The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai that received the house from Bhabha’s family as a gift, recently auctioned it for a record sum of Rs.372 crore.
Cities often act too late and offer too little to protect heritage structures. As a result, they either lose important landmarks that signify their history or get entangled in bitter legal fights over conservation efforts. The most recent of such examples is “Mehrangir”, the house of Homi J. Bhabha, the renowned scientist hailed as the “modern equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci” by C.V. Raman, the Nobel laureate. The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, a premier cultural organisation that received the house from Bhabha’s family as a gift, recently auctioned it for a record sum of Rs.372 crore. Many heritage enthusiasts and science historians, seeing this as an imminent sign of demolition, have pressed the State and the Central governments to acquire and declare the house as a heritage structure. Built in the early 20th century, this large mansion in the Malabar Hill area of Mumbai may not be an architectural wonder, but it is an important landmark associated with the founding architect of the country’s atomic energy programme. The admirers have understandably argued that the state convert this mansion into a fitting memorial for him. The NCPA has defended its action stating that the money got from selling the house would be used to support art and cultural activities. What should come under scrutiny are not only the merits of the demand for a memorial, but also the disappointingly delayed realisation of the importance of the building.
Mumbai is a pioneer in urban conservation. It is the first city in the country to implement heritage conservation rules in 1995. The city has also put in place an innovative scheme to support and compensate owners of heritage structures. More than 900 buildings of significance have so far been legally declared as heritage structures. These old buildings, which are still in use, cannot be demolished nor can they be changed without prior permission of the State-appointed Heritage Conservation Committee. Unfortunately, “Mehrangir,” whose importance and history are well known, does not figure in the list of heritage buildings. In 2011, when the NCPA, through an auction house, sold many objects collected by Homi Bhabha’s family — and housed in the mansion — there was no substantial protest. Had the city recognised the value of the building in time and pressed for its preservation earlier, such an unfortunate situation would not have arisen. The future of this potential heritage site now depends on the outcome of the ongoing public interest litigation. Cities must learn their lessons from this avoidable impasse. They should proactively and urgently survey their cityscape, identify heritage buildings and take effective measures to conserve them.