The city’s Art Deco buildings, said to be the world’s second largest collection, along with its Victorian Gothic structures, have been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Aruna Rathod takes a tour
I didn’t know they were Art Deco buildings. Neither was I aware of Gothic architecture. But there was something about Mumbai’s posh Oval Maidan and Marine Drive areas that would bring a smile to my lips even as a child. My first memory of this area is of a ride in a family friend’s Ambassador car – windows rolled down, wind ruffling my hair, the blue expanse of the Arabian Sea on one side and on the other, fairytale-like structures from a bygone era whizzing past.
Today, decades later, I am retracing that route, this time noticing and understanding the relevance of every spiral and mural. The streets here are lined with buildings characterised by Gothic (a European architectural style popular from the 12th to the 16th century) and more prominently, Art Deco styles. The influence of the latter, a distinctive art movement of the 1920s and 1930s, is evident in the symmetrical geometric patterns, ship-like buildings with turrets and facades with impressions of sun rays, Egyptian-inspired figurines and other motifs.
This stretch of south Mumbai has a nostalgic ambience, as majestic sand-coloured buildings with intricate designs take us back in times. I start from the imposing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (earlier known as Victoria Terminus) and drive towards the University of Mumbai, the British-era neo-Gothic architecture of both the buildings dramatically etched against the clouded sky. The style changes as I approach the residential buildings near the Oval Maidan. Colourful with expansive balconies, the influence of Art Deco cubism is strongly evident here. One green building, called the Empress Court, stops me in my tracks. Facing the Rajabai Clock Tower on the western side of the Oval Maidan, this residential building is a part of Mumbai’s historic Fort precinct. The scalloped arch above its entrance, the curved balconies and the iron grill gate make it one of the best examples of the Art Deco style.
I notice a few tourists clicking pictures. The UNESCO World Heritage tag that this neighbourhood has earned recently has boosted its popularity. The buildings around the Oval Maidan and Marine Drive have been recognised by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. On June 30, 2018, the committee met in Manama, Bahrain, and inscribed four cultural sites on the World Heritage Site list. One of them was the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai.While only the south Mumbai buildings have been recognised, the Art Deco style cuts across neighbourhoods in the city. Right from Colaba to Marine Drive, Mohammed Ali Road, Matunga, Dadar, Shivaji Park and Bandra, extending all the way to Juhu.
A few of the most prominent architects known for following the Art Deco style in Mumbai include PC Dastur, Merwanji Bana, Sathe and Bhuta, GB Mhatre and the British firm Gregson, Batley & King. Atul Kumar, founder of Art Deco Mumbai Trust, explains, “In Mumbai, there are Development Control Regulations and Development Plan and Heritage Rules that control urban development. Some of the areas are designated as Heritage Precincts. The protection ensures that the harmony of the skyline is maintained and it remains cohesive and homogeneous. It is reviewed regularly by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee. After the UNESCO recognition, the covenants governing the ensemble have to be followed even more strictly.” He adds, “We hope the UNESCO recognition will attract more tourists, as the city can now claim to house the second largest collection, after Miami, the US, of such buildings in the world.”
As for me, I walk over to the Oval Maidan to enjoy a game of cricket. I take another look at the iconic clock tower across. Maybe this year Art Deco will inspire Ganesh Chaturthi pandals (decorated marquees for hosting idols of Lord Ganesha during the popular festival) too!
The author is a senior journalist and the views expressed in this article are her own