South Mumbai residents in mad scramble to prove Marine Drive is 100

Postal Department says Marine Drive will turn 100 only in 2020 as work on the precinct was completed in 1920; residents continue to hunt for papers to prove that 2015 marked the centenary year for the area

Under two months after South Mumbai’s iconic promenade, Marine Drive, kicked off its centenary celebrations, the General Post Office has punctured the revelry. On December 18 last year, residents from the heritage buildings that line the sea face launched the design for a commemorative stamp that salutes the glamorous crescent bay. But the celebrations, the GPO thinks, might be premature by four years.

The Marine Drive Citizens’ Association members, R Somani (right) and Ashok Gupta, are confident of procuring the papers that the postal department requires as proof. Pics/Bipin Kokate
The Marine Drive Citizens’ Association members, R Somani (right) and Ashok Gupta, are confident of procuring the papers that the postal department requires as proof. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Members of The Marine Drive Citizens’ Association took into account the year 1915, which was when work on Kennedy Sea Face (what the British referred to the stretch we now know as Girgaum Chowpatty) commenced, but the GPO is driven to believe that the year when work on the promenade was completed — 1920 — is the legitimate starting point. This makes 2020 the centenary year.

Members of The Marine Drive Citizens’ Association, R Somani and Ashok Gupta are confident of landing the government document that the postal department has sought
Members of The Marine Drive Citizens’ Association, R Somani and Ashok Gupta are confident of landing the government document that the postal department has sought

The residents refer to an old stone pillar that stands right outside Mafatlal Swimming Pool at Chowpatty with a now fading engraving that marks December 18, 1915, as the date when work on Kennedy Sea Face began.

R Somani (r) and Ashok Gupta say lighting buildings in on the cards too
R Somani (r) and Ashok Gupta say lighting buildings in on the cards too

An engraving on a pillar doesn’t count, says The Department of Posts. A government document proving that Marine Drive has hit 100 is what they seek. P N Ranjit Kumar, Postmaster General, Mumbai, says, “The Postal Department performs many roles. One among them is the formal commemoration of historic events. For this, we release postage stamps and commemorative covers. We will be happy to join in the centenary celebrations of Marine Drive but there is a lack of clarity on the authenticity of dates. From what I understand, the centenary year of the promenade is 2020. The Department prefers authentication like a government record or gazetted document since it’s part of our Standard Operating Procedure.” An error in postal commemoration is, he calls, “unforgivable”.

P N Ranjit Kumar, Postmaster General
P N Ranjit Kumar, Postmaster General

The release of a commemorative postal cover and stamp to mark the occasion was to be accompanied by lighting the buildings that create a uniform sweep to mirror the bend of the bay, some of them like Soona Mahal reflecting Art Deco influences. A neighbourhood cultural festival and cleanliness drives were also on the anvil.

Tetrapods on the stamp’s design
Tetrapods on the stamp’s design

The postal department finds support from architect Kamu Iyer, whose book, Boombay: From precincts to sprawl charts the architectural styles of key buildings in the city, weaving history along the pages. Iyer laughs softly, “I think the postal department is right. They will complete 100 years from completion date only in 2020.”

The postal cover designThe postal cover design

Mumbai history enthusiast Deepak Rao agrees that 2020 will mark the promenade’s centenary but says, “If people wish to celebrate five years early, who’s to stop them?”

A pillar at Chowpatty carries an engraving that marks December 18, 1915, as the date when work on Kennedy Sea Face began
A pillar at Chowpatty carries an engraving that marks December 18, 1915, as the date when work on Kennedy Sea Face began

Iyer, in the book published in 2014, writes: “Marine Drive started as a road to connect Malabar Hill, where the wealthy and ruling class lived, to Fort. The road from Malabar Hill’s Walkeshwar, where the governor resided, to the Secretariat, which abutted Oval Maidan, was along the sea up to Chowpatty. Known as Kennedy Sea Face, this road was built in 1920. It made sense to extend it for quick and easy access to Fort instead of diverting to Queen’s Road on the east of the railway line. However, the cost of reclaiming land from the sea for just a road would have been disproportionately high. It made better sense to extend the bay, reclaim more land from the sea and regain it by building a sea wall.”

This Back Bay Reclamation Scheme that he refers to was entrusted to the Bombay Development Department, with British architect WR Davidge picked to make a master plan. The plan would cover parts of Colaba, Cuffe Parade, Nariman Point and Marine Drive.

Much like today’s infra projects, this one too was plagued by cost escalation and corruption charges; Davidge’s plan was set aside and modifications introduced by an advisory committee that was in fact, responsible for “creating a bay by extending Kennedy Sea Face to Nariman Point”, according to Iyer’s book.

The postal department’s scrutiny hasn’t battered the residents’ resolve, though.

Ashok Gupta, vice president of the association says his team is trying to rustle up the evidence the postal department has sought. “We have been at the collectors’ office and Old Custom House for the last few days, trying to lay our hands on some document or letter that can serve as proof.” R Somani, President of the association seems calm. “We are not worried,” he smiles, gazing at the sea from the terrace of Gupta’s Zaver Mahal apartment.

But it’s not just the Post that’s throwing them a challenge. The ongoing wedding season has proved party pooper too. “We wanted to light the buildings along the stretch, starting January, but lights weren’t available on rent because of high demand during the wedding season. We should be able to decorate the stretch starting next month. We have also planned a painting competition because what better inspiration can an artist ask for than Marine Drive?”

The scramble that will decide the fate of the celebrations takes a backseat when a light February evening breeze tinged with salt skirts the terrace.

It’s little wonder then that English architect Claude Batley said this about the promenade, although he disagreed with other alterations suggested by the advisory committee: “If you have any doubt of its worthwhileness, watch the happy throngs of promenaders, of all sorts and conditions, drinking in the sea air morning and evening; an asset that has never been put down as of any tangible value in the profit-and-loss account of the scheme.”

How the street got its name
The Kennedy Sea Face was named after Sir Michael Kavanagh Kennedy (1824 to 1898), who joined the Empire of India (E.I.) Co.’s service in the department of Engineers in Bombay. He was a Lt. Colonel in the British Army and secretary to the Government of Bombay, Public Works Department. Awarded the prestigious Knight Commander of the Star of India for his services during the 1976 famine in Bombay and Madras, he later served as Director-General of Transport during the Afghan War (1879-80).

Where’s the proof?
A letter from the office of the Chief Post Master General, Maharashtra Circle, Mumbai, dated December 3, 2015 addressed to Vinay Somani, vice-president, The Marine Drive Citizens’ Association, says:

With reference to the above cited letter [dated November 24, 2015], regarding proposal (sic) for special cover on 100 years of iconic landmark of Mumbai – Marine Drive on 18-12-2015, it is seen that the authenticated proof regarding the 100 years is not submitted. It is requested to kindly submit the authenticated proof evidence regarding 100 years to this office at the earliest.

The letter is signed by Rupesh Sonawale, Asst. Director, Postal Services (PSR).

Sealed with a stamp
A number of city institutions have had commemorative stamps and postal covers issued for them, including:

>> The Cathedral & John Connon School, Fort, released a commemorative postage stamp on October 27, in 2010, on completing 150 years.

>> JJ School of Arts had one released in 1982.

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