The restored Malabari Memorial Hall that won a UNESCO conservation award last week, is a salute to the cause of women's empowerment that took shape in early 20th century Bombay
The hall was designed by Bombay-based KP Davar & Co Architects, and was inaugurated in 1924 by the then Governor Sir Leslie Wilson and Lady Wilson. Pics/Somaya and Kalappa Consultants
Perhaps it was serendipity that a nearly 100-year-old building, housed within a seva sadan where lesser privileged girls and women are educated and taught life skills, was restored by two of India's leading women architects. What made this connection a more cherished one was when this landmark, the Malabari Memorial Hall, won the Award of Merit at UNESCO's Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation 2020 last week.
The hall stands amidst a dense cluster of similarly designed Art Deco-style buildings, including the Gamdevi police station and Mani Bhavan. These low height structures once formed the core of a socially and culturally reformed neighbourhood linked by common principles and philosophies
A safe haven
As they set out to work on this project, Brinda Somaya and daughter, Nandini Sampat, of Somaya and Kalappa Consultants (SNK) were aware of its place in the history of women's empowerment in the city. "The multipurpose hall that formed part of the Seva Sadan Society was one of the earliest of such spaces established within the Gamdevi neighbourhood that catered to the emerging middle-class community, where women began to be recognised for their contribution towards the society," shares Somaya. The Seva Sadan Society was founded in Mumbai, on July 11, 1908, by Behramji Malabari and Diwan Dayaram Gidumal to liberate underprivileged women. The Malabari Hall building, inaugurated in 1924, together with the home and the administrative buildings, form the Seva Sadan Society campus.
Brinda Somaya and daughter Nandini Sampat
"To this day, it continues to protect, nurture and enrich women with education, skills and opportunities. Facilities ranging from computer labs to martial arts sessions ensure they can avail and hone all kinds of interests," says Somaya. Malabari was a vociferous campaigner against enforced widowhood and child marriage in India and England, and along with Gidumal, they ensured these marginalised women had all the support to feel independent in a country that was still fighting to gain its own.
Building blocks with the past
The Malabari Hall Building was constructed in Bombay during an era when colonial and vernacular architecture the city's landscape unique character. They were faced with a slew of structural and logistic-related challenges. "Being of a certain period, we had to maintain the integrity and authenticity of the structure by employing the original construction techniques, sourcing similar materials and skilled labour in order to carry out the proposed interventions," shares Sampat.
"Since it is a non-profit organisation, the conservation work to be carried out was dependent on the donations received. It was important to develop the proposal appropriately doing justice to the building and the Jones Day Foundation that had invested in this noble cause," recalls Somaya. SNK had to also ensure the project met with its timeline, since the hall earned its revenue from various activities and functions that would be stalled till the restoration works were underway, resulting in loss of income generation. But, the joy of watching a show performed on the stage of the newly restored hall in December 2019 made it well worth the challenge.
The UNESCO honour, both believe, will offer a shot in the arm for heritage conservation and awareness as the area faces increasing gentrification. "We were aware how critical it was to safeguard the Society's campus from potential real estate developers," Somaya shares, reminding us that the Society is located on the edge of the Gamdevi Heritage precinct and hence, not a listed building under the MCGM Development Plan Heritage list.
Women for women
I volunteered at Seva Sadan Society as a tutor for six months in 2014. This was part of the Social Involvement Program at St Xavier's College, which was mandatory in order to obtain a graduate degree. I taught English, science and mathematics to very enthusiastic girls from Class II to VII, twice a week. It turned out to be an enriching experience. Anybody who's been a part of this society and its aim to help the disadvantaged will agree that they experienced the best example of women supporting women.
Dalreen Ramos, mid-day journalist