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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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