A world heritage landmark today, the story of the famed Art Deco buildings that line some of Mumbai's most iconic areas, such as Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan, is a fascinating one of assertion and rebellion against everything British.
Inspired by an architectural wave that started in Paris in the 1920s, the Art Deco buildings linked Bombay, the aspiring business capital of a new India, to the center of global business, the United States.
It is fitting then, that Mumbai should have the largest number of buildings in the Art Deco style, after Miami’s world-famous heritage district.
As you curl around Marine Drive, hugging the sea face until it breaks for the tree-lined tony streets of Malabar Hill, you have an elegant assortment of 35 buildings enjoying an unhindered view of the Arabian sea waters, among the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world. This is Mumbai’s Art Deco precinct, the Crown Jewel strewn along the Queen’s Necklace.
Art Deco was a marked departure from the predominantly Gothic and neo-Gothic styles (as seen in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) characteristic of the British colonial architectural legacy. It symbolised the arrival of modernity, progressive thinking and the rapid technological and social changes taking place in the early 20th century.
The Art Deco style spread to the rest of the world through the ‘30s and ’40s. It was just prior to the outbreak of World War II when Mumbai saw a large number of European artists and art aficionados fleeing the tense political climate in Europe, for places that would accommodate both them and their liberal views. They had an influence on the city’s art scene as well as the birth of Art Deco.
The Art Deco style was invented in 1920s Paris and spread to the rest of the world through the ’30s and ’40s
Artists such as Walter Langhammer and Ernst Messerschmidt arrived in the 1930s, and stayed on to patronise Indian artists and introduce them to modern European trends. Messerschmidt’s work lives on today in the Ballroom, The Rendezvous and the iconic Harbour Bar of the Taj Mahal Hotel.
It also helped signal Mumbai’s transition from colonial trade town to a hub of high taste, buoyed by the Western influences of the well-heeled and well-travelled Indian businessmen. It was the age of jazz and Deco was the Dizzy Gillespie of its architectural equivalent.
Indian architects put their own spin on the Art Deco style, giving rise to ‘Bombay Deco’
Indian architects like Sohrabji Bhedwar, G. B. Mhatre, Merwanji Bana & Co., Shapoorji Pallonji & Co., were greatly influenced by the futuristic Deco geometric patterns and sought to put their own spin on it, at the behest of their Parsi contractors, giving rise to the ‘Bombay Deco’ style.
Residential apartments, cinema halls and hotels all started being Deco-ed up in a wide variety of pastels, with curved balconies, ‘eyebrow’ ledges, zigzag facades, ziggurats (raised towers) and even nautical elements such as porthole windows, a nod to the great port city itself.
Mumbai’s Art Deco precinct is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The residential apartments were designed by prominent Indian names such as G. B. Mhatre. Imposing landmarks such as the New India Assurance building were designed by Master, Sathe and Bhuta.
Mumbai’s lifelong tryst with the movies continued in the Art Deco tradition with cinema halls such as the Regal, built in 1934 as the ‘best cinema east of the Suez,’ the Metro, built by Hollywood studio MGM in 1938 to screen its own movies, and the Eros, built in 1938, inspired by the owner’s cinema experiences in London.
Some of Mumbai’s earliest landmark Art Deco buildings were movie theatres
Indian cinema got its own dedicated Art Deco movie theatre, with the opening of the ‘Liberty’ in 1947, marking the year of the country’s independence.
The Marine Drive promenade was also the centre of early filmdom, with then Bollywood stars such as Nargis and Suraiya hosting many an evening in their Art Deco abodes, adding an extra dose of glamour to the history of these structures.
Possibly the quirkiest of all of Mumbai’s Art Deco structures is the Taraporewala Aquarium constructed in 1951, with a cinema-style facade decorated and adorned with jellyfish, sea horses and cetaceans, portraying the city’s love affair with the movies and the sea.
Halfway through the famed promenade, are three identical buildings-Keval Mahal,Kapur Mahal, and Zaver Mahal-built by movie mogul Kapur Chand Mehta. Of these, Keval Mahal has probably the most interesting history, in that it served as The British Military Intelligence’s secret service war office during World War II, to counter the Japanese entry into the North East of India.
After the War, just as the Bollywood yesteryear stars faded into obscurity, so did the glamour from the world of architecture. Function replaced form. The striking streamlined visages of Art Deco cinema palaces and residences blended into the background, as a new modern urban landscape evolved.
There are more than 125 existing Art Deco buildings in Mumbai
All is not lost though. Conservation experts have now set about meticulously recording the presence of Art Deco buildings across the city, in a bid to preserve what remains of the legacy.
So far, 125 structures around the southern tip of Mumbai have been identified, with more possible finds in areas such as Chembur, Matunga and Dadar.
Finally, after much effort by the citizens and the Indian government, the Art Deco precinct was finally accorded UNESCO World Heritage Status, a watershed moment in the fight for conservation of our heritage.
It was about time, too. Move over, South Beach, South Mumbai is where it’s at!
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