Going under the knife

Published: Jan 04, 2012, 08:17 IST | Hemal Ashar |

It has taken six years to get the restoration of the Rajabai Clock Tower and University Building to the take off stage. Now, the iconic structure is ready for a face-lift

It has taken six years to get the restoration of the Rajabai Clock Tower and University Building to the take off stage. Now, the iconic structure is ready for a face-lift

The Rajabai Clock Tower at Fort in South Mumbai is an iconic building, the clock particularly symbolic of a city, which is always in a race against time. The frenzied crowds rushing to 'n' fro from Churchgate and CST stations and executives zipping around in their cars have little time to stand and stare at the magnificent architecture of the Mumbai University building. Yet, if ever they eke out that time to do so, they would surely be awestruck by this building that can transport you to another era. Its stone fa ade gives it character and speaks of strength, its crevices whisper secrets of the past and its balustrades and projections talk of a time when life moved more leisurely.

Now, when living in the city seems to be perpetually on fast forward mode, the time is ticking and restoration and work on the Clock Tower and University library needs to start as soon as possible. On Monday afternoon, the Governor's residence, Raj Bhavan at Walkeshwar played host to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and the Mumbai University for restoration and repair work of the Clock Tower and University building. The TCS is to fund the project to the tune of Rs 4.20 crore. The Governor, K Sankarnarayanan, also the Chancellor of the Mumbai University beamed on for the stock press photo as the MoU was signed. He did though, ask, the architect, Brinda Somaya, Managing Director and Principal Architect, Somaya & Kalappa Consultants several questions about how true the renovation would be to the character of the building, since it is a Grade I Heritage Structure.

Said a TCS representative, "We had earmarked Rs 2.6 crore, six years ago for the project. Today, as we are on the cusp of starting, the cost has escalated to Rs 4.2 crore."

Anita Garware of the Indian Heritage Society, a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) committed to keeping the heritage of the city alive, is also co-ordinating the project. She said it was, a "great gift" to the city.

Somaya said that the 133-year-old Clock Tower building is built in the Victorian Gothic style. It was actually part of, "Mumbai's Esplanade and formed the porch to the Mumbai University. It is a difficult building to maintain simply because of the stone and tiles used, yet, because it is a very, very historical structure, we are proud to be part of it."

While there was an air of general cheer about the project, the Governor did sound a note of caution, with some questions about what "changes" would be made during the restoration. Somaya used the term, "reverential restoration" to explain how the building would be restored. Though the alliteration -- reverential restoration had a dignified ring to it, making one bow one's head in respect, this writer was forced to look up and ask what that meant. Decoded, it means that the architect would see that restoration would be as close to the original as possible. "Only in some cases, where the original is unavailable like Minton tiles, would we have to replace the tiles with something as close to the original as possible," said Somaya. Somaya added that structural cracks have also appeared which need to be addressed and facets like electrical services also have to be looked at.

"External landscaping is also on the anvil. Overall, we need to make this a functional building. A building has to be used, to live." The Governor said he was asking questions so that, "there is no criticism, our people are very fond of criticism," he said to muted laughter and then added, "that is why I am so particular."

The Governor addressed the University vice-chancellor Dr Rajan Welukar saying, "We need clarity about the project. There has to be clarity in our own minds and in this committee. Given the iconic building that it is, everybody is interested.  In Paris, one needs permission from Parliament to change even one stone."
Permissions for the work on the Rajabai Clock Tower is still to be got but the people behind the project said they would approach the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) for the same. The TCS Company said that they did not want the project delayed as there would be further escalation of costs, so a timeframe has to be borne in mind.

Post the signing of the MoU at the Raj Bhavan, Somaya said, "the timeframe would be roughly 18 months for a project of this nature. We have already conducted a detailed study and conditional mapping of this 280-ft high tower, which formed the entrance to the University. One can imagine horse carriages clip-clopping at the front in the days gone by."

Today, it is not horse carriages but horsepower from cars that the building has to contend with. Said Somaya, "We need to do extensive cleaning and repair of the stone work, the gargoyles need to be looked at and there is some structural damage too, so RCC work too, has." Somaya stressed that work must go on in a sequential manner with biological growth like moss needed to be addressed; doors and windows too need repairing.

Anita Garware claimed it was "unfortunate" that, "it has taken six years for the project to finally come to take off stage but I am not blaming anybody, there were some bureaucratic problems. We cannot afford any more delays, as yet another delay would mean yet another monsoon." Garware when asked whether it was sad that most Mumbaikars may not have seen the inside of this stunning building, given that it is inaccessible, said, "There are security issues now. I am a Mumbai University alumnus and I remember being able to climb right up to the Rajabai Clock Tower in those days. Then, a few students committed suicide from there and the University shut off that part."

Steeped in folklore and an aesthetic asset to a skyline full of cement and steel skyscrapers, quick permissions would ensure that the Rajabai Clock Tower and University building goes under the knife as soon as possible, so that the body 'n' soul of the building is preserved for generations to come.

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