One look at him, and it was clear that time hadn’t caught up with his role and all that he represented — be it the attire, the sturdy bicycle, the khakhi satchel and the miraculous balancing act of carrying a stash of hundreds of letters, money orders (who uses those anymore?) and other paraphernalia that one rarely sights these days.
Little wonder then, the iconic landmark that represents this nameless servant of India also seems to have been lost in time. Come March 31, and the General Post Office will complete 100 years. Until this column went to print, we hadn’t got a whiff of any buzz around this day and the centenary. One cannot but feel for architect John Begg, his team, and the countless many who contributed towards building this Indo-Saracenic masterpiece, and making it a important cog in the Indian Postal Service wheel for decades to come.
Begg, who came to India in 1901 as Consulting Architect to Bombay (now Mumbai) was appointed Consulting Architect to the Government of India. He and fellow architect George Wittet were responsible for establishing the Indo-Saracenic style as the official style of architecture in British India. The General Post Office, historians and architects will vouch for, is acknowledged as Begg’s most well-known design. It was completed on March 31, 1913 at a total cost of Rs 10,09,000. The Central Dome bears a striking resemblance to the Deccan marvel of Bijapur, the Gol Gumbaz. Its vast Central Hall rises through the height of the building to the dome. It was built of local basalt with dressings of yellow stone from Kurla and white stone from Dhrangadhra. Spires with bearings of Moorish-styled architecture leave a lasting impression.
If you’re in the mood, like I was one sultry afternoon, drop by for a dekko of this sleeping giant. Reminiscent of a teak lined, dusty time capsule, there are many sights to soak inside. At the main entrance to the Central Hall, you shouldn’t miss the Roll of Honour dedicated to members of the ‘Post Office of India’ who laid down their lives during World War I. A rickety, functioning lift in the vicinity is another relic from a bygone era. Inside, the many counters cater to daily transactions, mailing operations all over India and abroad along with the rest that seem to be doing their bit to contribute towards its long-forgotten title as India’s busiest Post Office.
And then, our eye caught an interesting new fixture — a section had been converted into a store selling curios, knick-knacks, home décor and other handmade collectibles. But where were its biggest USP — the immeasurable treasure trove of postal stamps and other fascinating memorabilia that reflected post colonial and free India? This, one believes, is where we are losing the plot, very badly. There is an utter lack of projecting our rich, illustrious legacy and history and giving it the due importance and place of prominence, let alone for the world, but even for its own people to admire, appreciate and respect.
Forget about showcasing our postal stamps in that retail outlet, but by now, shouldn’t a commemorative postal stamp have been released to honour the fact that India’s biggest post office is completing 100 years? This, ironically, is taking place in a country that finds its name in the world’s record books, as the nation with the most number of post offices. Add to this, the fact that most tourist itineraries and heritage walks skip the GPO despite being prominently located in the middle of the city’s major section of heritage landmarks.
Begg’s sterling example of fine Indo-Saracenic architecture won him immense acclaim and applause when it was opened to the public. Now’s the time for those wise men and women to put their heads together and think of ways to resuscitate and bring new life into this landmark — this one-time sterling example of an architectural style that defined a city, and its thriving enterprise to make it the communications hub of the Indian Subcontinent at the turn of the 20th century. Will the GPO get its elusive postal stamp, or live to see another 100 years? Your guess is as good as ours.
The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY