While reading Christopher London’s bio of FW Stevens in Bombay Gothic, his ode to some of our treasured structures, it’s easy to admire this architect, who in less than a decade of reaching India’s shores was able to realise on paper, and eventually in form, what became one of Asia’s most photographed monuments of the 19th century - the Victoria Terminus. That he is celebrated as one of our city’s founding fathers would require a separate tribute.
As we pay close attention on our guided tour of Stevens’ nearly 130-year-old original drawings, courtesy Professor Mustansir Dalvi, curator of the 10-day exhibition at the Sir JJ School of Architecture, this admiration grows a thousand-fold. “Stevens’ plans were hand-drawn in pencil,” reveals Professor Dalvi, pointing to the first set of plans displayed on one wall inside the Claude Bately Gallery. The Central Railway sent these plans to Lucknow’s National Research Lab for Conservation of Cultural Property for restoration - “thank god for it!” remarks the Professor, gesturing towards these paper treasures.
“The battle of the styles was underway in the late 1800s, and camps were keen to break away from the assembly-line design effected by the Industrial Revolution. There was a desire to look back into the past; one camp followed the Classical style, with Greco-Roman influences while the second pursued the Gothic style,” he explains. Stevens, a Neo-Gothic practitioner, had his first assignment in Mumbai for the Royal Alfred Sailors Home (now Maharashtra’s Police Headquarters).
God is in the details
Later, when Stevens was commissioned to design VT, he undertook this project with immense gusto. His plans, from the main dome to the first and second floor offices, the longitudinal and transverse sections, the waiting halls, the principal staircase, the tower, the washrooms and furniture, arches, and even signage, reveals his 360-degree vision to make a spectacular statement for the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (now Central Railway).
“Naturally, local artisans and craftsmen were able to replicate it with such precision,” reasons Professor Dalvi. In fact, a few of the plans, like the door hinges, were made to scale. Most of the interior sculpturing was modelled by students of the Sir JJ School, supervised by John Griffiths and John Lockwood Kipling, Masters of the school. Local craftsmen then carved these sculptures. Present-day images of the terminus by student Hemangi Vadu (displayed alongside the plans) reveal this impressive, life-like character of Stevens’ plans.
Master of all
His mastery over drawing was immaculate. “Those days, students were trained in Beaux Arts - which didn’t differentiate between art forms. It was the standard medium of instruction where they were taught painting, sculpture and architecture, and so their training was adaptable to any situation. No wonder, Stevens adjusted to India’s diverse local influences and styles.
Three styles were prevalent in the Subcontinent - Gothic, Classical and Indo-Saracenic,” says the Professor. He incorporated Western styles for some of the arches that display a Venetian Gothic influence, yet the menagerie of stone animals that ornament the terminus represents the local flora and fauna (guavas, mangoes, pears, berries/ rodents, snakes, owls).
No expenses were spared to celebrate its magnificence. “The GIP Board were, after all, in competition with rival railway boards to showcase their respective city terminuses. Stevens had a clear sense to make Bombay special; the first city of the Empire. Buildings in the city that rose in that era were made with this intent - to be the Urbs Prima in Indus (Latin: foremost city in India),” he reminds us.
VT in numbers
> 1878-1888: Time taken to construct VT
> £260,000: Approximate total expenditure (the highest for any building of that era in Bombay)
> 330 feet: Height of the structure’s main façade
> 14 feet: Height of Progress that stands atop the central dome with a copper gilt flaming torch in her right hand while the left hand holds a winged wheel with rests at her side
> 10: Number or bas-relief portrait roundels of founders, directors and important figures behind the railway’s development
(Courtesy: Bombay Gothic: Christopher London, India Book House)
Till: February 22, 10 am to 5 pm
At The Claude Bately Gallery, Sir JJ School of Architecture, opposite CST.