In the heart of Mumbai’s original commercial district, Fort, is a precinct that proudly bucks the trend – Kala Ghoda. For decades, there was no horse, but to Mumbaikars, the name remained, synonymous with the city’s premier art district.
Fairly small but steeped in history, Kala Ghoda houses museums, art galleries, libraries and cafes, and is home to a hugely popular, annual arts festival. But how did this precinct get its name? To answer that question, let’s rewind to the mid-19th century, to when the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) lorded over this strategic piece of Bombay.
Dressed in military attire with a sword hanging by his side, a sculpture of the prince astride a horse mounted on a tall pedestal was placed at the junction of D N Road, M G Road and Rampart Row. As he surveyed all that lay before him with an air of regal condescension, Prince Albert Edward, aka ‘Bertie’, dwarfed mere mortals below. It was a sight to behold! Significantly, the bronze sculpture was polished to a black sheen. Ergo, Black Horse, or Kala Ghoda.
The Kala Ghoda sculpture was a gift to the city by Sir Albert Sassoon, a scion of the Sassoon family, one of the founding families of Bombay. The Sassoons were Baghdadi Jews who made their fortune in cotton and opium and had settled in Bombay after being persecuted in their native Baghdad. It was one of their many acts of philanthropy in their adopted city, among these being the David Sassoon Library, across from the Kala Ghoda’s original location. The Sassoons were significant contributors to the development of Bombay and supported the creation of institutions like the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the Gateway of India, Bank of India, Masina Hospital and Sassoon Dock. The statue was sculpted by the noted London based sculptor Sir Joseph Boehm and cost of Rs 12,500 rupees. It was unveiled on 29th June 1879, by Sir Richard Temple, the then Governor of Bombay.
The majestic Kala Ghoda and its imperious rider was a symbol of imperial power, and together they towered over this tiny piece of real estate even as India went from being a colonial pawn to an independent nation, and Bombay from Urbs Primus in Indis to a fledgling global power.
In the 1960s, however, it was felt that having a British ruler in such a prominent location in the financial capital of the newly-independent country mocked at India’s nationalistic spirit. The Kala Ghoda had to go. And, thus, in 1965, the sculpture was summarily relocated – or relegated – to the Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan, the city’s zoo. It still stands here today, in all its splendid glory, greeting children with trailing parents excited to visit the animals in their enclosures a few paces along.
Although, physically, the Kala Ghoda was gone, it lingered in spirit and gave its name to the precinct at Fort. Over the years, ‘Kala Ghoda’ became a pin code, a name uttered by rote for a locality that housed some of the Mumbai’s iconic landmarks – Elphinstone College, Rhythm House, popular restaurants and apparel stores. For the most part, ‘Kala Ghoda’ remained an enigma.
Finally, in 2017, residents and stakeholders of the precinct decided to give the locality a new mascot. They couldn’t bring back the original Kala Ghoda, yet they needed something that would epitomise the precinct and its name. Enter ‘The Spirit of Kala Ghoda’, the sculpture of a black but riderless horse.
This was a clever compromise: The new Kala Ghoda evoked the history of the precinct but not its negative connotations. Installed in January 2017, this Black Horse is at the far end of the Kala Ghoda parking lot, a few metres from the site of the original sculpture.
The new sculpture was donated by the Kala Ghoda Association (KGA), organiser of the annual Kala Ghoda Festival. It is 25 feet tall, carved by sculptor Shreehari Bhosle and designed by architect Alfaz Miller. The KGA says it did not want to restore or replicate the original statute but focus on the future instead. Against the backdrop of the arts festival, it would also serve as a symbolic art installation.
As a precinct, Kala Ghoda has evolved drastically since it was originally established. The space today houses one of the country’s most important museums, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya; two of the country’s most significant modern and contemporary art galleries, the Jehangir Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Modern Art; one of the city’s most beautiful libraries, the David Sassoon Library; and many other galleries and cafes that have come up the recent past.
And, every year for a fortnight in February, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival erupts in a riot of colour, creativity and festive cheer. The precinct turns into a pedestrian zone, and given its ambience and mood, it is easy to forget you are in one of the most business-oriented cities in the world. This is indeed the true Spirit of Kala Ghoda. But what would ‘Bertie’ think?