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A tribute to George Wittet

7 Jun

In the 1900s, a Scottish young man arrived on the shores of Mumbai.  Mumbai (then Bombay) was only an adolescent city- mostly covered in coconut debris, far from what it is today. There were no arrays of skyscrapers, nor the splendour of the magnificent Gateway of India to welcome him.  Instead, he was received at the docks of Apollo Bunder (known as Wellington Pier among the elite of the yester years) by a sickening stench of the fish Palla (from which Apollo Bunder derives its name) and local fishermen. Little did anyone know that this man was destined to change the face of south Bombay.

South Bombay then, did not have architecture to boast of. An elegant Town Hall modelled on the lines of Town Hall in London included the Asiatic Library and Museum, and the park of Bombay Green (now known as the Horniman Circle). This, apart from the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and the famous Watson’s Hotel were one of the few freshly constructed splendid structures of the city.

It would be wrong to say that perhaps the Indo-Saracenic architecture of Taj inspired George Wittet to build a structure that would give it some serious competition- The Gateway of India. Indeed, George was no stranger to beautiful constructions. At his native place at Edinburgh, Scotland, he had already won accolades for structures like ‘A Town House’, A Market Cross’, and ‘A Reredos and Altar’. The Indo-Saracenic style though gave some problems to Wittet.

George Wittet soon became an assistant to John Begg (who was known for his construction of the very impressive GPO of Mumbai) and trained in the Indo-Saracenic style at Bijapur, India. In his very first independent assignment, in spite of having trouble with the Indo-Saracenic architecture, Wittet constructed the grand Prince of Wales museum (Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sanghralyay as it is now known). The museum is still admired for its remarkable architectural blend of the Renaissance and the Mughal Daccan style.

In 1911, George Wittet got the chance of his lifetime to design the Gateway of India to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. The Gateway too was built in the Indo- Sarcenic style which Wittet had by now mastered. Soon, Wittet succeeded John Begg as a consulting architect to the Government of Bombay, and reverted to his preferred European style. The Institute of Science (formerly known as the Royal Institute of Science) is a classic example of his renaissance touch. (A blog on that, coming up soon.)

George Wittet went on to build some of the most beautiful and memorable structures that the city continues to admire, even today. These include, the Small Causes Court, the Wadia Maternity Hospital, Bombay House, the King Edward Memorial Hospital, The Grand Hotel and other prominent buildings  at the Ballard Estate, by the Bombay Docks.

This great architect who single handedly gave Mumbai a touch of the European romanticism , died at the age of 48 from acute Dysentery. It is ironic and disheartening to know that in spite being the reason behind such lovely monuments, Wittet’s remains lie in a rather neglected Sewri Christian Cemetery.

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Gateway of heaven called India

30 Mar

Imagine sailing through miles and miles of a turbulent Arabian sea, all the way from Great Britain to the shores of a new land. And as the shore of this new land edges closer, you see a splendid structure welcoming you. A contrasting yellow basalt stone against the blue sky and sea visible from far away, it was on a wintery December evening in the year 1911 that King George V and Queen Mary must have savored, for the first time, this beautiful sight. The gateway of India was built especially to welcome the royal couple on their first ever visit to India and was designed by George Wittet. The gateway still stands tall after almost a century, and the priceless sight of a welcoming giant gate, meant only for the royal eyes is now available for Rs.50 ($ 1) on a ferry ride.

Prior to the construction of gateway the land where it now stands was merely a crude jetty used by sailors and the fisher  folk and was referred to as Apollo Bunder or Wellington Pier.  Near Apollo Bunder was the royal Bombay Yacht Club established in 1846 and right opposite was the Taj Mahal Hotel which was built much before the gateway in 1903. It still is the most prominent landmark near gateway of India. Gateway is a mixture of ancient Hindu architecture with perforated windows from Gwalior and a dome that best aligns with Mogul architecture. It is interesting to know that gateway was supposed to have a road leading to it but it was never made for the lack of funds. An exorbitant twenty lakh Rupees ($ 40,000) were spent on its construction.

During its 100 years gateway has been a witness to many important events in history. Right from the last British troops leaving the Indian shores in 1948 to the terrorist siege at Taj Mahal Hotel in 2008. It has been an enduring symbol of Bombay and its spirit. Even today it attracts hordes of tourists from varied backgrounds.  Like any other tourist destination in India, gateway too is full of hawkers who will try to sell everything to you, right from things to eat to imitation jewellery. However there are hawkers of a different kind who click pictures and hand them over to you within five minutes for less than Rs 70-80 ( $2). These pictures can make quite a memorabilia. However one must take care when dealing with these hawkers as they can get quite aggressive especially around foreigners.

 

One can also enjoy a ferry ride that can take you sailing for 30 minutes along the coast and you can enjoy the view of gateway and the coastline for a mere Rs. 60. It is from here that ferry rides to Elephanta caves and Alibaug originate.  Elephanta is an island located about 10 Km to the east of Mumbai and has Hindu and Buddhist sculptures dating back to 8th and 10th century. These caves can make a good day time visit but one must generally refrain from visiting them late in the evening. These caves however are not comparable to the renowned caves at Ajanta and Ellora in Aurangabad, Maharashtra.  Alibaug on the other hand is a weekend getaway, frequented by the affluent of Mumbai to enjoy the solace of the sea, away from the city life. Alibaug has quite a few popular and scenic beaches such as the one at Kashid.  The fares of these ferries can range from Rs 100 – 350 ($2-7).

