Bombay High Court turns 150

Aug 17, 2012, 11:35 IST | Asha Mahadevan

As the Bombay High Court turns 150-years-old, an ongoing exhibition at the court speaks of a rich history about an iconic building, where every crevice holds a story

Anyone who has ever visited the Bombay High Court will agree that there is an air of sobriety that prevails. That is not surprising, since matters of life and death are decided there every day. It was with the same solemnity that bigwigs observed the sesquicentennial or 150th anniversary of the imposing building this week. Milind Deora, Minister of State for Communication and Information Technology, released a special postal cover to mark the occasion.

Milind Deora, postal cover on the occasion.
A moment of pride: Milind Deora (in white) released a special postal cover on the occasion. Pics/Shadab Khan

An exhibition that traces the history of this magnificent building is on at the central court on the second floor of the HC till September 16. The pieces on display include a court typewriter that dates back to 1900, a jury box (which was discontinued after the Nanavati trial in 1956) and an ornately carved round cupboard usually placed in the judge’s chambers.

Mohit Shah, Chief Justice of Bombay High Court
Two's company: Mohit Shah, Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, delivers his speech to kickstart the sesquicentennial celebrations

The letter that Bal Gangadhar Tilak wrote way back in 1916 regarding the evidence in the Nashik Conspiracy Case hangs in a beautiful frame near one that Mohammed Ali Jinnah wrote when he applied for the post of a barrister. Huge framed photographs and a miniature model of the High Court emphasize the structure’s architectural beauty. The exhibition is worth a visit for everyone who has ever hoped that justice will be served within its courtrooms.

An architect's dream: The grand arches tower over the audience 

The anniversary had several lawyers recollecting their fondest memories of the time they spent in the building. Y P Singh, advocate and author of the book Carnage Of Angels, said, “In 1976-77, I was a student at Elphinstone College. On my way to college, I would pass by the High Court. It is a grand building with a grand entry. We used to wonder why we never saw anyone walking through that entrance. It was only later that I learnt that lawyers are not allowed to do so. They have to enter the building from the rear gate.

Courtroom typewriter circa 1900.
Write right: The courtroom typewriter circa 1900. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Only judges can enter through the main gate. That’s the paradox of the building. My college is also a heritage building and whenever I entered it I felt a sense of awe. It is the same feeling I get when I enter the High Court.”

Bal Gangadhar Tilak's 96-year-old letter
A piece of history: Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s 96-year-old letter

The rear entrance rule is something even former government pleader Kamlakar Belosay wonders about, “Landmark judgements which have changed the history of society – whether it is the beautification of Juhu beach, the ban on hukka parlours or security measures for litigants at the HC – have been made here. Yet, one often wonders why the main entrance to the building is from its rear side. Is it that all litigants can enter this temple of justice only from the back door? Is it really about seeking justice or just for the sake of somebody’s convenience?”

Rare photographs of the High Court through
Picture perfect: Rare photographs of the High Court through the decades

When advocate Vinod Sampath enters the High Court, it is with a sense of deep respect for the past. “There is a plaque with the last words Bal Gangadhar Tilak spoke at his trial. (Tilak was accused of sedition. When the jury found him guilty, he said, “In spite of the verdict of the Jury, I maintain that I am innocent. There are higher powers that rule the destinies of men and nations; and I think, it may be the will of Providence that the cause I represent may be benefited more by my suffering than by my pen and tongue”.) I saw it for the first time in 1985 and have been in awe since then. It teaches you that one should be brave and do one’s duty without fear or favour.”

Curious advocates read a scroll
Attention please: Curious advocates read a scroll 

Another advocate, Ameet V Mehta, is impressed with the architecture. “When you enter a courtroom at the Bombay High Court, you actually feel like you are in a court — which is not the case with other courts. The HC is an iconic building,” he says. Taubon F Irani agrees.

A model of the Bombay High Court
Bird's view: A model of the Bombay High Court

“It’s an overwhelming experience to try at the High Court – the huge walls, high ceilings, wide corridors… it’s a class apart. Earlier, the doors and windows would be left open all the time. It would be hot but also breezy as the windows were designed in such a way as to allow cross-ventilation. Now, all the rooms are air-conditioned. It gives you relief during the summer, but I do know of one judge who prefers to switch off the AC and leave the doors open in the winter.”

An exhibition on the history and heritage of the High Court is on at the court premises till September 16. Entry is free and open to the public from 11 am to 5 pm Monday-Saturday.

Did you know?
The Bombay High Court was designed by General James A Fuller of the Royal Engineers. It stands 169 metres tall with a tower that is 53 metres high. The large arched porch at the entrance is flanked by two octagonal thirty-six metre high towers. These towers’ pinnacles are made with white Porbander stone and are crowned with the statues of Justice and Mercy. The pillared galleries are testimony to the skill of Indian stone masons – they have carved on them amusing images such as that of a fox wearing a barrister’s bands and a half-blind ape holding the scales of justice.
— Courtesy: Ten Heritage Walks of Mumbai, written by Fiona Fernandez and published by Rupa & Co.

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