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Breathing life back into Mumbai’s fountains

  • Restoration architect Vikas Dilawari is giving Mumbai’s 19th century fountains a new lease of life
  • The architect has won 16 Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, and the fountains are among his most recent projects

Flora Fountain, built in 1864.
Flora Fountain, built in 1864.

In July 1871, the Scientific American magazine carried a report on a newly built fountain, calling it “one of those rare works which captivate the artistic eye". The magazine even ran an illustration of the fountain on its cover page and described it in great detail—the fan-like jets of water that fall into shells, the four dolphins, the bronze heads of lions and panthers. It described the central jet of water that “wells up like a natural spring, the sound of which must be refreshing in a hot climate like that of Bombay".

The Frere Fountain in Mumbai’s Fort area was the largest of its kind in India and won the admiration of New York’s elegant circles. It was built in 1864 by the Agri–Horticultural Society of Western India to honour the then governor, Sir Bartle Frere. In the decades that followed, it would be renamed Flora Fountain, after the Roman goddess poised at the top. It would become the site of a tragic incident in 1955, when 15 protesters were killed in police firing during a demonstration for the Samyukta Maharashtra movement. Six years later, a memorial was built to commemorate those who died during the movement and the square was renamed Hutatma Chowk (Martyr’s Square). Around 2007, the water jets would work intermittently, and Flora Fountain was relegated to the same fate as many other colonial era structures in Mumbai—too graceful to be ignored but too cumbersome to maintain.

This January, Flora Fountain was back in action. Restoration architect Vikas Dilawari was commissioned by the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) to revive the fountain—a job that took him and his team two-and-a-half years. Dilawari has worked on three more fountains in the vicinity: the Wellington Fountain, the Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia Clock Tower and Fountain, and the Muljee Jetha Fountain.

Restoration architect Vikas Dilawari.
Restoration architect Vikas Dilawari.

Dilawari meets us one afternoon at Flora Fountain during a brief, sunny respite from the rains. The architect has won 16 Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation, including 14 for Mumbai projects. “I wanted to go beyond just restoring the fountains; I wanted to see how I could get the water fittings to function again. Having fixed the smaller fountains first, that experience gave me and my firm a lot of confidence to work on Flora Fountain," he says.

As he darts through criss-crossing lanes to take us to the other fountains, it is evident that Mumbai is his turf. It has several structures—public, commercial and residential—that still stand thanks to Dilawari. These include the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, the Rajabai Clock Tower and the stained glass of Mumbai University’s Library Building. The fountains are among his more recent projects.

The first fountain restored by Dilawari is located at the convergence of six roads, at a roundabout used by nearly every visitor to Colaba. The Wellington Fountain was built by public subscription in 1865, at the height of the British empire. It was a tribute to Sir Arthur Wellesley, the duke of Wellington, adorned with inscriptions on his many victories, including one against the Marathas. The fountain has surprisingly survived the nativist decolonization mission to destroy or shift colonial monuments. What it didn’t survive, however, were the contractors who painted over the original marble, covering the fine bas-reliefs. The grand tribute had turned into a dowdy water spout.

Dilawari finished restoring the Wellington Fountain in 2017 and it earned a special mention in the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation that year. “We had to first undo old mistakes," he says. Dilawari called in conservators from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach), Mumbai, to carefully scrape the layers of paint off the bas-reliefs, a task that took them two months. Among the fountains, Wellington was also the easiest and the least expensive to restore, for it was functional. Funded by Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd, the restoration cost around 10 lakh.

The striking Muljee Jetha Fountain was built in 1894 and dedicated to the memory of Dharamsee Muljee, who died at the age of 15. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
The striking Muljee Jetha Fountain was built in 1894 and dedicated to the memory of Dharamsee Muljee, who died at the age of 15. Photographs by Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

This was not the case with the Muljee Jetha Fountain, completed in 1894. There is a heartbreaking tale behind the creation of the fountain. It was built as a memorial to a young boy named Dharamsee Muljee, who died at the age of 15. His father, Ruttonsee, dedicated the fountain to him and offered it to the public, providing drinking water for both people and animals.

Since it had fallen out of use, Dilawari had to reactivate the fountain’s plumbing system. “The fountain now functions for a few hours every morning and evening. Care is taken in using the pipes or else they will wear out soon," he says. At the top of the fountain is a statue of young Dharamsee holding a book and gazing hopefully at the horizon. “I think it’s actually lovelier than Flora Fountain," says Dilawari.

The Muljee Jetha Fountain was designed by Frederick William Stevens, who also designed the sprawling Gothic Revivalist Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST). Stevens put 52 spouts on the Indo-Saracenic fountain, and, instead of CST’s menacing gargoyles, added alligators, elephants, cows and iguanas.

Each of the fountains that are spread across south Mumbai have unique designs, says Dilawari. The Bomanjee Hormarjee Wadia Clock Tower and Fountain has several elements of Persian architecture, in keeping with the heritage of the Parsi sheriff it was built in honour of. “Lots of things were considered while building fountains—a popular area had to be chosen, it had to be built at a square or junction of roads, its architectural style was decided on the basis of what the sponsor wanted, the quality and quantity of stones depended also on the sponsor money," says Dilawari.

When Dilawari set out to work on Flora Fountain, he discovered that Flora’s head had been severed and joined again. “Likewise, the hands and fingers of the other statues at the base of the fountain had been replaced by concrete limbs. Because the concrete was painted white, the statue had to be painted white; and because the statue was white, the whole fountain had to be painted white," he says. After restoration, the fountain’s original beige Portland stone glows with an understated elegance.

All great cities allow themselves to be read in many ways. That is surely the case with Mumbai. You can map it through its railway lines, its bus routes, its Gothic structures, and also through its fountains.

Historian Shekhar Krishnan says Mumbai had over 100 ornate fountains, cattle troughs and pyaus or water dispensers. Some of these were attached to places of worship but all were public structures, registered with the civic body. This water infrastructure is hard to sustain today, owing not just to negligence but also a growing water crisis. Flora Fountain requires 15,000 litres of water per week, according to Dilawari, though its tank capacity is 45,000 litres. The water comes from a nearby borewell and cannot be treated as chemicals could endanger the lives of the birds that drink from the fountain. All this means Flora Fountain gathers moss often and needs regular maintenance—something the BMC is looking into.

The purpose of a fountain in contemporary urban design can be debated. But Dilawari is clear that it is one of the first impressions you get of a city. “Fountains tell you that you are in a beautiful city," he says. Moreover, fountains are usually erected as memorials and tributes. “It was a philanthropic gesture on the part of citizens. They used to provide fountains as charity rather than the cement benches you see today," adds Dilawari.

“It is not enough to restore the structure alone but also enhance the area around it so that we can give it back the sense of dignity and historicity," he says. The restoration of Flora Fountain cost the civic corporation 3.7 crore but they also ensured that the square was cobbled and made accessible to pedestrians. Here is an invitation to relax after a busy day or finish that novel before you head home.

Just don’t pull an Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita.

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