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Bombay’s British Architecute - The Gothic and the Ethnic

The British left behind an architectural legacy which lives on in many of Bombay’s public buildings. Let us take a look at the Anglo-Indian heritage which once gave Bombay the reputation of the best Victorian Gothic city in the world.

When the British left India, what remained behind was a legacy ranging from intangibles like language, social customs, the modes of administrative functioning, and more enduringly their buildings scattered across twenty-four latitudes and windely varied terrain. A lot of the construction in British India was the work of amateurs and military engineers. Their work reflects a curious adaptation of local materials and weather to a longing for home being expressed in the implantation of European styles in a tropical land. In all of India, apart from Shimla perhaps, it is the city of Bombay which shows the greatest incorporation of a multitude of divergent styles popular in the Victoria era.

As part of the Portuguese Catharine of Braganza’s dowery when she married Charles II, Bombay passed into British possession in 1670. Not a mainland settlement like that of Madras or Calcutta, it was originally a string of islands sheltering the wide inlet of bom Bahia or beautiful bay from the Arabian sea.

Unlike the other two presidency towns, Bombay’s growth was peaceful, untroubled by attacks from native potentates or foreign competitors. Slowly its identity changed from that of an archipelago to a peninsula, as a network of roads linked the several islands. It was only after 1850 and the cutting of the Suez Canal that Bombay boomed from a trading port on a quiet backwater to a teeming, expanding metropolis.

Apart from the opening of the Suez Canal several other happenings between 1860-70 explained the sudden expansion of the city. The railways, the Empire’s greatest capitalist expression linked Bombay with the rest of the country. The demand for Indian cotton grew as American supplies were cut off due to the Civil War. Sir Bartle Frere, a man intensely interested in town planning and urban development was appointed Governor of Bombay in 1862.

Today as post-independence urban architecture in Bombay burgeons in a plethora of concrete and glass angularly pushing skywards, public buildings of a bygone era still remain like spacious islands of ornate extravagance. These are nearly all the buildings of Sir Bartle’s Bombay. Florence Nightingale, so impressed with the sanitary arrangements incorporated into his town planning, is said to have remarked on the fact that Victorian Bombay had achieved a lower mortality rate than London’s (itself the lowest in Europe). Together with Sir Bartle, James Trubshave, the architectural planner had endeavoured to lay out a model business town of imperial Britain.

According to writer Jan Morris, Bombay is one of the most characteristically Victorian cities in the world, displayed all the grand effrontery of Victorian eclectism. From the Fort the Fort area down to the cantonment at Colaba still stand buildings with examples of diverse architectural features such as German gables, Dutch roofs, Swiss timbering, Romance arches and Tudor casements mingled with more ethnic oriental embellishments.

British reaction to such grand and diverse display was also equally diverse. While Aldous Huxley is said to have sneered and dismissed Bombay s pretentious, architectural historian, Gavin Stamp has called it the best Victorian Gothic city in the world.

Perhaps the most fitting monuments both in name and splendour, the very symbol of the British in Victorian Bombay is a building that was opened in 1887 in time to celebrate Queen Victoria Terminus or VT as it is better known today.

The bustling mass of present day commuters appear totally unaware of the scale and grandeur of the station. It is estimated that some two million passengers use its services every twenty four hours. How many of this number, I wonder ever stop and stare?

Looming above Hornby Road is the great sandstone edifice, constructed in a blend of Venetian-Gothic and Indo-Saracenic styles. The building has innumerable domes, arcades, turrets and sculpted monkey-faced gargoyles. On the central rounded dome is the gowned figure of Porgress, with an unpraised arm like Liberty’s.

The building is ornamented with a number of elaborate medallions, depicting apart from Victoria and her Viceroy, the Chairman and Chief Engineer of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway. The inside is no less grand being designed under the supervision of Lockwood Kipling, father of the great author. Figures of birds and beasts adorn the stairways.

Tall stained glass windows reflect in jeweled tones on the glazed tile floor. The whole is set off by the handsome figures of twin lions flanking the main gate.

The first British architect of repute to be represented in India was Sir Gilbert Scott, the great English Gothicist. At the height of his fame (after having designed the chapels of Exeter College, Oxford and St. John’s College, Cambridge) he laid out the plans for the Bombay University library and convocation hall, working entirely from his London office. A visit to these buildings shows a marked resemblance to Catholic chapels with typical features such as high arched ceilings and glowing windows of stained glass.

