Few things in life compare to the joy of chancing upon a hidden treasure in your city. Example: Empress Court, the art deco building on the corner plot near the Oval Maidan in Mumbai. The building’s staircase is a marvel. “It is a very steep staircase, but it is so well designed that you do not climb more than eight to 10 steps before a landing,” says Atul Kumar, founder trustee, Art Deco Mumbai Trust. “Then there are another six steps and then a landing, so you do not get exhausted. It is unique because it is not shaped in conformity. It is not round, not square, not oval, not rectangular. It has got this unusual shape, style and rounding... it is brilliant.”
The Art Deco Mumbai Trust has been documenting art deco buildings across Mumbai. They have catalogued 330 buildings so far. Kumar gets requests from people all over the world to see them. “We realise that it is special but when people from Miami, Perth, Shanghai, Brazil and Paris say that they have not seen anything like this, it is unbelievable,” he says. Mumbai has the second largest number of art deco buildings in the world, after Miami, Florida, and thanks to the efforts of architects and urban planners in the city, a whole precinct of art deco buildings has now been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Historian and researcher Sharada Dwivedi wrote about the need to preserve this several years ago, and finally it has happened,” says Nandini Somaya Sampat, director, Somaya & Kalappa architects. Sampat confesses to being partial towards the art deco style.
But how does one even begin to understand art deco? The style originated in 1925, in Paris, in an industrial exposition that was being held there. Art deco engaged the whole world at that time because of the dramatically modern style that it represented. People took to it because it was radically different, refreshing and inspiring, not to mention simple, clean and beautiful. There was a lot of geometry, machinery and aerodynamics. “[In construction] it held out the hope of a future that moved away from the traditional Victorian and Gothic heavy architecture, typically built using stone, which was expensive, time consuming and much tougher to work with,” says Kumar. “There was a certain simplicity in the style which added to its elegance and which is the reason for its timelessness. It was easily imitable and it was open to interpretation and expression.” According to Kumar, it is a delight for architects and consumers alike.
For Sampat, the big draw is the style’s elegance. “It can be very gentle and feminine, and yet masculine and strong,” she says. “So, to have a style that actually merges both of those, to me, is very unusual. It is very balanced and sometimes it is very hard to find in architecture because you always have one or the other. With art deco you are able to fuse the two, and that is what I like,” she says. Sampat explains how art deco was influenced by the Egyptians and the Mayans. “It is really a conglomeration of many architectural ideas,” she says. “It was adopted very quickly by Indians who made buildings such as cinemas and clubs.” When people started going to cinemas and socialising at clubs, says Sampat, there was a modern space that people were looking for. “There was a change in language, and that is when art deco crept in and filled in that space,” she says.
Mustansir Dalvi, professor, Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Mumbai, says: “There were three important types of buildings when it came to art deco—cinema houses, apartment buildings and commercial buildings. There was a lot of use of the curve. It was called streamlining and it was greatly influenced by transportation, ocean liners, motor cars and aviation.”
With art deco came flats and apartments—a different, modern way of living—where you integrated the living room and the dining room. Something Indians were not used to. People started learning about living in apartments as opposed to houses. “All this was embraced between the late 1920s and the 1940s,” says Sampat. An important thing to note is that the buildings were designed in a very structured way. “If you look at the buildings on Marine Drive, there were codes to be followed in terms of design,” says Sampat. “They all had to be a certain height, the plot of land which was prescribed had to have 40 feet between each building. It was very well planned, down to each plinth, which had to be of a certain material, and cladding—a pre-approved stone. There had to be similar balcony details, not same, but similar.” Kumar says that people relate to these structures because they are part of your everyday life. “You were born there (hospital), you studied there (schools), you went on your first movie date or saw your first film there (cinema),” he says. “These are all life moments, so the emotional fabric of your mind has got all these urban influences in it, but you have never thought about connecting all the dots.”
The art deco movement was taking place at a time when the Backbay reclamation was happening and Bombay, one of the world’s most prosperous cities, was being planned in a majestic manner. Art deco came to Bombay through the cruise liners that called at the port. The interiors of these ships were completely done up in art deco style. “Also, wealthy Parsis and Gujaratis sent their architects to England and France to study the latest styles and they returned with these visions,” says Kumar. “It was the early stages of RCC construction— reinforced concrete, cement had come into the world and was relatively cheap, and a quick means of construction. It was the first modern aspiration that Indians could desire for and that is reflected in all the 18 [art deco] buildings at the Oval,” says Kumar.
