For most of today’s generation, it might be extremely difficult to visualise that Mumbai in the 1800s actually boasted of a vast undivided space called the Esplanade in the heart of the city. It stretched from Cooperage to the Cross and Azad Maidans, if one were to define its size by today’s landmarks. When the city’s Fort walls were intact, before the then Governor Bartle Frere’s (1862-67) ordered to bring it down, this area offered a clear, uninterrupted view for the garrison to keep watch on possible attacks by enemies from the Arabian Sea.
When Governor Frere realised that the Fort was a pointless construction, he drew up a master plan to decongest the area and create a structured, colonial city, at par with its European counterparts. Wider roads were constructed, thoroughfares were built and the city bid adieu to its Fort. The need to build public buildings was floated and, according to Rekha Ranade’s book, Sir Bartle Frere and his Times, plots in the area were put up for sale by public auction that ranged from Rs 70 to Rs 105 per square yard!
Soon, construction began along the Esplanade and the fine assembly of Victorian Gothic structures started to emerge, particularly facing the part of Esplanade that constitutes today’s Oval Maidan. The Esplanade was divided into Cooperage, Oval, Azad and Cross Maidans. Yet, it remained a favourite spot where citizens spent leisurely hours enjoying the sea breeze, riding on horseback and savouring ganne ka ras (sugarcane juice) over a game of taash.
Over 150 years later, this area is back in the spotlight, as it takes centrestage for a different reason. The Victorian Gothic ensemble along with the facing Art Deco buildings represents a stunning co-existence of two distinct architectural styles that influenced the city with the Oval Maidan reminiscent of the city’s one-time love affair with open spaces. As the area readies to represent Mumbai to be the city’s official nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status in a few weeks’ time, one can only hope that it wins India’s vote to represent the country at the world stage. One must add here that it’s heartening and sad too, to note that this initiative to push for the nomination has been adopted and encouraged solely by Mumbai’s citizens with private funding and awareness drives. Making it to this prestigious list will be the ultimate safety net for the area and great news for Mumbai’s urban heritage, its residents and the small, proactive, resilient community that’s been supporting it since day one.
It’s unsettling to spot increasing crowds cramped into the few open spaces – at Girgaum and Juhu, or Gorai, Manori and Madh Island; its maidans, promenades and public gardens. Mumbaikars are constantly jostling for elbowroom, and it seems to be getting worse by the day. Who knows -- in a few decades, snapshots of these areas might be confined to frames in vintage sections of galleries? As citizens of this great city, it’s a daily fight, as has come to be the norm to keep this beloved city sane and livable. The powers that be have far more pressing concerns, clearly.
To vote: log on to www.mid-day.com/heritage_support/
— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY