Mustansir Dalvi

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Mustansir Dalvi teaches architecture in Mumbai; and is an author, poet and translator. He writes on urban issues and critiques the unraveling urban fabric of Mumbai in its current post-planning avatar.

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Why preserving Mumbai’s heritage is preserving Marathi asmita

Sep 10, 2012

Twenty years ago, a report on Mumbai’s urban heritage was prepared under an enlightened Municipal  Commissioner, Jamshed Kanga. The Kanga Report articulated the need to identify, document and preserve through
legislation those parts of Mumbai that made it Mumbai. This was adopted by the State Government and the municipality and became policy.

Using international benchmarks while appreciating local conditions, heritage guidelines were drafted to stave off the wanton destruction of buildings and precincts. Its recommendations did get implemented, slowly, with the patient participation and efforts of many sensitive citizens: architects, academics, planners, sociologists and educated laypersons from every walk of life. At one point, we all patted ourselves on the back, celebrating the success of the heritage moment.

Now, Mumbai’s Heritage Movement is dead. Weep not for the buildings, public spaces and water bodies that will soon be lost in the miasma of ‘redevelopment’; shed a tear instead for ignorant, ideologically moribund and capricious thinking, that considers the preservation of the urban fabric of our city a speed breaker on our expressway to Shanghai.

Shivaji Park in central Mumbai is surrounded by low buildings. Getty images

A new, completely manufactured discourse has just been raised, decrying the civic heritage committee’s move to expand the ambit of areas to be preserved. Evoking the Marathi Manoos to bulwark against heritage has resulted in an ominous class and culture-based discourse of difference. This accusation that heritage listing is the enemy of redevelopment is being articulated from all shades of the political spectrum. It damns everything that the city has achieved in preserving its physical urbanity by calling its success one-sided and bourgeois.

Heritage is elitist: Oh so SoBo!

Shivaji Park and its surroundings are the battleground for this new power-play, based on a perceived articulation of victim-hood. The argument goes like this: areas predominantly inhabited by Marathi speaking Mumbaikars (like Dadar, Matunga, Prabhadevi, Lalbaug and Mahim) will be stifled from the benefits of change if they come under the Heritage Preservation List. What is the heritage worth preserving in these decrepit, about to collapse, poorly serviced buildings, that the Marathi Manoos be deprived from the benefits of redevelopment?

What is left unsaid is that ‘redevelopment’ today means is unbridled, grounded in profit, aspiration. The promise of ‘free’ FSI is only possible by the infiltration into an egalitarian space by speculators whose purpose can only be served by the wholesale gentrification of a city that was, up to this point, everybody’s city.

The Marathi Manoos argument misses out on two essentials: The first is that open spaces in Mumbai like Shivaji Park or Five Gardens were designed as green lungs in well laid out neighbourhoods. They were meant to be public spaces for the use of everyone who lived in its vicinity. They are not and have never been gated spaces. These spaces were part of the City Improvement Trust developments starting from the 1920s to create middle class housing for an essentially migrant, rising population.

The best of these new neighborhoods were the Dadar-Matunga Estate, the Parsi and Hindu Colonies on either side of King’s Circle. Their success rested on the scale of their buildings and the harmonious urban fabric that resulted, with ground and three upper stories and matching building lines. We recognize this harmony today as a symbol of Mumbai’s urbanity and cosmopolitanism. This fabric is the heritage that needs preserving, not individual buildings as such. Open spaces are determined by the height of the buildings that flank them. New twenty storey buildings around Shivaji Park would not only destroy its fabric but also loom overbearingly over the maidan making the vast public space puny.

The second argument is historic. In Mumbai, while the architecture of the Raj, the public buildings that defined Urbs Prima Indis, have been largely identified as heritage and preserved, there has been little recognition of the buildings outside of these hoary piles, especially in public perception. These ‘other’ buildings are largely non-monumental, even domestic in scale. They define the architecture of the city that came up in the penultimate decades before independence.

The Improvement Trust laid out residential precincts in Sion, Parel, Dadar, Matunga, Mohammed Ali Road, Byculla, Nagpada, Princess Street, Sandhurst Road, Elphinstone Road and Colaba. These planned neighborhoods provided homes at reasonable rents and open spaces for all. That should be enough reason to preserve these areas as essential
urban image givers to the city, its familiar and friendly face.

But if ever a reason is needed for a heritage listing of these very areas, it is this: The buildings of the 1930s and 1940s represent the first examples of Mumbai’s home-grown architectural practice. After graduating from the Sir JJ School, having studied and worked with stalwarts like Claude Batley, C. M. Master, Foster King and G. B. Mhatre, these young architects would design hundreds of buildings in these emerging localities and collectively establish an urban image
that was both unique and local, an expression of RCC adapted to Mumbai’s tropical climate and the social exigencies of middle income housing.

Here are some of the architects and architecture firms who designed most of the buildings in the Shivaji Park locality at this time: G. B. Mhatre, S. H. Parelkar, V. M. Suvarnapatki, R. K. Joshi, D. P. Borkar, S. J. Narvekar, G. D. Sambhare, G. W. Marathe, D. G. Vaidya, S. M. Kini; Patki, Jadhav & Dadarkar, Jaykar & Gupchup, Parelkar, Ovalekar, Gore & Parpia and the Dhurandhar brothers. The buildings around Shivaji Park, Five Gardens and the Dadar-Matunga estate were predominantly designed by pioneering Marathi Manoos. Seeking to destroy them today in the name of redevelopment is to erase an essential, eighty year old built heritage that contributed to the Marathi asmita (pride) of the city, just as much as the poets and litterateurs of the language did.

Happily, redevelopment does not mean the wholesale demolition of buildings so that towers can be built in their place. Heritage conservation is sufficiently well developed in Mumbai, with some excellent practitioners who can refurbish these buildings and adapt them for contemporary use, easily increasing their age for many decades to come. The buildings and the concurrent fabric can remain as it was, even as users and uses change. The present open precincts do
not need to become walled enclosures for the affluent. The Marathi socio-cultural sphere has always been nourished by the buildings of middle Mumbai, as much as it has by the chawls of Girangaon. Both formed the fertile ground for a lot of its expression over the last half century or so, but have never been acknowledged as the agency that encouraged this.

In our world of rising affluence today, we are happy to wallow in the ignorance of our own past. Happy to flush it away as irrelevant, we choose to selectively raise a banner of victimhood instead. Preserving the immovable feast that is architecture and encouraging its appreciation is an ongoing cultural sustenance. Recognising our heritage is  recognising ourselves.

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