The University complex consists of a rectangular quadrangle surrounded by two story blocks. Leading off the main entrance arcade is the liberty which has an elaborate staircase, with corbelled dwarf columns upholding the heads of Shakespeare and Horner.

The whole building is in the pure gothic style with statue niches, open spiral staircases at either side and buttressed balconies. Paid for partly by donations from the wealthy Parsi citizens of Bombay, the building was later crowned by an immense watchtower which houses twenty-four statues representing the castes of western India.

The ecclesiastical suggestion of the convocation hall is reinforced by the Great Rose Window illuminating it. The water spouts draining the roof are modeled in the figures of gargoyles which in the words of J.M.Maclean, Editor of the Bombay Gazette in 1876 show a want of knowledge of anatomy. The suitability of such a Christian style of architecture, completely untouched by Hindu or Saracenic features has been much debated since the completion of the building in 1874. Other educational institutions in the Gothic style are Xaviers College and the Alexandria Native Girls School.

The neighbouring High Court Building is also in the Gothic style with a similar spiral staircase, but its lines are simpler and in the opinion of some, more elegant. Another building much admired for its simplicity is the Bombay Town Hall with its ribbed Doric Columns. Designed by Col. Cowper of the Bombay Engineers, the original columns shipped from England were too large and had to be used in the Byculla Church instead.

Overlooked by the Town Hall, the Elphinstone circle is passed by a wide thoroughfare on which stands the Prince of Wales Museum located on a plot of land known as the cultural Crescent Mr.Gandhi the present day curator of the Museum, said it was begun in 1911 and incorporated in its design a number of local styles. Bombay province at that time comprised Gujarat, the northern part of Karnataka and parts of Maharashtra. Mr.G.Wittel, the architect traveled around these three areas and tried to include features from local temples and mosques in his plans. While the yellow and blue basalt structure is topped y domes in Karnataka’s Islamic gol ghumj style the wide central hall is supported by pillers in the Jain temple tradition. The Museum’s pristine condition explains why it was awarded the first prize of the Indian Heritage Society, Bombay chapter.

Justifiably proud of their city, activists of Bombay’s Urban Conservation Society have taken steps in the restoration of lesser known structure. For example, the dilapidated Wayside Inn at the Kala Ghoda has been given a facelift, but pains have been taken to preserve the chiseled wooden brackets supporting the balcony whilst retaining the tiled porch at the entrance.

A far far grander edifice in which to dine, the Taj Mahal Hotel was constructed at the ocean’s edge in 1903. It was built not by the British, but by one of the most enterprising Parsees of all time, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. The idea of building a grand hotel was conceived by him when he was refused entry into the nearby Watson’s Hotel, on account of his race. Today Watson’s doesn’t exist but the Taj has prospered enough to give birth to a growing hotel chain. For travelers on the P&O lines during the Raj, the Taj became as welcome a landmark as another famous hotel, Raffles of Singapore.

It is on the very steps of this hotel on the Apollo Bunder that the king Emperor George V landed on his state visit to India. On his arrival the red carpet passed through a temporary structure scaled on the lines of a mini Taj Mahal in white plaster, but some 17 years later a memorial of a more enduring nature was constructed-the Gateway of India. Built on a plot of land reclaimed from the sea, it was designed by George Wittet in the Gujarati style. Apart from commemorating the arrival of the Emperor in India, it was to witness an equally historic departure. This is where the last parade was held in 1947, when the British bade good-bye to their Empire.

Most of the public building in Bombay are still used for the purpose for which they were originally designed. Today much is unchanged too at clubs like the Bombay Gymkhana where members still order chhota pegs at sun down. What is threatened is the dwindling private bungalow with its high ceilings, deep verandahs and tiled floors. Tomorrow’s newspaper will never carry an advertisement like that of the Bombay Courier in 1793 For Sale- a bungalow situated between the two tombstones on the island of Coulaba.

Although shabbier and more weather-worn than they were during the Raj, Bombay’s Anglo Indian heritage continues to live on in its public buildings conceived for the most part during Sir Bartle Frere’s governship. It is ironical that the average Bombayite has no time to spare a thought for Sir Bartle or indeed the British Raj today. Even the memorial to sir Bartle, the Frere Fountain as it was originally named is today known only as the Flora Fountain.

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