Big plans for ‘little’ heritage
From bandstands and milestones to fountains and clock towers, the Mumbai heritage conservation committee is breathing new life into the city's overlooked structures
In a leafy corner near Mumbai’s Cooperage Ground, a group of construction workers is taking a break under a wooden canopy. Supported on slender posts, a decorative pattern running along the roof edge, this open-air structure was once a bandstand. Bands—usually police or navy bands—would play here in colonial Bombay (now Mumbai), as they did at the city’s four other bandstands, located at busy road junctions in the early 20th century. Then the sites fell into disuse.
When restoration first began a year ago, the garden had overwhelmed the structure, the wood was rotting and the original Porbandar stone plinth at the base had been eaten up by concrete cladding. Rescuing it from the ravages of time was tricky—only one archival photograph had survived. “It had lost its context," says architect Rahul Chemburkar, whose firm, Vaastu Vidhaan Projects, worked on it. “Our task was dual—find out its history and its importance."
This is the second bandstand to be restored and one of a series of projects focusing on smaller heritage construction, loosely referred to as “street furniture".
In March, the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation’s (BMC’s) Mumbai heritage conservation committee (MHCC) approved a proposal to restore the squat, British-era milestones scattered through the south of the city (the MHCC is the nodal body governing listed heritage structures in the city). The rediscovery by a local ward office of one of these milestones—which denote the distance from the original “zero point" of St Thomas’ Cathedral in Fort—during a demolition drive last year triggered an awakening of their significance and history. The corporation is planning to restore and integrate the surviving markers into a “milestone circuit", with fresh information plaques, on an estimated ₹ 30 lakh budget. It also plans to lay a marker for the notional “zero point" outside St Thomas’ Cathedral.
The corporation is also in the process of restoring a series of fountains and pyaus that served as public water sources in early 20th century Bombay. Flora Fountain, that majestic cascading piece, might be the best known, but a series of others have also been receiving attention. There were several such constructions in the early part of that century, with philanthropists often pitching in with funding, but they fell out of use once piped water became available.
On Marine Drive, the sea-facing 19th century Parsi Gate—officials say its history is still being examined—has been walled off for conservation treatment following the dislocation of some stones. In a heavy, picture-packed dossier at the corporation, some of these works have been highlighted as part of forthcoming plans, including the refurbishment of the cast-iron Fitzgerald Fountain and the installation of vintage lamps near the Gateway of India.
“Small things that were neglected earlier are getting more attention now," says Chemburkar, who is on the milestone project, and has also submitted a report on the city’s surviving pyaus. “Different stakeholders are more proactive and conscious about these aspects of culture."
South Mumbai is crammed with historical buildings—the neo-Gothic grandeur of Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), the spines and lines of Marine Drive’s art deco façade, the solemn arching turrets of the Bombay high court. But even though these have perched themselves on heritage maps and the imagination of locals and visitors, the small heritage “artefacts" of the city are just as distinctive. “These have been an integral part of the city," says Chemburkar. “Structures of this scale and size might be missed but they enrich urban life."
“Street furniture", then, comprises the overlooked historical bric-a-brac that spot and dot our roads and parks. They may not soar and stretch, but they form part of the accessible urban fabric at the ground level. “You can just walk by or stand and appreciate them," says Umesh Nagarkar, member secretary of the MHCC. “They evoke a certain historical feeling."
This surge in interest is driven significantly by the fact that they are simpler and cheaper to restore. “The smaller structures don’t require as much funding and are in public places, so it’s easier," says Nagarkar. “There is more conflict when it comes to the bigger ones."
Pankaj Joshi, executive director of the Urban Design Research Institute (Udri) in Mumbai, puts it plainly. “Essentially, most of the larger structures are owned by the state government, and, though interest has increased, I don’t see that much impetus for high capital expenditure in these," he says. “The smaller structures require less expenditure and also bring good visibility in terms of the positive narrative, the media and public’s attention."
Udri has already completed work on one pyau, and has been tasked with restoring the Fitzgerald Fountain. Work will begin soon, and, once completed, the fountain will be relocated from Rani Bagh and reassembled at its original location at the Metro Cinema junction.
