Last week, a date that is intrinsically connected with Mumbai’s public heritage came and went without as much as a mention in the seamless space that has come to define city news and happenings. Typical, as this journalist’s experiences have been in the past with regards to the now-predictable apathy and ignorance about respecting and celebrating our weather-battered landmarks – each an iconic footnote in the timeline of this ageless, great city.
It was 134 years ago, on June 26, 1879 when the Kala Ghoda was installed at its original venue – the square that continues to carry its name. Inaugurated amid much fanfare at the time, the statue depicts Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, riding a black horse. Created by Sir John Edgar Boehm, this bronze statue rose to a height of 5.1 metres and was completed in 1878. The following year saw this splendid work of sculpture being unveiled by the then Governor of Bombay, Sir Richard Temple. The statue stood at this spot till 1965 after being shifted to its present location - near the entrance of the Veermata Jijabai Udyan, also known as Rani Baug or Byculla Zoo.
The name, and the area, thankfully got a shot in the arm when the Kala Ghoda festival began, and since then, it has become common parlance for most Mumbaikars. With it, curiosity and an awareness about the black horse and the many famous, historic landmarks in the neighbourhood have actually benefitted these spots. Suddenly, places like Rampart Row, Horniman Circle and Lion Gate weren’t just faceless mentions on addresses in the Fort area.
Sadly, like the many other forgotten landmarks, most of the city’s familiar statues that fall under its public heritage (read: Khada Parsi, Flora Fountain, Sir Pherozshah Mehta and their ilk) remain more like names that you’d throw at the taxi driver or first-timer to the city, while giving them directions. That’s right – our landmarks have been reduced to being Stone-Aged plots on maps. Vandalism, graffiti and harsh, humid conditions mean that these hapless bystanders to the city’s magnificent but fast-changing streetscape stand no chance of getting more than mere cosmetic face lifts, as we’ve seen in course of work, with ghastly acts in the name of restoration that Lady Flora and her arm-less cohabiters at the city’s most famous island have had to endure in the past.
It’s an in-your-face reminder of how we treat this city. First impressions always matter. Like, when this journalist went on a city heritage walk a while ago, and heard what a 30-something Austrian photographer had remarked as the group walked by Fort’s stunning buildings: “You should be lucky to have such a fine mix of architectural styles and rich heritage. But the civic sense and public interest seems amiss, sadly.” We couldn’t agree any more.
The city could do with more Kala Ghoda festivals, forums and platforms (and more funding from corporates, please) that can generate and sustain a buzz and interest in these extremely integral aspects that were built to merge into that dream of a truly magnificent city. This will not only help instill better civic sense but also make ours a more tourist-friendly city. And, the next time you pass by Flora Fountain…don’t just pass by.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY