Horniman comes full circle

Published: 28 October, 2012 07:13 IST | Anjana Vaswani |

Once the hub of social and commercial activity, Horniman Circle, which lay neglected just over a decade ago, is gradually being returned to its former glory with top-notch brands vying for commercial space in what may just turn into Mumbai's version of New York's Meatpacking District

It’s a surprisingly quiet afternoon. Horniman Circle’s roads are bare except for a carpet of flyers and the confetti-like vestiges of fireworks popped the previous night. Here and there, pedestrians pace around casually, with neither purpose nor passion. Between the imposing gate that looks freshly painted and a forgotten, dry piyau where domesticated cattle and horses once paused for their afternoon rest and refreshment, a man enjoys his slumber, head propped up on an elbow, his body framed by the arcs of an oversized metal pot chained to an old tree. A Victoria jingles across, enjoying the luxury of this unusually clear road. The rare scene lends itself to a sepia tint. This is what the area must have looked like once.

Horniman Circle was so christened to honour Benjamin Horniman, a British citizen who edited Indian newspapers and condemned the British regime with such fearlessness that he was banished from India in 1919. Pic/ Suresh KK

Slip into one of the roads sandwiched between the crescent-shaped buildings that surround the garden and one snaps back to reality, though. A human chain weaves through fancy cars, motorcycles and even a lorry lined up along one pavement, and continues to run under the arches of the historic Elphinstone building.

Dressed to the nines, the throngs aren’t here for a slice of history — just a cup of Starbucks coffee or, possibly, one of their famous Frapuccinos. Right now, they don’t really care that Horniman Circle, just metres away, was carved out of the old Bombay Green in 1869 or that these buildings around it were designed over 150 years ago, by James Scott under the governorship of Sir Bartle Frere upon whose order, in 1860, the old Fort for which the area gets its name was ultimately pulled down with a view to ventilating the city.

It’s scorching, and naturally, what they’d much rather know is exactly how much longer they’ll have to wait to sample the American coffee-company’s brews.
Though this zeal for coffee is certainly unique, the foreign brand’s selection of this particular property isn’t surprising at all. Around the globe, the story is a familiar one. After a period of neglect and disregard typically brought on by changes in transport and industry, properties with a historic quotient have been seen to witness a revival with the influx of big brands.

That’s how Manhattan’s Meatpacking district was transformed in the late 1990s. Once a commercial hub, owing to the opening of the Erie Canal and the development of 19th century American trade routes, the area shed its significance with the rise of containerised shipping and the advent of supermarkets around the ’60s. It sunk further through the ’80s to become a centre for drug-dealers and prostitution, the gorgeous brick facades, metal canopies and Belgian block-paving here therefore failing to generate any public interest until the heritage tag and antique architectural appeal captured the attention of top notch restaurants and big fashion labels. By 2004, New York magazine dubbed it the city’s most fashionable neighbourhood. And yes, if you’re wondering, the New York area is complete with a Starbucks and an Hermes boutique.

Premium realty
Conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, who worked on restoring the top floor of the Elphinstone building which now also houses Croma, says Horniman Circle’s newfound popularity really satisfies its original design in a way. Telling us about Zero Point Mumbai, a 2008 book authored by Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha, Dilawari shares that Mumbai’s “zero point,” or the area from which distances to the city are measured, was St Thomas’ Cathedral at Horniman Circle in the 1800s. He shows us a circle marked beside the lowest step of the Asiatic library, “which indicates the sea-level.” Plots here, Dilawari tells us, were sold at high premium and typically picked up by single owners, not small shops. Dilawari draws our attention to the way the crescent buildings are positioned to enforce the central access to the Town Hall, with a circular garden in the middle. The very layout, it seems, was conceptualised so it could command a premium.

Plots at Horniman Circle, Vikas Dilawari says, were sold at a high premium and were typically picked up by single owners, not small shops. The very layout, it seems, was conceptualised so as to command a premium. Pic/ Bipin Kokate

“Insurance companies and banks could afford these prices and so they were the original owners of these properties,” he tells us, as we pass one of the new entrants on the Indian financial scene — Yes Bank, India’s fourth largest private sector bank, occupies one side of the crescent. The eight year-old is just a baby really, when compared to its neighbours Dena Bank (which was set up in 1969) and the RBI, a stone’s throw away, which was set up around the 1930s. That the crescent also houses a branch of The Zoroastrian Co-operative Bank (established around the same time as the RBI) wouldn’t surprise historians who recognise that Parsis comprised half the population of the Fort area once. 

