Bombay rediscovers its Art Deco heritage

Ⓒ AFP – PUNIT PARANJPE – | Vehicles passing near an Art Deco building, on the seaside of Bombay, November 8, 2017

Along the waterfront line are pastel-colored buildings, rounded corners, wrought-iron balconies and exotic ornamentation. You are not in Miami’s famous Art Deco district, but in Mumbai.

When we think of the Indian economic capital, we first think of its Gothic buildings bequeathed by Victorian Great Britain. Yet its heritage is also home to hundreds of Art Deco monuments, the architectural trend that made a splash in the United States and Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ⓒ AFP – PUNIT PARANJPE – | An Art Deco Building in Mumbai, November 8, 2018

Passionate people gathered in the Art Deco Mumbai project now want to enhance this heritage. They have embarked on a census of these buildings in order to sensitize the population to this wealth and ensure its preservation.

“Bombay has one of the largest collections of Art Deco buildings in the world, an incredible legacy,” said Atul Kumar, the group’s founder.

On the promenade of Marine Drive, palm trees sway gently. At a street corner is the Soona Mahal, yellow building decorated with orange lines and surmounted by a turret.

Ⓒ AFP – PUNIT PARANJPE – | A view of the Mumbai seaside, November 8, 2017

“It’s an iconic building that looks like a ship making its way through the waves,” proudly describes 70-year-old Mehernosh Sidhwa. This place was built by his grandfather and his family has lived there for three generations.

A little further, around the large park Oval Maidan, five-storey buildings bear this so recognizable paw Art Deco: pediments, spiral stairs, marble floors … A few minutes walk again and we arrive at the famous cinemas Eros and Treat.

– Political message –

These districts form the heart of the Bombay Art Deco, which its defenders dream of seeing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“There is an interesting fusion of classical European Art Deco and its Bombay version,” enthuses Atul Kumar. “You have ziggurats (Mesopotamian religious building with terraces, ed), rounded balconies in the shape of a locomotive, tropical images, movement, vanishing lines and Egyptian motifs as well as Indian motifs.”

Ⓒ AFP – PUNIT PARANJPE – | Passersby walk in front of an Art Deco building in Mumbai, November 8, 2018

These buildings were built between the early 1930s and early 1950s, the twilight of the British colonial period, by wealthy Indians. They sent their architects to Europe to study the Art Deco style and come back with modern ideas to differentiate themselves from the canons of colonial buildings.

If they suffer from the shadows of the imposing British buildings, such as the big train station, the High Court and the main museum of the city, the Art Deco buildings in Bombay have “a colorful, vibrant, free, sophisticated style that reflected aspirations of a new class, “says Kumar.

To erect them at a time when “India was ruled by an oppressive colonial regime” was “a unique way of sending a message through architecture,” he says.

The Art Deco Mumbai volunteers have already identified 136 buildings and estimate that the city has a total of between 200 and 300. They publish this inventory on their website and distribute the photos on Twitter and Instagram.

Yet, real estate speculation in the megacity, which has the most expensive rents in India, threatens this heritage.

Over the years, Art Deco buildings have been destroyed or altered. Real estate developers are able to offer tempting amounts to replace them with luxurious high-rise apartments.

“Our ultimate goal is to keep this beautiful collection, the more we talk to people, the more fiercely proud they are and this is manifested in a desire to preserve it,” enthuses Atul Kumar.


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