Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance journalist from Bangalore whose work has previously appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC Travel, and Forbes India, among others.
There’s a little-known trove of Deco buildings hiding in the Indian megacity, and local preservationists are hunting them down.
While aficionados of Art Deco architecture swoon over New York’s Chrysler Building, Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and Miami’s South Beach, the Art Deco gems of another metropolis have remained largely unsung for decades: Mumbai, India, is believed to have the second-largest number of Deco structures in the world, after Miami. Experts estimate the number at more than 200.
Every day, thousands of Mumbaikars walk past elegant façades like those of the Eros and Regal cinemas, the Empress Court Apartments, and the New India Assurance building without a second glance at their rounded corners, geometric decorations, and colorful stucco—features that define the Art Deco style.
Art Deco originated in Paris in the mid-1920s and rapidly spread to other European countries, the U.K., and beyond. Residents of the prosperous communities of south Mumbai (then Bombay), who travelled to England for education and business, brought the style back with them and made it popular over the next two decades.
It soon became a symbol of status and prosperity. Savvy architects gave the style a local twist that has come to be known as Bombay Deco, which included nautical themes such as portholes and waves; images of Hindu deities like Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth; and floral motifs, especially the sacred lotus flower.
Toward the end of the 20th century, as bigger and more generic new buildings rose in this space-starved city, Art Deco and other traditional architectural styles began falling into neglect. But in the past few years, citizen groups have begun to lobby for the preservation of Mumbai’s Art Deco legacy. One of the most significant steps in this movement was a 2012 petition to secure it UNESCO World Heritage status. (The Victorian & Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai is currently on UNESCO’s tentative list.)
Finance professional Atul Kumar was one of the petitioners. Having lived in an Art Deco precinct for most of his life, Kumar says he was “outraged by the lack of outrage” around the destruction of what he considers a crucial part of the city’s history. So he began his own conservation project, assembling a small volunteer team to document buildings, with each architectural element decoded and shared on social media. Kumar saw social media as the easiest and surest way to create interest among young people, the future custodians of the city’s past.
The project has already been moderately successful in “tuning [people’s] radar towards Deco,” Kumar says. He is particularly enthused by the fact that his team has been getting feedback from complete strangers, not just in Mumbai but in other cities, most recently Old Delhi, whose Chandni Chowk neighborhood has little-known Art Deco buildings of its own. “We did not start out with the idea of crowdsourcing, but we have got a tremendously positive response from people of all ages,” says Kumar.
Initially, Kumar was an anonymous and lone crusader, but then he decided to formalize the campaign and work with others. Art Deco Mumbai is in the process of registering as a nonprofit organization helmed by Kumar. The core team (now paid) comprises trained architects Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad, Aakriti Chandervanshi, and Nityaa Lakshmi Iyer. While they handle most of the research and documentation, paid interns carry out fieldwork on a project basis.
A couple of months ago, Art Deco Mumbai—which is funded by Kumar—launched a website that will serve as a repository of the city’s Art Deco legacy. Along with a gallery of photographs and explanatory texts, an “Inventory” tab lets visitors browse buildings in specific neighborhoods by name or feature (such as balcony, entrance, or “eyebrows,” projecting shades over windows), or by “Influence of Indian Tradition and Mythology.”
Art Deco Mumbai staffers have discovered that although south Mumbai has the largest and densest cluster of Art Deco buildings, the style extends far north toward the more residential and middle-class suburbs of Matunga and Chembur. This is significant, Kumar says, because some Mumbaikars are alienated by a history that belongs only to the elite of the city’s southern neighborhoods; a more widely shared heritage could earn broader support. Also, the state of the buildings is not as dismal as researchers had feared, with several in a state of almost perfect preservation.
Given Mumbai’s sprawl and crowds, and the fact that the city is mostly a tangle of lanes and not a neat grid of streets, the documentation process is difficult and time-consuming. Researchers go about it methodically. Using Google Street View, they first divide a neighborhood into zones and then into smaller blocks of ten buildings, with an architect and photographer team put in charge of each block. After they curate and edit the images, they showcase each building from various angles—both the exteriors and, where possible, distinguishing interior features such as staircases and lobbies.
One challenge is the wariness of some residents of the Art Deco buildings, who are not used to their homes being studied as important architecture. “Since people do not understand the architectural significance of their own building, they often feel perplexed—even threatened—when we go there with our cameras,” Kumar says. “What is our agenda? Are we from the government? From an influential builder?” Researchers spend time explaining their work and the importance of Art Deco in Mumbai to residents (and sometimes security guards) before being allowed to carry on.
Kumar hopes the website will make it easier for both locals and tourists to enjoy Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings, either on their own or through guided walks. (The group’s walking tours in south Mumbai have already generated a lot of interest from foreign visitors.) “Eventually, our greatest success would come from creating pride in our shared heritage,” he says. “That would mean an unshakable bond in the community that no builder or government can shake.”