Opposite the utilitarian landmark of Churchgate railway station stands another icon of the city of Mumbai: Eros Cinema. Designed by Sohrabji Bhedwar in 1935, it echoes curving forms and ziggurat (stepped style), which were typical of the Art Deco architecture popular in Mumbai between 1930 and 1950.
Every day, lakhs of citizens take the suburban railway lines to or from Churchgate station, without giving Eros Cinema a look. It was this apathy towards Mumbai’s architectural history that did not sit well with Atul Kumar, a finance professional and an architecture enthusiast.
“The current generation barely knows about our architectural heritage,” said Kumar. “They neglect to go to the library and most of their information comes from handheld devices, like their phones and iPads, but the newer media has no information on Mumbai’s Art Deco heritage.”
With over 200 Art Deco style structures, Mumbai is second only to Miami, Florida in its Art Deco tradition. To ensure preservation of this art form and to educate the younger generation Kumar decided to use the most powerful tool that the internet currently has – social media. Under the handle @ArtDecoMumbai, Kumar has been posting, Tweeting and Instagramming images of buildings located in the older areas of Mumbai with little comments elaborating on their Art Deco features and using hashtags to popularise this form.
According to Kumar, most visitors to Art Deco Mumbai pages fall in the age group of 18-34, the audience he most wants to reach out to.
Navin Ramani, author of Bombay Art Deco Architecture: A Visual Journey (1930-1953), says the online project is a great way to familiarise the younger generation and tourists with Art Deco. “The book alone cannot generate all the awareness it needs even though there was a website dedicated to it,” said Ramani. “Finding new avenues to promote this aspect of the city’s heritage will do much to spread this awareness beyond where my book has not travelled.”
Ramani lived most of his life in Court View, an Art Deco structure, and has a soft spot for the building. “For interior architectural style I am biased to say that I love Court View because of its fabulous wraparound balustrade, evocative of the steamship age, wraparound foyers and its rhythm to Jazz expressed in its sculptural composition. Not to mention the beautiful geometric expressions of terrazzo exemplified in its floor design.”
For exterior architecture, Ramani admires the Ram Mahal building near Churchgate for its concave, convex and linear design. “And all of it in one beautiful piece of architecture,” he said.
The other iconic Art Deco structures in South Mumbai include the India Assurance building at Fort, and the Liberty and New Empire cinema halls. There are several private residences too that subscribe to the “streamline moderne” aesthetic.
When asked how one can identify an Art Deco structure, Kumar found it hard to find one definition that would suffice to explain the architectural form. “Through the posts on social media, we try to focus on, and explain, some of the key features that represent this architectural form, like rows of locomotive balconies, ziggurat, lots of clean straight lines and geometrical patterns,” he said.
While many images on Art Deco Mumbai carry descriptions, there are some which only mention the names of the buildings. Some of them focus on the internal design elements of the buildings, like the spiral staircase inside Empress Court or the streamlined pattern of the marble flooring of Bharatiya Bhavan.
One of the first posts by Kumar was a shot of Keval Mahal on Marine Drive, one of three identical buildings on the stretch. It is one of the many Art Deco buildings lining Marine Drive. The structure was recently repaired and repainted in cream with maroon lines. Its long balconies with rounded edges, circular motifs and a temple-like roof top, make Keval Mahal a fine legacy of the Art Deco era.
“When writing a post, the aim is to keep the language simple and as far away from jargon as possible,” said Kumar. “We are not writing what an architect would appreciate, but someone with little or no knowledge about architecture will be able to connect to. We want it to work as an interaction with whoever is viewing the picture.”
In 2012 a citizen’s group had filed a petition asking UNESCO to give Mumbai’s Art Deco precincts the status of a World Heritage Site: “Art Deco arrived in India, literally, on the shores of Bombay spurred by the great reclamations and frantic building activity that were taking place in the city in the 1930s. Art Deco percolated through to India from Europe and chiefly from Britain and manifested itself in Bombay, especially through its iconic cinema halls which signalled its place as the film capital of India.”
Art Deco was introduced to Mumbai at a time of growing affluence. “The textile mills were booming and the merchant class made up the wealthy class in Mumbai,” said Kumar. “Owning a home constructed and designed in the Deco style became a way of flaunting their wealth and success. It was an aspirational design aesthetic. Designs were inspired by the proximity to the sea and the incorporation of balconies really took off in that era. It was new and exciting.”
As the aesthetic came to Bombay, it was adapted to Indian sensibility, with additions of sculptures of deities, birds and flower motifs.
The India Assurance building, for instance, boasts a fusion of both Indian and European motifs. Along with carvings of Indian peasants and farmers, the facade has two large intricate statues which appear to be Egyptian.
“The response and positive comments on Art Deco Mumbai pages are an extremely encouraging sign,” said Kumar. “If someone sitting in Solapur has commented ‘kadak picture hai’ for a building in Mumbai, then we are clearly making a connection with our audience.”
Though Ramani agreed that social media is a powerful tool to familiarise one with a certain subject, he adds that it is not the only avenue for information and is certainly not a replacement for formal knowledge. “It works like caption titles of a newspaper with images, simply giving them surface information via visuals to get an essence of a subject rather than a complete understanding of the discipline and its context. Printed matter is finite and limited but digital is instant and accessible worldwide to anyone who wants to learn about something quickly about something. It’s like a quick appetiser to the main course. I only hope our world does not become a world of learning appetisers with no main course!”