Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings survive against the odds

Mumbai, India CNN  — 

Hidden in the back alleys of a bustling Mumbai neighborhood lies an Art Deco masterpiece with a colorful history. The Liberty Cinema symbolizes a unique architectural amalgamation known as “Bombay Deco.” Dating back to the year of Indian independence, 1947, the building also represents the rising aspirations of a nation.

“It’s a statement to the Indian people that no theater can be too good for them and no screen too good for Indian pictures,” reads a Liberty brochure from 1949, a time when most elite cinemas in Bombay only showed Hollywood movies.

The 1,200-seat, single-screen movie theater was one of the last buildings to be constructed in the Art Deco architectural style. Mumbai is widely believed to have the second largest collection of Art Deco buildings in the world.

But the city’s Art Deco heritage is under threat, according to Atul Kumar, founder of the not-for-profit conservation organization Art Deco Mumbai. “In the face of rising real estate prices, the Art Deco legacy of Mumbai is at a real risk of being lost forever,” he said in a phone interview.

The Liberty Cinema

A cosmopolitan collection

The origins of Art Deco in Mumbai (which was officially known as Bombay before 1995) can be traced back to the period between the two world wars.

During an era of relative prosperity and cosmopolitanism in India, a rising middle class found that it had the means to commission its own architecture.

Taking influence from Paris, Miami, New York and Los Angeles, Bombay Deco put an Indian twist on a well-known style. And it was all made possible by new construction materials, according to Mustansir Dalvi, professor of architecture at the Sir JJ School of Art.

Back of the Oval

“You get an expression that is possible only with concrete,” he said in a phone interview. “Wood horizontals, flat roofs, cantilevered balconies, smooth corners – it is the materials that allows you to develop architecture that is quite unique.”

Most Bombay Deco architects were Indian, though they had often traveled to Europe and America. While many of their buildings were created in a classic Art Deco style, some incorporated traditional Indian motifs that made them distinct.

“The Lakshmi Insurance Building is emblematic of Indian-ness in Art Deco,” Dalvi said. “It has a statue of (Indian goddess) Lakshmi on top, and elephants on the facade. You also see murals showing Indian life, (while) depictions of labor can be seen in several places in Mumbai.”

Conservation efforts

In Mumbai, conservation efforts often overlook Bombay Deco in favor of Victorian-era buildings, which are usually larger and grander in stature.

“People are filled with regret when we tell them of the incredible histories behind these buildings,” said Kumar, whose organization offers architectural walking tours. “They wish they’d known of the buildings’ value earlier, so they could have better protected them.”

Lotus Court

Having been involved in conservation advocacy for over a decade, Kumar contributed to a recently approved proposal to include Bombay Deco among India’s nominations for UNESCO world heritage status. Kumar has also launched an online inventory that he claims is the first attempt to comprehensively catalog the city’s Art Deco buildings.

In one Mumbai neighborhood, 53 examples were recorded in an area smaller than one square mile. And this is “just the tip of the iceberg,” Kumar claimed.

“There are even areas outside the proposed World Heritage Site that have a large number of vintage Art Deco buildings,” he added.

Preserving the city’s essence

Many of Mumbai’s remaining Art Deco masterpieces have survived against the odds. Having become obsolete in the multiplex era, the Liberty Cinema was at the brink of shutting before extensive renovations were carried out in 2012.

It is now a cultural space hosting a range of events, from theater performances to one of South Asia’s largest LGBT film festivals. But the future of the cinema remains uncertain, according its owner Nazir Hoosein.

“In the eyes of the government, we might as well be an auditorium with bare walls,” he said in a phone interview. “They don’t see the magnificent heritage of this cinema.”

Amid lax conservation laws and growing demand for land in India’s most populous city, conserving Mumbai’s architectural heritage may seem like a futile enterprise. But for Bombay Deco enthusiasts like Dalvi, it is the only way to preserve the city’s essence.

“Art Deco is, in many ways, a depiction of cosmopolitan Bombay,” he said.

“These buildings collectively form the urban fabric of the city. Transforming them into multi-story towers would be a destruction of that fabric – and a destruction of that Bombay.”