Art deco, according to Kumar, “went viral”. The Philippines, Shanghai, Naples, New Zealand, Istanbul, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Brazil, Durban... it was all over the world. It was also adaptive. The art deco in Mumbai, for instance, is completely different from the art deco in New York. “Look at the Empire State Building, it does not have balconies, but, then, they do not have tropical weather either,” says Kumar. “It was an adaptation of style because certain elements were responsive to the climatic needs of the tropics. That is how the balcony and eyebrows [sunshade] came. That is called Bombay Deco.” The art deco buildings focused on high ceilings, cross ventilation and large, spacious rooms. Turret balconies and nautical windows (which look like portholes) are all distinct features of art deco in Mumbai. “The architecture is in harmony with the tropics and the design elements incorporated the sea, the waves, the tropical imagery, plants and ferns and that was a different Bombay,” says Kumar. Another feature, says Sampat, are murals showing Indians going about day-to-day activities. “So, it was telling stories through the narratives, and then you have the eternal fountain (a design in art deco) which is seen all over Bombay, in balconies and facades, which is supposed to reflect eternal life,” says Sampat.
Wherever they have taken Indian elements into the design form, as decorative motifs, that is typically called Bombay Deco, explains Kumar. However, art deco was a pan-India phenomenon and one can still see art deco buildings in Nagpur, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Rajasthan. Art deco went beyond buildings; into furniture, lighting, crockery and automobiles. “Not only was it totally immersive, but it was also sleek, economical, uncomplicated, and a style that could easily be replicated,” says Sampat. “It was quite modular, yet beautiful. It could be ornate depending on how much you wanted to put in it.”
Art deco’s ability to morph into any area or space gave it the ability to become anything, says Sampat. It made its appearance in both the exterior and interior of buildings. “It went down to your wall detailing, your chairs, your tables, your rugs, your soft furnishings, your plates... so literally, the entire house had a flavour of art deco,” she says. “The eternal fountain design was derived from a pattern made by the famous glass maker Lalique. That got translated into lamps and glass. The curvature of walls, the softness that comes with it or detailing like the jaalis (grids), the base of the balconies, in some flats, some walls that protrude out have art deco detailing, even the moulding on the ceilings, down to the flooring.”
Flooring design was an integral part of art deco, and many typical art deco designs were made for tiles. Bharat Floorings and Tiles was a pioneer in this field. The company made art deco designs for tiles and in situ floorings for many buildings that were constructed in the early part of the 20th century. Dilnavaz Variava, non-executive chairperson, Bharat Floorings and Tiles, says: “I feel good that the whole garland of Marine Drive and of Oval, most of those buildings have our tiles.” The company claims that everybody in Mumbai has walked on a “Bharat floor”, whether it is at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station (formerly Victoria Terminus) or at a cinema hall or a home, hotel or hospital. Jayasinh V. Mariwala, chairman, OmniActive Health Technologies Ltd, has a beautiful Bharat flooring in his tastefully done up 1937 art deco bungalow in Tardeo. Bharat Floorings and Tiles had supplied tiles and done the in situ floorings then and some rooms still have them, 81 years later. “The beauty of a cement floor is that you can re-polish it,” says Variava, whose company offers customised tiles with both elaborate and simple designs.
Sadly, maintaining art deco buildings in Mumbai has been a herculean task. “A lot of conversations have centred on regret and lament,” says Kumar. “That had we known that it was deco and such an international style that was so significant and precious, we would not have done what we did—put marble, or enclosed the balcony, or installed an air conditioner. So I think people really do not know. And because they do not know, they are unable to make an informed decision. Even architects have let them down by not telling them that this serves a purpose.”
Ashad Mehta—whose family bought Empress Court (built in 1936-1938) from another Parsi family and moved there in 1963-64—built a sixth floor and now stays there. The building has 21 flats, of which Mehta’s family owns 10. But Mehta is not a happy man. “We have got some fabulous buildings in Bombay, but the biggest problem arises because of our Rent Control Act,” he says. “The rents have gotten frozen at 1947-1950 level with insignificant increases. When the Maharashtra Rent Control Act of 2000 came, they allowed us a 5 per cent increase. But the rents were Rs400-Rs500. So 5 per cent means Rs20-Rs25. That is ridiculous! That makes it very difficult to maintain a building, because your expenditure is at 2018 levels, while your income is frozen at 1950 levels.” Mehta says that unlike his family, landlords do not necessarily live in the buildings they own. “In that case, what is the incentive for them to maintain it? Zero! Let us be honest. This is only a question of politics and vote bank, nothing else,” he says.
Mehta and his tenants are blessed to have a 23-acre heritage maidan in front of them. Not to mention the old lovely Gothic buildings such as the High Court, the Rajabai Clock Tower, the university, the City Civil Court and Elphinstone College nearby. “These are heritage buildings and nothing is going to come up there. We have great privacy and can actually keep our bedroom windows open,” says Mehta. There is no place in Bombay where you can get a special location like this.” He adds that the area has, by and large, stayed intact. “We are about 27-28 buildings, all part of the Oval Cooperage Residents Association,” he says. They are careful to warn their contractors not to mess with the old art deco motifs and designs. “In between there was a total lack of awareness, but [now] people are taking interest in maintaining old buildings, because each building has got some unique architectural feature,” says Mehta. As a landlord, he has been very particular in telling all who renovate their flats to maintain the design and uniformity. About the Rent Control Act, Mehta, is confident that something will happen. “But when, I don’t know,” he says.