But, more importantly, Lambah and the BMC wish it to be part of its original history. “We don’t want to remove the bell from its context. We are going to preserve it here, with a plaque for details,” says Vandrewala.

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