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Celebrating heritage

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Stunning figure: Detail of one of the two monolithic figures sculpted by N.G. Pansare on the facade of the New India Assurance Building.
Stunning figure: Detail of one of the two monolithic figures sculpted by N.G. Pansare on the facade of the New India Assurance Building.

RANVIR SHAH

A successful exploration of the distinctly Indianised Art Deco buildings of Bombay.

Bombay Deco, Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra, Eminence Designs Pvt. Ltd., 2008, Price not stated.

Bombay Deco — by the now-famous duo of Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra — is one more collaborative offering on the architectural wonders of Bombay/ Mumbai. The pair is known for consistently bringing out books on Bombay landmarks such as the High Court, the Reclamation and the Oval as well as a book on the walks in Bombay and the Banganga tank. Dwivedi, who writes also on the arts and royalty, children’s book and fashion, has a comprehensive overview of architecture and conservation issues while Mehrotra is the star of the Bombay conservation movement, having been the principal force behind the Kala Ghoda area rejuvenation movement in Mumbai.

The arrival of this book as one more addition to a deeply felt need for books on Indian architecture is truly welcome. It starts with introducing the arrival of the Art Deco movement into Bombay from the West in the 1920s and 30s and its surreptious coiling with the Modern movement entering India, especially Bombay with the princely States, businessmen as well as expatriate Westerners who stayed and worked on building and interior design.

Cultural centre

The fact that there is a maximum concentration of Art Deco in Bombay stems from the fact that it was the city of first choice, the financial capital and had an extremely active social world to which the wealthy of those times flocked. Bungalows and apartment complexes built by Maharajas and Princes as well as newfound business magnates vied with one another to execute the Bombay Art Deco style. The opening of several movie theatres by entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry added to the glamour. Even today, refurnished and revived theatre complexes of multiuse such as the Metro, the Eros, the Liberty and the Regal are landmarks in the city and nostalgia markers in the lives of Mumbaikars of at least three generations.

The book, then, talks about the Reclamation and the series of buildings across the Oval Maidan in stylistic opposition to the gothic overtures of the University complex with its shades of Indo Saracenic styles. It also talks about the even-sized development of buildings on Marine Drive with their Art Deco features in the elevations, proportions and interiors. Lavishly illustrated with photographs to re-affirm and emphasis a visual language of Art Deco, the book then takes us on a journey to Deco buildings in the suburbs and other residential areas of South Bombay such as Altamount Road, Napean Sea Road, Malabar Hills and Bandra and Dadar.

Squeezed in between these is a chapter on the business buildings that showcased Art Deco such as the BEST building in Colaba, The New India Assurance Building with the stunning pair of Deco figures on its façade and many others. Bas Reliefs on these and others form an interesting vocabulary of Indianised deco versus the western deco forms. Farmers, weavers, potters, men working in industries and representing modern India women working in industry as well. The book concludes with the sticky question of conservation in a city where prices of real estate and access to it cause tragedy and comedy of the level of Shakespeare. From the perspective of the conservationists it’s all very well to say that ugly or insensitive changes would ruin a façade but how does that translate into a reality where a multi-generational family living in the same apartment needs to take in verandahs and make compromises on the urban aesthetic for more space.

Well-produced

Overall production standards of the book are good with vintage photographs, posters from the Deco period and some rare aerial images of Bombay. It gives a comprehensively historical and stylistic perspective of the Deco period with names, dates and place details. Missing in this excavation of Deco cartography in Bombay is the personal element of stories from people who built these magnificent edifices or from people who live in them or engage with them, that being said this is an otherwise fine piece of work on Bombay Art Deco.


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