A human flood flows through the Titanic exhibition in Orlando, Florida every day. Visitors are eager for a glimpse of a replica of the Grand Staircase of the ill-fated ship. “Think of the fingers that have glided over the handrails. Luminaries: brilliant entrepreneurs, writers and artists...what whispers were exchanged here, what stories unfolded...” said a tour guide. Tourists, many of whom are Indians, are often moved to tears.
Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah would be thrilled if Mumbaiites could similarly appreciate the “living, breathing monument”, the Oval Maidan Precinct, which along with Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble form Mumbai’s proposal for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. “During the plague of the 1860s, Mumbai residents camped on these grounds to avoid the rat-infested alleys of the fortified town,” Lambah shares. Tap-tapping on her keypad, she shows us images of the old city, a small cluster of buildings. “In place of the High Court and the Victorian constructions a moat ran around the original fort; the open ground outside afforded a clear line of fire,” she adds.
Rise of the city
“The outbreak of the plague gave the then Governor Bartle Frere the excuse he was looking for, to bring down the walls of the fort and expand the city,” she shares. Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari adds, “This coincided with the cotton boom. The American Civil war cut off cotton supplies from there, thereby boosting the demand for Indian cotton and Mumbai’s cotton traders struck it rich, since transport was also simultaneously boosted by the opening of the Suez Canal and the railways. This led to a unique partnership. Land was given by the government for the construction of buildings sponsored by Mumbai’s philanthropists.”
Lambah who joined hands with the eminent Mumbai historian, late Sharada Dwivedi to press for due recognition for this incredible site over a decade ago, isn’t sure if there’s any truth to the legend that 19th century Gujarati ‘cotton king’ Premchand Roychand’s sightless mother Rajabai relied on the chime of the (Rajabai)clock to identify dinner time. But she does assert that the Gujarati businessman, one of the founders of the Bombay Stock Exchange, generously shelled out R4,00,000, a substantial amount in 1869, for construction of the tower that was modelled on London's Big Ben and named after his mother.
Mumbai’s Rotten Row
In the 1960s, historian Deepak Rao was among scores of children who would visit the Maidan routinely. “My parents would take me to the southern end of the ground where you could hire a horse; and for 8 annas, you could ride it around a track,” he recalls. Rao who went on to get a diploma in equestrianism from France, tells us that a part of Oval Maidan was referred to as Rotten Row back in 1955, in keeping with the English tradition (In London’s Hyde Park, a horse-riding track was called “Route de Roi” — French for “King’s Road.” It eventually transformed into, “Rotten Row”).
“The spot occupied by The Taj Wellington Mews today served as stables back then,” Rao says, estimating that close to 60 trained riders from the Amateur Riders’ Club, “taught proper riding at the grounds — trotting, galloping, cantering...a few raced around the track too. There were also bhayyas who had ponies and kids sometimes went for a sawaar (ride) on these,” he adds. In hindsight, Rao marvels at how the animals were well cared for, “even in the absence of regulations.”
Mail to order
Architectural trends had shifted around the turn of the century. So, by then, the maidan was flanked on one side by Art Deco buildings and on the other by imposing gothic Victorian structures (designed by Sir Gilbert Scott, James Trubshaw and Lt Col James Fuller between 1871 and 1878).
Interestingly, Scott, one of the most eminent English architects of the time designed the Bombay University by mail, Lambah shares. “Records suggest he was afraid of getting the plague and so there was huge correspondence back and forth to inform him of the climate and requirements of those who would use the building,” she reveals. “Letters were exchanged for over a year until Sir Cowasjee Jehangir put his foot down and asked for his donated money for the building’s construction to be returned.”
Just as it works today, the threat inspired action and it’s therefore that the precinct today houses the most unique collection of Victorian and Art Deco buildings and presents the largest conglomeration of the two distinct architectural styles.
The stories encapsulated in this area need to be preserved; Dilawari explains, “Gothic constructions employed local stone, grey or buff basalt (Kurla or Malad quarry stone), with ornamentation in soft limestone (Porbandar stone), materials which withstand wear and tear remarkably but their restoration and repairs require expertise and skill. Original details must not be replaced with cheap modern materials. Most Art Deco buildings have an RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) structure though there are a few such stone buildings too, and this material is really strong but the sea air has corroded the steel in many of these and that is of grave concern.”
Even though the buildings have held up beautifully over the years, Dilawari reminds us why the heritage tag is crucial: “The recognition will not only boost tourism, it could strengthen the government's commitment to conserve and protect these buildings as their condition would then be monitored by an international agency.”
Vote for your city!
MiDDAY has joined hands with UDRI to begin a public awareness campaign where readers can show their support to back this proposal. Cast your vote and post a message too, to express your solidarity for this unique campaign to save our living heritage.
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