It would be an understatement to announce that our city is in the grip of long-drawn battle to save its treasured spaces, its unique character and multi-hued landscape. Look everywhere, and it’s the same story — land sharks gnawing into quaint layers of the city’s community neighbourhoods or the insensitive might of bulldozers crushing into slices of its history and architecture even as its owners are often forced into submission, or lured by money. With every passing year, the city has watched as the transformation (read: ugly makeover) of its remarkably cosmopolitan character has continued, relentlessly.
Recently, during an engaging conversation with a well-versed and travelled French national, who has made the city his home for six years, this point was drove home, rather sharply. After all, if a newer citizen can sense the change in less than a decade, it’s not a good sign. “Your city is beginning to remind me of so many other new Indian cities that have a deadpan uniformity to it... character-less. Newer buildings are shooting up without any semblance of the local design or architecture; there’s very little thought into urban planning to reflect and celebrate its amazing potpourri of communities, their influences and styles,” he sighed. The Frenchman didn’t need to explain further.
It’s a challenge that Mumbai’s aesthete city planners and well wishers have been grappling with for ages now. They’ve had to swim against the tide from all sides, even as the city’s skyline and facades are being converted into rampant, assembly-line streetscapes, devoid of character, charm and a unique fabric that separated us from every other Indian metro. Burgeoning urban centres like Pune, Lucknow and Bangalore are already at the receiving end of this mindless exercise. There is zero vision to retain and restore the essence, the very soul of these cities. Any reader who has been to either of these cities will vouch that each boasts of a terrific, distinct cultural identity, and yet, each are struggling miserably when it comes to the ‘mass trap’ — flashy, hideous, unimaginative designed buildings, city projects and commercial establishments, gift-wrapped with names like ‘township of the future’, ‘jewel of the city’ and the like can be spotted at every clogged traffic junction within these cities and their extended suburbs. Aesthetics have been sacrificed in the name of futuristic fanfare.
An aerial view of Parel or Worli makes for an instant eye-opener. Twin towers, matchbox-like monstrosities and gigantic glass kingdoms are all that meets the eye. The quaint chawl, the sooty chimney and the mill compound, and closer to the coastline, the Koliwada, all elements that were once unmistakable and indelible stamps to this area are fighting a losing battle to survive, let alone thrive. As a leading name behind reviving the city’s spaces had suggested, “Why can’t our malls and commercial establishments reflect the local designs and art of Maharashtra, akin to Dilli Haat? Would it not only be a terrific advertisement of our cultural treasures but also be aesthetically appealing in the larger frame of our great city?”
Taking it further, imagine giving our Koliwadas, home to original, oldest inhabitants a lease of life by converting these areas into special status zones, safe from the land mafia? Eventually, these should be preserved sites, and made must-stop plots on city tourism itineraries. This could make for tangible sources of revenue generation, with the introduction of guided tour and food festivals. The possibilities are immense.
Until these steps are taken by the powers that be we can only hope that the city and its many magnificent histories aren't lost for good amid these towering concrete infernos.
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY