Why Esplanade Mansion must be saved
We are answerable to future generations, who will never forgive us for letting go of a glorious landmark that defines this city
Blue corrugated metal sheets are a familiar sight in Mumbai and we all know what they mean — that the structure behind them — an elegant bungalow, an old building — will be demolished soon. In its place, will come a smart new multi-storeyed tower, all chrome and glass and a massive lobby, all spelling luxury and comfort. It is not just the old building that gets demolished, but also generations of family stories and memories. But, in a fast moving city, who cares about them?
The blue sheets that have blocked the view of the glorious walkway of Esplanade Mansion will not just wipe out personal memories -- behind them lies a building embedded into the consciousness and history of this great city, as much for its longevity and architecture as for the importance in Mumbai's own growth. Passers-by may see it as yet another decrepit structure, and those who have been inside have seen the shambles it is in, but the significance of Esplanade Mansion cannot be underestimated.
Some of it is well known and celebrated in legend and lore. It is here that the first ever moving pictures made by the Lumiere Brothers were screened in India in 1896 for a European only audience — it is fitting therefore that Bombay became the home of the film industry. It is also said that Jamshetji Tata was denied entry into a restaurant here because Indians were not allowed and he went on to build the Taj Mahal Hotel, so much a part of the city's physical and social landscape. Notable guests have included Mark Twain, the explorer Richard Burton and perhaps Joseph Conrad and Mohammed Ali Jinnah reportedly played pool here.
It is an architectural wonder, a cast iron structure that is a fine example of Victorian Era sturdiness—isn't it an irony that structures, including buildings and bridges made a century and more ago are still in service while some built barely three or four decades ago are being brought down as unsafe? That itself should be a matter of shame to our city's planners and decision makers.
But, while the building has withstood the ravages of time, nature and neglect, it is now in this condition thanks to a particularly Mumbai cocktail—greed, corruption and archaic laws. The once-graceful interiors have now rotted and the rooms have been carved up into tiny warrens of offices and flats. All kinds of illegal extensions have been made to maximise profits. Instead of nipping it in the bud, authorities chose not to bother about them—which is where corruption comes in. And, the Rent Control Act which discourages owners from doing any maintenance because of poor rentals, has ensured that there has not been even basic upkeep.
The building's present state naturally triggered off the collapse of balconies and the like and as always, it takes a crisis to focus minds in our system. The renovation of the Army restaurant caught the BMC's eye and when the owner asked why he was being singled out, the others, too, were shut down and Esplanade's fate — and that of its tenants and residents — was sealed.
The heritage experts and many architects are appalled at this decision; and the rest of the city should be, too. mid-day — and other publications — have done a lot to focus attention on the building and the need to somehow save it. Some are saying it is still not impossible to rehabilitate it—surely we have technology today that was not available 150 years ago and can be put to use to rescue and restore this important building.
In any other city, the planners, politicians and citizens would have joined hands and made sure it was saved. It has a place in world history and as an article in mid-day has pointed out, if it goes, UNESCO could re-evaluate the prestigious heritage tag the organisation has given to the entire precinct of Victorian and Art Deco buildings. This government will go down in history as one that lost Mumbai's global status.
Heritage is not an intangible concept — it consists of real buildings and monuments, but it also is about much more, history, culture, architecture and tradition. It is part of the city's, the country's and the world's common patrimony. We suffer when the Notre Dame burns; we love to admire the Mona Lisa or Machu Picchu, we are all awed by the Great Wall of China, just like foreigners come here to see the Taj Mahal. Esplanade Mansion is much younger, but no less part of the global heritage.
Future generations will not forgive us if we fail to prevent the death of this magnificent building—nobody now or later wants an ugly tower in the middle of Kala Ghoda. Only the builders will rejoice, the rest of us will mourn. We as a city have to save Esplanade Mansion—and every citizen must raise their voice to make sure this happens.
The writer is a senior journalist
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