 

The early morning hours provide a good opportunity to visit gateway without being disturbed by a noisy crowd and hawkers.  It is only during morning hours that you can notice the height of these domes and the beauty of the perforated screens. Gateway makes a pleasant attraction during the months of winter and during monsoons when it is pleasant to drive around the roads nearby. Ideally a visit to gateway should be planned only for about an hour if the ferry ride to Elephanta is not included. Visiting gateway and Elephanta should be planned for about 4-5 hours. One can start early in the morning and expect to come back late in the evening if a trip to Alibaug and gateway is to be scheduled.

Gateway to India is a five minutes drive from Churchgate station and a cab would cost around Rs.15. It is also a ten to fifteen minutes drive from CST Station (formerly known as VT Station) and would cost Rs. 20 approximately in a cab.

 

Gateway of India is a stone throw away from Colaba Causeway, a place famous for selling imitation Jewellery, clothes, handicrafts and gift items. It is here that the famous Leopold Café and Café Mondegar are situated. It is recommended that Gateway be visited along with Colaba Causeway in the same day, if there is no journey to Elephanta caves or Alibaug on the cards

 

Although built to welcome the king and the queen of England the gateway of India is not remembered as a symbol of colonialism. It was one with Lakhs of Indians bidding good bye to the last British troops in India and is hence remembered as a symbol of the end of an oppressive colonial era and beginning of a new era of freedom.

 

The Forgotten Sound of Music at Bandstand

13 Jun

My home is on the thirteenth floor tucked away, in the heartland of British architectural legacies left behind in South Mumbai. When I wake up in the morning, I often look outside the window to behold a variety of vistas spread before me. Right from big and small ships docked in the sea to the Taj Hotel standing tall under the sun in all its glory, to waves splashing on the rocks at the root of Gateway of India. Besides these things there is a much ignored wide stretch of green land, known to few as the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial park. If you happen to ask a passerby for directions to Rajiv Gandhi Memorial park, there is a slim chance that the person will be able to help. The residents of this area know and love this little park as “Cooperage Bandstand Park”

The bandstand park is famous amongst the tiny tots as the “horse-park” because, apart from having swings, it’s one of the few parks in the whole of the city offering a place to practice horse riding. It has a circular track especially meant for kids to ride horses. Any person who has grown up in this area will have fond memories of riding horses in this park, and of the excitement they felt when riding one for the first time. Bandstand park is not only famous with the kids though, it’s also famous with the fitness fanatics because of a nice jogging track and the elderly for whom it is a preferred destination to catch up on the neighborhood gossip. Apart from being a fun place, the cooperage park offers some solace and respite from the city noise, especially for those wanting to delve deeper into their books. It has a study center which provides a quiet reading atmosphere to students who come here to study from all over town. You will be hard-pressed to get sitting space here during exam time as students sit and study late in the night here. For those who wish to carry the greenery home, it has a small nursery that has plants ranging from cacti to blossoming rose shrubs.

However, there is more to cooperage Bandstand Park than meets the eye. Looking at this park you would hardly suspect that it has such a splendid history behind it. This park was built by the British during the years when Maharishi Karve Road was known as Queen’s road and the sea that now is confined to the Marine Drive borders flowed freely right up to the area surrounding this park. Many would be intrigued to know that there was no Oval Maidan or Marine Drive back then. This park used to be at the sea shore where one could sit listening to the silent sound of splashing waves. It was here that the British often had gala parties and every Saturday evening British bands would perform on their orchestra, while the rich and famous sat around, listening. Almost a century later when the sea has been pushed far, far away by the reclaimed area, over which the oval and the whole of back bay area has been built, BMC is trying to continue the legacy. The BMC band plays here every Saturday evening and it’s not hard to imagine yourself being pulled away in time to the yester years amongst the rich and famous listening to the mingling British music and the sea waves, on a Saturday evening in this park.

The park’s history is not its only surprise.This park boasts of another fine peculiarity. The Western India Automobile Association of India (WIAA) takes care of a certain portion of this park and they educate young children in their own unique way about traffic rules. They have set up a small cycling track with signs similar to those on roads, traffic lights and zebra crossings so that children learn to understand and obey traffic rules. Parents wishing to make their children responsible citizens must not miss this park.

Weekends are a busy time at this park. Families come from far off in cars to cool off their heels here because this park has a little something to offer everyone. It’s hard to miss this park while walking from Colaba to Mantralay, and would make a great stop over after visiting causeway, to rest tired feet for a while. However most of the people who frequent this park hardly know about its history. For if you can imagine yourself getting out of an old horse carriage and stepping into a British musical gala as you walk through this gate, you will feel like you’re walking back in time. And that’s when it will really pay off to visit the surprise package called Cooperage Bandstand Park.