Uncertainty over Mumbai Sanskriti festival being held on Asiatic Society staircase

Updated: Dec 21, 2017, 13:09 IST | Hemal Ashar

Delay in restoration work at iconic site set to derail the prestigious Mumbai Sanskriti festival in January 2018

The resplendent sweep of the Asiatic Society staircase at Horniman Circle is breathtaking. Today though, music aficionados are holding their breath. Melody seems to be hanging mid-air for the city's prestigious annual Mumbai Sanskriti concert. The Asiatic staircase, which seats the audience, has been under renovation for a few months now, and, there is a cloud of uncertainty over whether the repairs will be completed by January 12, in time for the two-day festival on January 13 and 14.

Now: Debris and construction material piled up on the steps for the ongoing work
Now: Debris and construction material piled up on the steps for the ongoing work

The concert is free with the stage for the artistes set at Horniman Circle garden and the audience sitting on the grand Asiatic Society staircase, which has a capacity to accommodate a 1,000-odd people. It is a spectacular site, especially in January, when there is a slight nip in the air. The frenetic traffic is closed to the area on that weekend, and the biggest names in classical music set hearts afire with their soul-stirring renditions.

jeopardy

The waiting game
Anita Garware, chairperson of the Indian Heritage Society, under whose auspices the Mumbai Sanskriti takes place and is supported by the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC), is in a quandary on whether to put passes announcing the concert and the artistes (Kaushiki Chakraborty [vocal] and Pt. Satish Vyas [santoor]) at three city venues — Maharashtra Watch Co. (Dadar) Chetana Book Centre, and Satyam Collections (Churchgate). People need to have these free passes to be able to enter. "I don't know if the staircase will be ready in time. The free passes have been made, but I am awaiting a definite green light from the Public Works Department (PWD), which is in charge of the work," she said.

Ongoing work on the staircase. Pics/Bipin Kokate
Ongoing work on the staircase. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Vyas said, "I am looking forward to performing. The stair seating is fantastic, I am told. I like the synergy between heritage and classical music. It is such an awesome feeling to be invited to play there — the venue is exotic and the feeling of playing in open air in this weather is exhilarating."

Then: Asiatic Society stairs earlier this year, before they were demolished for renovation
Then: Asiatic Society stairs earlier this year, before they were demolished for renovation

Elastic deadlines
Garware added, obviously irked at the uncertainty, "I don't think one needed to demolish the entire staircase and re-do it. Repairs could have been done on the steps or blocks that were broken. The side railings were precarious and they needed attention, but I can't fathom why the entire staircase had to be done. This, in the end, is at taxpayer's expense. "I don't have any written communication about when the steps are going to be complete, whether in time for the event, or stretch, like so many of our government projects with their elastic deadlines do, into 2019." "This is a free concert and music students traditionally form a large part of the audience. After all, it is the younger demographic who can sit on the staircase at concerts; 70 year-olds will be unable to do that. It will be a shame if Mumbai Sanskriti will have to be cancelled or indefinitely delayed," she rued.

The Mumbai Sanskriti concert pass
The Mumbai Sanskriti concert pass

Laborious work
Well-known conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who is working on the project, refused to give a definite deadline. "Work is ongoing. We have used new stone on the top flights of the staircase. On the middle and lower, every effort is being made to retain the original stone. We are chiseling out the broken pieces, and repairing and restoring them; it is hand-cut and a laborious process. About 20 per cent is new stone, the rest original," she said. Lambah estimated that the work could be over "in a month or two from now". The conservationist stressed that the entire staircase needed work. "The staircase of a 100-year-old building will show wear and tear, especially the stair nosings, which need a lot of repair work." (Nosings are the protruding part of steps that see the heaviest footstep traffic.)

Anita Garware (left) and  Abha Narain Lambah
Anita Garware (left) and Abha Narain Lambah

Finish line
A PWD official said, "We are trying our best to finish the work... looking at completing it by December-end or beginning of January. We are getting the stone from Rajasthan. We do want to finish in time for the festival." Joint Managing Director of MTDC Aashutosh Rathod is confident that the work will be completed in time. "The festival will be held in front of the prominent landmark, the Town Hall of the Asiatic Library (Society) as scheduled. The MTDC has spoken to PWD officials and been assured that the work will be completed soon. It will not affect the spirit of the festival," he said. Yet, with the conservation architect and PWD hitting slightly different notes, and the Indian Heritage Society waiting for things to fall in place, the musical notes seem off key.

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