Such projects can have a small but meaningful impact on their surroundings. In the Fort area, tucked away on an inside street, the stone face of the Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia Clock Tower, with its spiffy new exterior and functioning timepiece, lends grandeur to the neighbourhood. The monument, restored at a cost of ₹ 55 lakh, has gentrified a space where hotels would dump their junk and drug addicts would amble. “When you see a monument respected, it speaks well of the city," says Vikas Dilawari, the conservation architect who worked on it; over the past two years, he has completed the Mulji Jetha fountain and Wellington Fountain restorations. “It has had a significant impact on the area. These are small, good steps and can help prevent the area from being encroached upon and also keep it clean."
Though most such structures fall in the purview of the corporation, and require permissions before they can be touched, citizens and non-profits have helped out in some cases. The Kala Ghoda Association contributed to the David Sassoon Library and the Elphinstone College building; over the past two years, it has also helped restore a pyau, a fountain and the clock tower. “We previously supported, and continue to support, institutions; then we looked at stand-alone structures and decided we must continue to refurbish them," says Maneck Davar, the association’s honorary chairperson.
Similarly, a group got together three years ago to resuscitate the derelict Keshavji Naik pyau in Masjid Bunder. “My personal view is that we shouldn’t leave everything to the government," says Jayant B. Soni, trustee of the Shri Anantnathji Maharaj Jain Temple and its Sadharan Fund, which contributed to the restoration. “I feel citizens should also be involved."
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Thane, British-era cannons were discovered in May. Believed to have been installed in the 18th century for the defence of the fort, the 11 that have been uncovered will be cleaned and mounted on platforms to protect them. Joshi says the area had probably been used as a trading port for salt by the British.
“Earlier, locals didn’t know their significance, now they are also excited and taking an initiative," says Sachin Joshi, an archaeologist, who, along with five other local non-profits and the Thane municipal corporation, will be restoring the cannons. “These are historical properties so we need to teach people their history and their role."
Joshi was involved in the excavation of seven cannons in Chiplun, on the Mumbai-Goa highway, last year. Their preservation was partly funded by a Thane-based company, Pitambari Products Pvt. Ltd, under their corporate social responsibility initiative. Joshi estimates that the cost of restoring one cannon would be around ₹ 2 lakh, and they plan to approach other private bodies for assistance.
There are challenges, of course—it takes time to green-light projects, float tenders and finish the job. Sometimes, thoughtless previous interventions have to be undone. In some cases, there are barely any references in the archives to such structures, or few pictures to draw on. Dilawari and his team, for instance, had to figure out the engineering of the fountains from scratch to make them operational. “It was all done on trial and error," he says. “We were in uncharted territory." Finding trained craftsmen can be difficult too, he adds.
“It’s good if such projects help sensitize people to heritage," says Dilawari. “But it shouldn’t just be about smaller things like milestones but also about the miles of heritage we need to preserve."
For, despite the flurry of activity that surrounds the artefacts, wider problems remain unaddressed. There has been a slow erosion of the broader heritage landscape itself. “It is inexpensive for local bodies to restore such smaller structures and it is good something is getting restored, but what about the larger programme of conservation?" asks Pankaj Joshi. “Even after 20 years of heritage legislation, we are not seeing progress. Measures like funding support, tax waivers for owners, aren’t available here, so, instead of incentivising, the approach is to penalize. We are only trying to do things through regulation."
As private buildings become more dilapidated, owners hemmed in by outdated rent laws have fewer incentives to preserve these given the attractions of redevelopment. Nagarkar admits there are issues. “Many are very old, some are 100 years old, so that is a factor, and the rent control Act is also a factor," says Nagarkar.
The new development plan, published in May, allows the commissioner to overrule decisions of the heritage committee and allows new constructions in grade I buildings (accorded the highest level of importance). Earlier, neither was possible. Joshi describes this as “a substantial dilution".
It’s clear, then, that the city needs serious safeguards.
So, the Unesco world heritage committee’s 1 July decision—declaring the “Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Ensembles of Mumbai", covering Fort, Marine Drive and adjacent areas, as a World Heritage Site—is a welcome one. “The recognition is a positive step and will hopefully lead to more funding and better, implementable legislation that encourages conservation and repairs and keeps redevelopment at bay," says Dilawari.