Let's give Mumbai its due

Fiona FernandezIt’s a sight that most Mumbaiites are familiar with, and are also oblivious to.

Built on either side of the Oval Maidan are two distinct architectural styles that define the richness and diversity of a historic, cosmopolitan city. These two styles — Victorian and Art Deco, are at the heart of the submission that will highlight this area in the Mumbai dossier.

It will be city’s bid at earning the prestigious World Heritage tag to be awarded by UNESCO next year. UNESCO had accepted this submission, titled ‘The Victorian and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai’, in May this year. Pitted against Mumbai’s architectural diversity is Delhi’s historic might.

A tourist captures the Victorian ensemble from the Oval Maidan. File pic

The Capital’s bid, titled Delhi — A Heritage City, is backed heavily with support from its local government (no surprise, this) while our city’s case is being bolstered by a citizen’s initiative that appears to be in dire need of consolidated funding from the powers that be.

What’s upsetting is that Mumbai’s campaign still has a long way to go, even as the clock continues to tick. Come January 2013, and the Indian government will nominate one site under the natural and cultural category for the UNESCO World Heritage tag.

Meanwhile, Delhi is going all out in its attempt to package its glorious past that stretches across its many cities including Mehrauli, Nizamuddin, Shahjahanabad and New Delhi, supported of course, by the right people in the right places. Hasn’t this been the case, almost always? Delhi’s power versus Mumbai’s people?

While the facts in this seemingly lopsided contest leaves enough room for a broader debate, Mumbai’s heritage-loving brigade appear to have an uphill task at hand.

Ask Abha Narain Lambah, who is championing this case, on behalf of the Urban Design Research Institute and other organisations.
According to recent reports, the Rs 15 lakh required to create this dossier was given the nod recently. Estimates put the ideal amount for a superior bid in the region of Rs 40-45 lakh. It seems like a bumpy, arduous road for Mumbai, to give its stunning architectural ensemble a fitting tribute on a world stage.

At the very heart of Mumbai’s chaos, this area offers a slice of the city at its scenic, most stimulating best. Open green spaces, magnificent institutes of learning, sprawling campuses, an imposing clock tower that face the most expansive Art Deco stretch outside of Miami. Architects like George Gilbert Scott (Mumbai University buildings and Rajabai Tower), Colonel Henry Wilkins (Civil and Session Court), James Fuller (Bombay High Court) and J Trubshawe and W Paris (Central Telegraph Office) ensured this sprawl went on to be hailed at the time, as one of the finest ensembles of Victorian architecture seen anywhere in British Empire.

In contrast, the Pop-art style adds a different dimension to the city’s skyline with its colourful, geometric exteriors, broad balconies in all sizes and vibrant colour palette. Several buildings along the frontage on the west of Oval Maidan, up to the Eros Cinema on the north, were built in this style.
Alas, this spectacular skyline might go unnoticed on a global platform if timely action doesn’t rescue the city’s case against Big Brother Delhi.

While Kolkata’s heritage always had a cushion, thanks to its status as the erstwhile capital, and Delhi continues to ride on the golden spoon syndrome, Mumbai has had to fight its battles, alone, despite boasting of structures that celebrate at least five distinct architectural styles — Indo-Saracenic, Victorian, Bombay Gothic, Art Deco and Neo Classical. That tomes and encyclopaedias written by Western experts (exceptions like Christopher London’s Bombay Gothic) centred on the world’s architectural styles and structures overlook Mumbai’s diversity is perhaps indicator of the attitude, carried down the years.

For this, and plenty more, one hopes our city’s treasures are given a chance to stake claim for a place on the podium, and deservingly so.  

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY

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