'Without UNESCO rating, the Oval precinct is endangered'

Jul 30, 2013, 01:27 IST | Fatema Pittalwala

Continuing our support to get Mumbai's Victorian Gothic and Art-Deco style ensemble along with the Oval Maidan, UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the residents of the Oval precinct tell us why it is important to preserve and value the cultural heritage that they live in

The tradition of citizens pooling their resources to benefit the city is not uncommon in Mumbai. We have seen residents come together to maintain parks, start schools, renovate dilapidated buildings or protest their demolition.

It is for the first time, however, that the residents of Oval and Cooperage are coming together to get a UNESCO World Heritage Site status for their area. Concerned for the future of their beloved Oval Maidan, the residents have came together to support, not just monetarily but also emotionally, the proposal that will get the Oval precinct nominated as a World Heritage Site. Mumbai’s proposal will be submitted to Maharashtra’s Chief Minister as its nomination for UNESCO World Heritage Site status, in mid-August.

OF COURT AND JUSTICE: The Bombay High Court and the Oval Maidan. Pic/Suresh KK

Nayana Kathpalia, trustee of the Oval Trust, who was born and brought up in the precinct, says with pride, “This place is special, because it is probably the only place in the world, where across 22 acres of land, you have the Victorian-Gothic buildings on one side and on the other you have the Art Deco structures, divided by the vast Oval ground. It is a very unique space and has a very unique style to it.

HAVING A ‘GOOGLY’ TIME: Cricket-loving children are some of the maidan’s regular users. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

“It is an honour, and honestly a privilege to be living here. The only reason I want it to be a World Heritage Site is because it will finally get the prestige it deserves. Imagine living in a city which will have three UNESCO World Heritage Sites! We have the CST and Elephanta Caves, which are already UNESCO sites; and with the Oval Precinct, it will be a hat-trick for the city.”

LOOKING OVER: Residents’ association president Ashad Mehta on the terrace of his building, with a view of the maidan at the back. Pic/Pic/Atul Kamble

According to Kathpalia the Oval precinct is the only 20th-century precinct which is still in use, with the Mumbai University and High Court on one side, and the Art-Deco-style residential buildings on the other side.

RETRO STYLE: Empress Court is one of the Art-Deco-style buildings opposite the Oval maidan. Pic/Shadab Khan

She says, “During the British era, the city was developing. But it was being planned carefully. The CST and the High Court are very well-planned buildings, and they are still functioning. Removing statues and renaming streets is not right. Our city’s cultural heritage should be preserved and without the UNESCO Heritage Site tag, the Oval precinct is endangered.”

ICONIC STRUCTURE: Rajabai Clock Tower stands tall. Pic/Suresh KK

“We have nothing to gain from this, nor do we have any personal agenda,” says Phiroze Javeri, an architect, who has been living opposite Oval Maidan since his marriage in 1973. He says, “Most of us are aged and retired. We are taking time out from our profession and investing so much effort into this proposal. It is only to preserve it. In a city like Mumbai, it is a rarity to see a stretch of open space and the Oval has managed to remain intact. All the other maidans, like Azad and Cross, have been encroached upon by political parties, shacks or food stalls.”

PRIDE AND HONOUR: Oval Trust trustee Nayana Kathpalia says removing statues and renaming streets is not right. Pic/Bipin Kokate

Javeri recalls the hard time he and other Oval and Cooperage Residents Association (OCRA) members have faced from the authorities. “All the political parties have their eyes on the Oval. They have all sorts of plans. Once they said they will have a row of buildings at the Oval Maidan, at other times they want an underground car park. They call it underground, but nothing will remain underground. Now the latest is that they are talking of having a railway station at the Oval. We can’t allow such things to happen, and one of the weapons in our hands is to get it declared as high as possible on the heritage list as we can, so that they are compelled to conserve it.”

