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These walls can speak

A look at landmarks dotting Mumbai's souther tip is akin to reliving the city's past. A nostalgic, slice-of-life look beyond the colour and chaos, where the architecture of Mumbai's art district does the talking

Step back in time, if you will, to the year 1835, on what was then the island of Bombay. Picture an Englishwoman -- her name is of little importance -- stepping out of her carriage into the bright, noon sunshine of the place we now call Kala Ghoda. She walks slowly, parasol in gloved hand and lady-in-waiting similarly clad, a respectful step behind. Town Hall lies straight ahead of them, the Mint to their right, while Englishmen mill around Customs House to the left.

Representatives of the East India Company, all familiar faces, tip their hats while the natives look on. On both sides of the relatively broad street, shops peep out of customary ground-plus-one storey structures, plastered stone masonry glinting dully, the monotony broken by occasional 'chhajjas' or 'jhilmils' - projecting eaves -- in a few buildings. "At times," one can imagine the lady mutter, "it almost feels like home."


Museum where architecture meets Artifacts: Chhatrapati Shivaji
Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as the Prince of Wales
Museum of Western India) at MG Road, Fort


Step now into bustling, present-day Mumbai and walk in the footsteps of that woman. Coming in from the chaotic hub that is Churchgate, imagine moving past middle-aged men in formal wear, the occasional beggar, and hawkers selling everything from handkerchiefs to plastic toys. Walk past the impressive University of Mumbai, where a massive clock on the face of Rajabai Tower counts down minutes to the matinee show.

Standing proudly in the distance is the broad Art Deco fa ade of Regal Cinema.

Much has changed in the tiny art district of Kala Ghoda, evolving as all things do through time. A walk down these narrow streets today belies the fact that this was once a nucleus around which the metropolis of Bombay sprang into existence. As all residents know, the horse in question refers to a 12.75-feet bronze statue of King Edward VII (then the Prince of Wales) on, well, a black horse. Sculpted by Sir Edgar Boehm, it was moved years ago, now standing guard at the city zoo. The name persists though.

Throbbing Heart
There are a number of things that make Kala Ghoda interesting. For one, it is part of the city's business district called, simply, Fort. The throbbing heart of the city in the eighteenth century, the area received its name from a fort built by the British East India Company. Today, it extends from the docks in the east to Azad Maidan in the west, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to the north, and Kala Ghoda down south.


Books amidst beauty: David Sassoon Library and Reading Room at
MG Road, Kala Ghoda, Fort


When envisaged by the British, Fort was a trade centre. It wasn't meant to be a large town, just a small zone that would help the English hold the reins of power firmly. Like all such enterprises, a fixed master plan was never chalked out. Instead, as power exchanged hands and the decades rolled on, the area metamorphosed, layer by painstaking layer, to create the rich cultural entity it is today. With the coming of each layer, distinct architectural areas were created, the shadows of which still peek out today if one cares to look behind the gaudy billboards shouting out Bollywood gossip.

What remains beneath it all is a kind of duality, a two-faced aspect of the architecture that comes from an original division of the Fort settlement into separate areas for the British and our native ancestors. The buildings still carry a few allusions to those areas, along with changes imposed by successive generations, their varying tastes and degrees of functionality.

Although it now hosts a popular annual cultural festival promoting the arts, Kala Ghoda didn't emerge as the city's art district overnight. Then again, it was here that India's first film was screened one evening in 1896, setting in motion developments that would make us the world's biggest film producing nation. Putting aside history though, it is the area's architectural diversity that is more rewarding. What you get is not just a unified entity comprising buildings set in an historical zone; rather, a juxtaposition of layers that have their own tales to tell at every street corner.


Attractive: The National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai

The physical form of the Fort area is best described as an irregular trapezium. Seven layers of development have been identified, chronologically, in the precinct. The Kala Ghoda Crescent can be defined as the area stretching from Regal Chowk to the University of Mumbai, with Oval Maidan to the west and Lions Gate to the east. Like gems dotting this zone lie architectural and historical beauties like the Prince of Wales Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art, Jehangir Art Gallery, Max Mueller Bhavan, Institute of Science, Bombay Natural History Society, Elphinstone College and the David Sassoon Library.

