Whose heritage is it?
With builders getting increasingly emboldened to hail their new sites and designs as urban heritage, brace yourself for further redefinitions of the city
We rubbed our eyes in disbelief when we chanced upon it the first time, brushing it off as a mistaken observation from our end, especially since our kaali-peeli sped past it rather quickly on the Eastern Express Highway. The second time, we were a tad more vigilant, and caught the words boldly printed on the mega hoarding — 'Mumbai's Urban Heritage'. It was by one of the city's most prominent builders, promoting their upcoming properties in Powai.
The first thing that we did was to jog our memory to the umpteen instances where we've come across the words 'urban heritage' in various dossiers, books and presentations about the city's heritage movement, either in context with restoration or in focus for their historicity. In fact, Mumbai (then, Bombay) was the first city in India to put urban heritage regulations into place in 1995. Prior to this, there was no protection of built heritage like its landmarks and historic sites, including its Art Deco buildings, Victorian Gothic precincts in and around Fort, the temples of Banganga and Mahalaxmi, as well as villages of Bandra and Khotachiwadi, among other important buildings. With this protection, such urban heritage sites were classified into Grades I, II and III as per their significance and vintage. Soon, other cities like Delhi and Kolkata followed these principles. That was also our introduction to the term.
Despite being the pioneers of such thought and vision, it's been a long, arduous journey for the pallbearers of the heritage movement in the city in their quest to safeguard these sites. From development projects in the name of improving the city's infrastructure to redevelopment and extreme pressure from the builder lobby eyeing prime real estate, urban heritage continues to face all kinds of threats.
And, things seem to be changing rapidly in today's times with the redefinitions of the term. For today, if you Google the words 'urban heritage' and 'Mumbai', this particular upcoming property is the topmost entry that pops up on your screen. Wow.
So, this is what it has come to. Urban heritage is clearly undergoing a different kind of a makeover, armed with a new age architectural glossary. To hell with what the book of regulations says and the fact that words like these can be misused and tweaked as per convenience. It's bad enough that the geography of this city has been altered to never-imagined terms, where 'Upper' and 'Lower' continue to be added to locations at the whims of these new gods of the city.
Clearly something doesn't sound right with such emboldened declarations. If this is increasingly perceived as the city's urban heritage, isn't it being casual of those precious sites and landmarks that were identified and declared as part of the city's rich urban heritage in the first place?
There will be more such proclamations, we suspect, that will slowly but surely build on this idea. Our thoughts go out to the current generation of millennials and Gen Zs or even younger folk. Will they even be aware of the difference between the two, and where the real Bombay lies? Our guess is as good as yours.
mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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