The Britisher who fought for India
We stop by a shop in the structure adjoining the Bombay Samachar building, home to Asia’s oldest newspaper (first published in 1822) founded by Parsi scholar and priest Fardoonji Murazban. Chhaganlal Keshavjee, a shop that now sells computer products has been around for almost a hundred years. Proprietors, sixty five year-old Bharat and 70 year-old Hemendra Shah tell us they were stationers first. What they cannot remember about the place’s history, their employees Rita Pathak — who has worked here since 1967 — and Saifuddin Rampurwala, who has worked with them since 1969, when he was 19, can. “They had residential quarters across the road,” the two recall, “You could see the families cooking food from here.” 

Ajit Shah of N M Mehta & Co (established in 1915) at Horniman Circle has seen the area at its peak — “when we didn’t earn much, but there was no work stress either,” — and observed its decline, when, he recalls, “Charsis (drug addicts) used to occupy the garden about ten to fifteen years ago.” pic/ anjana vaswani

Following independence, the area then known as Elphinstone Circle, a fact which is evidenced by existing plaques on buildings here, was christened to honour Benjamin Horniman, a British citizen who edited Indian newspapers and condemned the British regime with such fearlessness that he was banished from India in 1919. He returned a decade later and launched his own newspaper to continue the fight. A plaque at the centre of Horniman garden describes him as the man who gave India the freedom of the press. 

While the Indian press found its voice in this area, Indian commerce, too breathed to life here. In the late 19th century, the Bombay Stock Exchange’s business was conducted in the shade of a banyan tree near the town hall. The group moved indoors to a building near the town hall after the First World War. In the meantime, cotton trade also flourished in the grounds here. “Cotton bales used to be shipped out from the port,” Dilawari shares. “Mumbai cotton became popular because of the American Civil War in 1861 and the opening of the Suez Canal boosted trade further.” Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah adds, “In fact, this was Mumbai’s first business district. All the buildings were complete by 1873.

Old photos by Raja Deen Dayal show that the clusters and encroachments appeared over the last century, but most historic areas do go through gentrification, and eventually boutiques do pick up central properties of historic value as these lend a certain charm and grace to their presence. For Hermes, the place was therefore a natural choice.” A Starbucks press release touches upon the brand’s decision to set up here, if only briefly. “Strategically located, the store is designed to reflect Starbucks’ coffee heritage and embrace the local culture with the artefacts, Indian teakwood furniture, floor design and interiors created by local craftsmen and artists,” it says.

Change is good
To K Ramchandran, who has been organising the Keli Festival at Horniman Circle since 1999, the history of the space means little. What he does appreciate is the environment. “It’s unparalleled in this city,” he says, “The dense foliage of trees and the gorgeous buildings around make it seem like the space was created for art. Now, the presence of new shops adds to the ambiance, making the place livelier.”

Maneck Davar, honorary chairperson, Kala Ghoda Association, credits Shirin Bharucha for the exceptional maintenance of the garden and the circle area, and for transforming the space into what it’s turning into. “During the last weekends of the Kala Ghoda festival, we use the steps of the Asiatic Library (formerly Town Hall) to seat people for our shows. Artistes Shankar Mahadevan, Vishal Dadlani and Roop Kumar Rathod have performed here and thousands of people have come to see these shows.”

Davar says he’s thrilled to see top brands making an entry here. “They’ve renovated the facades of the buildings beautifully and we look forward to having more such retail spaces let out to people who are aesthetically aware and would do justice to the heritage structures.” Artist Brinda Miller, festival director of the Kala Ghoda Association agrees. “Rampart row was a dead place until Joss and Bombay Blues opened their doors there. I believe it’s good to have these stores there as it makes the area come alive. The buildings are being restored and it’s wonderful that is being done aesthetically.”

Crowds are good
At N M Mehta & Co (established in 1915), just around the corner, 64-year-old Ajit Shah appreciates the efforts of the Heritage Committee and the Kala Ghoda Association. He has seen the area at its peak — or rather, “during peaceful days when we didn’t earn much, but there was no work stress either,” — and observed its decline, when, he recalls, “Charsis (drug-users) used to occupy the garden about ten to fifteen years ago.” There was an Irani restaurant where Yes Bank now stands, and Shah remembers dining there every once in a while. But that’s not the only thing that has changed since. Proximity to the port was key to their tile and sanitary-ware business as the company imported unique products, but changes in export-import norms altered their business pattern. Now, “business is still steady, but more stressful,” Shah says. Still, he’s glad to see the area being revived again. “This was once a bustling market for tiles,” he recalls, just as glad as everyone else seems to be, that the crowds are flocking to the spot again anyway.  

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