Art Deco
One can recognise the influence of an early native population in the area now covered by Bohra Bazaar Street, Perin Nariman Street and Mint Street. The functional nature common with British residential and administrative architecture can be seen in the Admiralty House, while buildings at Master Nagindas Road still proclaim distinct colonial accents in flat brick arches and key stones.

Italian facades show at the area around Town Hall; Veer Nariman Road has predominantly European buildings; and the Indo-Saracenic style makes an appearance in the Readymoney Terrace Building. From Gothic spires to the quiet elegance of the Renaissance, Islamic to Art Deco, it's hard not to be struck by this sort of architectural diversity. Looked at as a whole, it can unanimously be judged the finest heritage spine of the city, with three distinct styles: The pre-1860s, Victorian architecture from 1860 to the 1920s, and stark Art Deco of the post 20s.


The shops come in: The Army & Navy Building in Kala Ghoda

Moving to the structures themselves, why not start with the Wellington Fountain, erected by public subscription in 1865. Opposite it stands the Gothic fa ade of today's Maharashtra State Police HQ, once the Royal Alfred Sailor's Home. Noticeable from here is Regal Cinema, designed by Charles Stevens and built on the site of a saluting battery (and also, as some historians maintain, a cemetery for Englishmen). On the other side of the street stands the department store known as Sahakari Bhandar, formerly the Majestic Hotel built in 1909. It was designed by W A Chambers and Company, who also designed the Taj Mahal hotel in 1903.

Stepping along the crowded pavement, past small shops selling cigarettes, one runs into the Indian Mercantile Building at a corner. Built in the early 1900s and famous for its oldest occupant, Phillips Antiques, it overlooks the Institute of Science with its Renaissance style. Set in its spacious interiors is the Mumbai branch of today's National Gallery of Modern Art.

Across the street and past bus stops on the other side, the Prince of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya) demands more than a cursory glance. Its Indo-Saracenic style, local yellow and blue basalt make it a common enough childhood memory for most students, with a dome strikingly reminiscent of the Gol Gumbuz at Bijapur. What the building also has is a lot of traditional architecture and interesting cultural adaptations that include bulbous cupolas, jalees, Rajput-style jharokas, brackets of Hindu temples and semi-open verandas - all merging into one whole.


Stone and Sensibilities: The Elphinstone College is a fine example of
old style architecture and is one of the city's iconic buildings
 

Neo-Classical
Opposite popular record store Rhythm House, a stone's throw away, are the stark contours of Jehangir Art Gallery. Next, Elphinstone College, named after Governor Mountstuart Elphinstone and housing the Maharashtra State Archives with its rare government records, manuscripts and newspapers. Then, the David Sassoon Mechanics Institute and Library, with its beautiful marble statue of Sir Sassoon and flooring of richly coloured Minton tiles. From here, the ornate neo-classical style of the Army and Navy Building peeps out, now occupied by several multi-national companies.

Does Kala Ghoda eventually live up to its reputation as Mumbai's art district? A short walk through it ought to prove that it does. Like Soho in New York, Quartier Latin in Paris, and other art districts around the world, it manages that particular collation that has remained relatively untouched, apart from superficial changes imposed by an evolving urban landscape.

With its combined total of almost 1,10,000 square feet, it is a slice of culture that best represents what Mumbai is about. Taking the city's diversity, history, the artistic and commonplace, it somehow becomes a microcosm that gives visitors a taste of today as well as times past. What it does, in the process, is trace a story of survival and strength, about ourselves and what we are. That is what strikes a chord in every heart that beats through its crowded streets.

- Lindsay Pereira is Editor, MiD DAY Online (twitter.com/lindsaypereira)

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