Over the course of eight decades, Bombay’s Royal Opera House went from grand proscenium theatre, to prestigious venue for film premieres, to musty single screen auditorium, to derelict candidate for demolition. Restored after 20 years of limbo to its original Baroque Revival splendour by a team headed by Abha Narain Lambah, one of the city’s leading specialists in architectural conservation, it promises to become a trendy performance space again. As Patricia Rozario’s pure voice filled the acoustically immaculate hall last Friday, the evening after the Mumbai Film Festival’s inauguration on the same stage, it felt like the culmination of a two-decade journey of revaluing the city’s built heritage.

Bombay doesn’t possess an extraordinarily wide variety of interesting architecture. There are a number of rock-cut shrines and monasteries created between 2,100 and 1,500 years ago, some well preserved, others encroached upon and virtually ruined. Very little survives of what was constructed after those early Buddhist and Hindu structures and before Portuguese and British rule, leaving a gap of nearly a millennium. Aside from a handful of interesting modernist buildings that have risen since Independence, highlighted in a recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art titled State of Architecture curated by Rahul Mehrotra, Ranjit Hoskote and Kaiwan Mehta, the built heritage of the city is a colonial-era affair.

For the first decades after Independence, a sense of guilt accompanied praise of anything associated with British imperialism. In the 1990s, the mood changed, partly because the United Kingdom had been reduced to the role of a bit player in global politics. It became possible to appreciate Victorian-era buildings unapologetically. At the same time, architects and historians like Charles Correa and Mustansir Dalvi highlighted the Indian contribution to colonial era design. Correa was fond of saying that the British built Calcutta, but Indians built Bombay.

Heritage regulations

1995 proved a watershed year in the process of revaluing the city’s architectural legacy. In that year, Rahul Mehrotra and the late Sharada Dwivedi published the seminal, Bombay: The Cities Within, which celebrated the complex achievement of 19th and early 20th century architects and urban planners, and inspired the nascent heritage movement. Pressured by activists, the municipal corporation adopted a series of heritage regulations, whose operation I don’t have the space to delve into beyond stating they’ve proved a mixed blessing. The Kala Ghoda Association was formed to raise funds to restore historic buildings in that precinct. It attempted to brand the area as the city’s art district by organising the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival. The association has been very successful in achieving the first of its goals, with a number of 19th century buildings like the one housing the David Sassoon library and, next door, my alma mater Elphinstone College, getting a facelift, but the shifting of many art galleries to Colaba in the far south has somewhat stymied its secondary aim.

In the late 1990s and first decade of the present century, headquarters of a number of banks and corporations, the magnificent buildings of the university campus, and Lalbaug’s Bhau Daji Lad museum were restored by specialists like Lambah and Vikas Dilawari; the visual chaos of hoardings and shopfront signage in the Fort area was tamed by regulation; and guides began taking locals and tourists on heritage trails covering significant Neo-Classical, Victorian Gothic, Indo-Saracenic and Art Deco edifices downtown. While these are all significant achievements, the movement’s limitations are also evident. Thus far, there’s been little by way of adaptive reuse: a library stays a library, a museum remains a museum, an opera house regains its original purpose as a performance space.

We have no version of the Musée d’Orsay or Museum für Gegenwart, major art collections housed within former railway stations in Paris and Berlin respectively, or Tate Modern, standing on the site of a refurbished London power station. We have no examples of industrial facilities being redesigned for housing rather than being demolished and rebuilt. We have few instances of the sort of community engagement that Ratish Nanda and the Aga Khan Foundation team have focussed on while attempting a sensitive regeneration of the Nizamuddin basti in Delhi. A concerted attempt was made in Khotachiwadi, a residential colony of lovely wooden bungalows with a largely East Indian Catholic population, but who can blame individuals for trading their beloved homes for a lifetime of financial security?

Seeking a model

Without a financially viable model to preserve enclaves like Khotachiwadi, it’s only a matter of time before all Bombay’s remaining bungalows are converted to highrises. I doubt if we can emulate the example of European cities that have employed art, culture and creative industries, in conjunction with architectural conservation and restoration, to drive urban regeneration. That requires a level of commitment within government and among citizens far beyond what exists in India. We will probably have to pick our fights, ensure that the most valuable aspects of the city’s built heritage remain untouched, and seek enlightened government officials, corporate executives, and business owners willing to back restorations of the Royal Opera House variety.

For the moment, I’m savouring the small victory that the opera house represents. In the course of its first life, it catered to different segments of the public, but to only one of these at any given moment, beginning with the most affluent and ending with the working class. I’m hoping its second life will mix things up a little. The owners have asked Asad Lalljee, the head of Essar’s CSR initiative called AVID Learning, to take charge of event planning. Lalljee has steered AVID’s prolific and varied programme with panache, and seems the perfect person for the job. He wants to combine high-profile award ceremonies, mainstream music and theatre performances, edgy and experimental happenings, and NGO-driven activities aimed at children and underprivileged citizens. I wish him and the Jadejas of Gondal all the luck for the Opera House’s second innings.