It has become crucial that all stakeholders take onus to protect the city's many UNESCO-award-winning sites and landmarks to ensure that the painstaking conservation efforts count in the long run
"It really tells the story of how as a city we have become aware about restoration and conservation," noted architect Brinda Somaya reminded us in the middle of accepting our congratulations to the news that the project helmed by her firm, Somaya and Kalappa Consultants, had received an Honourable Mention for the Rajabai Clock Tower and University of Mumbai Library Buildings at last week's UNESCO Asia Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation.
The 'it' she was referring to is the recognition that is finally paying off for the relentless effort put in by Mumbai's heritage movement that included the World Heritage Tag conferred upon the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble in July this year. Last year, too, the city fared well at these awards, with four wins – Christ Church (Award of Merit), Wellington Fountain (Honourable Mention), Bomanjee Wadia Clock Tower (Honourable Mention) and the Royal Opera House (Award of Merit). Back in 2015, the JN Petit Institute had won the Award of Distinction. It made us smile as we checked this healthy list of honours for our commitment to heritage.
The second city landmark that won at these recent awards is the Ruttonsee Muljee Jetha Fountain in Fort (also in the Honourable Mention) category. Its conservation architect, Vikas Dilawari, remarked, "This award will go a long way in gentrifying the neighbourhood, especially since it was notorious for vandals and squatters who created a nuisance in and around the site." We recall how days before the 124-year-old fountain's official reopening last year in June, it had been plagued by cases of vandalism. The KGA (Kala Ghoda Association), which played a key role in its restoration efforts, had to rope in the Zonal DCP to introduce 24x7 patrolling in the area to keep the site safe and free of damage.
"It's a collective effort, and a victory that should be savoured by the entire community; everyone – from heritage experts to the government, fund raisers and well wishers – all take credit for these wins," Somaya said. It raised a key area of discussion as we sat down to make our notes for this column. Interestingly, the city had a third feather in its cap by virtue of Bombaywallah Dr Monisha Ahmed's LAMO Centre in Ladakh winning in the Award of Distinction category. The Juhu resident is one of the founders and its current executive director.
These notable victories for our heritage community that is under constant threat from all quarters in the name of development and progress, means even more evangelisation, engagement and vigilance to make the hard work and effort matter. The 'collective effort' that Somaya was referring to should thus include all stakeholders involved.
Each time we'd speak with the likes of Dilawari and Abha Narain Lambah post completion of their conservation projects, they would echo the same point. As we had witnessed firsthand with the Jetha Fountain, and even with earlier projects, the onus should also be on the institution/caretakers/residents to sensitively maintain the space long after it has been handed over by the conservation authorities.
We've seen in the past cases of mindless development (without expert guidance) causing irreparable damage to some of our heritage structures [read: the hideous brown-tinted polycarbonated funnels of the subway supposed to compliment CSMT's Gothic arches (1999) and the ongoing Metro work lining Dr DN Roard and its surroundings]. There are enough of horrendous footnotes that stick out like sore thumbs, particularly in the old city.
However, it's not all gloom and disaster, and we have several shining examples of enlightened thinking in the right direction. During our interaction with some of the leading members (all citizens) who had charted the winning dossier for the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco ensemble, it was refreshing to note the forward-thinking ideas that were thrown up to ensure justice was done to the WHS tag – from better lighting of the area to maintenance guidelines within their Art Deco apartments.
We would love to see the same intent and responsible mentality set in among other guardians of winning heritage sites and structures, be it the state government, privately funded institutions or local bodies. After all, an award is just an accolade on paper. The real challenge lies with these custodians to safeguard them, and thus remind the public of why these gems are important chapters of a city's glorious past.
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 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org