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Mumbai news: as India's second city becomes a global financial centre, conservationists are finding powerful new allies in the battle to protect its rich architectural heritage, writes Louise Nicholson.

Although Mumbai is India's financial capital and the hub of the Bollywood film industry, its world-class Victorian and Art Deco heritage has been woefully neglected. The problem is that the former Bombay, whose boom took off in the 1860s, is simply too new by the standards of a country that groans under its staggering wealth of historic buildings.

The British may have 'rediscovered' India's heritage and opened up what Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society in 1784, called 'a whole new world'. But it was only when the British government itself approved the wanton destruction of Delhi's Red Fort in 1858 that the more enlightened understood their responsibility to conserve as well as rediscover. Lord Curzon, Viceroy from 1899, appointed the 26-year-old Sir John Marshall as first director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Today, around 9,000 monuments in India are protected by the ASI and by state archaeological departments. Not one is in central Mumbai.

Two very different groups are tackling this problem: international companies attracted by Mumbai's rising position on the financial world map, and a new generation of committed local conservationists. Deutsche Bank is one of many institutions who are buying up some of the city's--and the world's --most highly priced real estate, mostly Victorian commercial buildings and merchants' mansions. The bank has acquired the baroque Tata Palace, built by Sir Ratan Tata: its restored stucco exterior gleams and the interior has been converted into offices hung with contemporary Indian paintings.

Equally industrious work by a number of conservation groups has begun in other parts of the city. The Mumbai Chapter of INTACH (the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, founded in 1984) is campaigning for major civic improvements. BEAG, the Bombay Environmental Action Group, is led by Mumbai resident Abha-Narain-Lambah. A decade ago, she was one of just two specialist conservation architects in Mumbai; today there are almost a dozen.

Bold campaigns that germinated in the early 1990s are now bearing fruit. In 1995 Mumbai passed its first heritage regulations, establishing a group of protected urban buildings, using criteria loosely based on English conservation models.The 632 listed buildings ranged from Richard Norman Shaw's Flora Fountain to the cathedral-like Victoria Terminus railway station by Frederick William Stevens; from open spaces such as Oval Maidan to whole areas, such as the Fort district. The Bombay Heritage Conservation Committee (BHCC) was established in consequence. This advisory body is composed of government officials, architects, structural engineers, historians, environmentalists and urban desigmers, each serving a three-year term. All alterations to the listed buildings need approval from this committee and the state government.

As with all conservation, there are battles to be fought. Mumbai's newly redundant and unprotected cotton mills are subject to economic pressures coupled with developers' greed. One was recently auctioned for a vast sum, but the BEAG fried a public-interest litigation order claiming its heritage value, won, and the case now goes to the Supreme Court. Industrial archaeology is new to Mumbai, and conservationists are looking to the example of Manchester and Liverpool to encourage re-use rather than demolition. The Mumbai architect Charles Correa, a member of the National Commission for Urbanisation, has suggested transforming the abandoned David Sassoon mill into a museum of Mumbai's textile industry.

A number of Mumbai's greatest treasures have already been given new life, ranging from the dramatic circular National Gallery of Modern Art and the David Sassoon Library to the Bombay Yacht Club and Giles Gilbert Scott's University Convocation Hall, which has had no repair work since its completion in 1874. Notably, most projects are financed by a combination of government and local private funding, following Mumbai's long tradition of philanthropic citizens. A long-forgotten heritage looks to a brighter future as the city, rises to become for a second time the 'urbs prima in Indis'.
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Author:Nicholson, Louise
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2006
Words:639
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