After our 45-minute walk around the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble, and Oval Maidan, we were stumped by Augusto Villalón’s seamless interest for all things Mumbai. “These buildings and spaces are so alive,” he remarks, soaking in a 360-degree sweep of the area that constitutes Mumbai’s proposal to be submitted to Maharashtra’s Chief Minister as its nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, in mid-August. He is in the city at the behest of Abha Narain Lambah and the Urban Design Research Institute to vet the nomination. With 12 years of experience in heritage conservation, planning and cultural tourism, his backing should provide a huge thrust to the city’s efforts.
Gothic goes Indian
Villalón’s easy demeanour belies his acclaim and laurels, as he agrees to our unplanned trail and quizzing session on a sultry July afternoon… “Too much humidity here,” he exclaims. We’ve begun to walk past the Victorian Gothic ensemble. As he draws our attention to the façade of the Small Causes Court, he throws us a googly -- “These buildings are not Victorian Gothic but Indian in spirit. Nowhere in Europe will you find large windows, long verandahs for ventilation or such building material. Local workers and minds built these structures’, it’s the ‘Indianisation’ of a style, and represents tropical ideas. Climatic and cultural modifications are typical to regions that were ruled by British colonists. The Victorian seed was planted, and India did the rest.” He tells us of a similar fusion in Melbourne and Hong Kong. “There is a nationalist flavour -- which is comforting.”
A lilting chime from the Rajabai Tower draws our eye to George Gilbert Scott’s creation. “What’s dynamic about this nomination is that it’s a people’s movement. I get a sense of the residents’ urge to conserve the area,” he explains, when asked about the uniqueness of this proposal. Villalón cites Miami’s example where its Art Deco buildings have now become gentrified, modified into glitzy hotels having witnessed change from their original core: “Here, your buildings are still being inhabited by its residents or used by the public, be it the High Court or the University buildings.”
He believes Mumbai’s biggest challenge is to create awareness: “Campaigns like yours will go a long way to facilitate this. Mumbai must cherish this jewel in the middle of the city. If it disappears, so much of character will be lost. A sense of pride must be instilled.” In the Philippines, social media tools like Facebook and movie stars are used to protect its heritage, he adds. Food for thought, perhaps?
We’re at the Oval Maidan’s centre. But it’s time for Villalón to take our leave. He signs off with a lasting thought: “The concept of heritage is difficult to communicate today. It’s related to old people or old times that were difficult or unpleasant. This must change…”
'I Love Mumbai'
“I’ve been here 5-6 years ago and loved its bustling vibe and immense entrepreneurial fabric. The people built this city unlike Delhi, where its governments or rulers did the deed. Public funding and donations don’t happen in other cities,” said Augusto Villalón.
Heritage sites vs security
Villalón is just back from Bodh Gaya, and stresses about cultural tourism in today’s times: “We must address the question of security as we are faced with the permanent threat of terrorism. How much do we protect our sites at the cost of restricting public access? World over, we’ve still been unable to find the right balance. The dilemma remains.”