NOTHING PERSONAL: Phiroze Javeri says residents are investing their effort only to preserve the area. Pic/Atul Kamble

Having moved to the area soon after her marriage, Dr Anahita Pandole indicates from her office window the view of lush greenery surrounding the Rajabai Clock Tower which overlooks the High Court. “What part of the city has an open place like this? You will not see more beautiful buildings interspersed with the local space. It's amazing how hard all residents have tried to preserve the Art Deco features in our building; from our railings to our balconies. You can see the difference that just the residents have made; if we can collectively make a difference, then why not?”

She continues, “These Art-Deco-style buildings are scattered all across the city in Mahim, Matunga and Dadar. But they are coming down like flies. This is our one chance to preserve our heritage. We will have much more ammunition to make it into a better place. We will be able to convert the rigid, who want to tear down an Art-Deco-style building and come up with a multi-storeyed building. There will be a freeze on all that.”

When asked if the Oval would survive without the UNESCO status, she exclaimed, “Are you nuts?! Have you seen what Vasant Sagar is doing by increasing its height as compared to the other buildings on Marine Drive. Where is the open space? And this is our one time, when we can actually preserve our heritage and nobody can touch it.”

Pandole adds, “If you come here on a Saturday you will see the whole maidan filled with people. You will never know who is playing with whom. The maidan is used by thousands of people. The University, the High Court, the Rajabai Clock Tower are iconic. There is no one who has visited Mumbai and has not seen these structures. If a Vasant Sagar ever tries to arise, we (the residents) will fight it till the end.”

Phiroze Javeri’s wife, Ratty, who runs the Indian National Kennel Club from her second-floor flat opposite the Oval, says, “A few days ago I was walking my dogs around the Oval. Here I met a tourist from Delhi, who was going to be in the city for a month. He said that he had joined a gym as he didn’t know what kind of facilities Mumbai would offer. But then, when he came across Oval and walked around it, he said, ‘With this ground around, I don’t need a gym’. The Oval is unique, and you won’t find a similar place conserved, to such extent.”

Ashad Mehta, president of OCRA says, “The planning for having our precinct nominated as a UNESCO Heritage Site began over a year ago. The OCRA members have funded some of the amount, but various associations across the city have willingly contributed to our funding. The Kala Ghoda Association was very generous, as the Asiatic building and many other heritage structures are a part of that area. Over a year ago, at Saffron Art, Art-Deco-style paintings and furniture was auctioned, out of which five per cent of the proceedings were directed towards our funding. Being an official nomination from Mumbai, I have now come to learn that MMRDA is also contributing. We have had experts fly in for their suggestions and opinions, and some of our members readily hosted them. From planning to developing the dossier, hosting experts and architects, and covering the travel costs, is all managed by the donations we receive from these associations. We don’t need any extra help but unfortunately all of the residents have not come forward to donate.

“The extent of the usage of this precinct by the common man and public at large, especially in a city like ours where there is a need for open space, is remarkable. Mumbai is so congested; we have the advantages of a few heritage buildings which must be preserved."

The journey ahead
Abha Narain Lambah, the Mumbai-based heritage conservationist who has spearheaded the UNESCO proposal, says, “We met the Maharashtra CM last week and presented our dossier. He has given his blessing to our endorsement and the Oval precinct will be the official entry of Mumbai, for UNESCO status. Around August 13, we will submit our final proposal and before August 25, the Maharashtra government has to present it to the Ministry of Culture in Delhi. The Indian site for the UNESCO submission is to be shortlisted by the end of September.”

What: Campaign to support Mumbai's bid to get the Oval precinct voted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Where: The precinct is in South Mumbai and comprises Oval Maidan, flanked by buildings with Victorian Gothic architecture on one side and Art Deco structures on the other.

Why: Experts say the precinct is probably the only kind in the world boasting two contrasting styles of architecture, that span two different centuries.

When: This proposal is slated to be submitted to Maharashtra's Chief Minister in mid-August 2013.

Who: Experts from the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) are pushing the process forward, backed by the Oval Cooperage Residents Association.

How: You can support the bid by voting. Only one site can represent India.

Go online and vote at: http://www.mid-day.com/heritage_support/  

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