“You look but do you really understand what you are seeing,” asks Atul Kumar, referring to the line of buildings that people gaze at on the road opposite the promenade while walking along Marine Lines, enjoying the sea breeze. Kumar is the founder of Art Deco Mumbai, an initiative attempting to engage with the people of Mumbai while creating awareness and an understanding about the city’s heritage.
For Kumar who has lived in Marine Drive area all his life, it was a journey of really seeing the buildings around him to understand the need for saving Mumbai’s Art Deco heritage and putting it on the world map. Incidentally, Marine Lines has the second largest concentration of Art Deco buildings in the world after Miami. Kumar started by participating in the campaign spearheaded by various residential associations in the area around 2010 to get Oval Maidan nominated as a heritage precinct by the state government, which was finally achieved in 2015. With the Centre having given its nod for nomination of this area as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the World Heritage Centre in Paris recently wrote to the government and is likely to send a mission to the city by September-October for the purpose.
The next step in Kumar’s journey entailed starting Art Deco Mumbai, which is only a year old now. “For me, it was a sense of disappointment of people in the city not understanding this built heritage. While Art Deco is recognised and celebrated the world over, this was not the case in Mumbai despite the massive repository of such heritage,” he says. Kumar started by going live on digital media with photos of various Art Deco buildings. A finance professional, he started taking photos of such buildings on his own before starting with a small team comprising two architects and two interns.
“Legislation is trying to save this built-up heritage but can only be up till a point. What is really required is stakeholder involvement,” he explains. As he started documenting this work, Kumar realised the power of the pictures. “To really understand what Art Deco was, I had to read up, meet experts and faculty,” he says, adding that most of his knowledge on this subject was self-taught.
Quoting from the Chicago Art Deco Society Book, the Art Deco Mumbai website explains: “Art Deco as both a style and a set of sensibilities that have in common their creator’s desire to make the designed objects of the world modern and appropriate for the machine age but without abandoning most of the central assumptions about proportion, composition, decorum and beauty that had animated western art and design for centuries….”
The term Art Deco was popularised in the 1960s. The architectural style emerged with a legendary 1925 exposition in Paris. Some of the defining features of Art Deco are geometric patterns like zigzag, rounded balconies, and elements like wave, deck-style railings etc besides the font style. For Kumar, his favourite Art Deco building in Mumbai is Pai House in Matunga. “It is a beauty. It has a very streamlined, curvilinear balcony,” he says. Other favourites include Shiv Shanti Bhavan at Churchgate. “I also like Framroz Court at Marine Drive, which is in a state of disrepair,” adds Kumar.
He talks about the interest and feedback photos of such buildings has created in the last one year. “Residents of such buildings have come forward and told us that they were going to go for repair work but after being made aware of their building being a heritage structure, they will review their plans and try to preserve the building style,” says Kumar. This initiative has led to people, especially architects having knowledge of Art Deco, getting in touch with them. Most recently, Columbia University had reach out to them. “We recently hosted students from the Columbia University Global Scholars Program. We arranged for walking tours, lectures and discussed the purpose of starting this organisation,” says Kumar. The website has been up and running for less than a month now.
Companies, colleges have all reached out to the organisation for information to gain a deeper understanding of this built heritage unique to Mumbai. The group has tried documenting all Art Deco buildings from Regal to Colaba Post Office. “We divided the area into zones and then blocks. Each block comprised eight to 14 buildings. A team was assigned to each block, which included an architect and an intern photographer. There were 374 buildings in the area, of which 53 were identified as Art Deco,” says Kumar.
For him, the joy is in being invited into people’s home who take pride in living in such buildings or simply want to take photos for them. “It’s the idea of people taking pride in the city,” he says, adding that he got a recent request from a resident from Walkeshwar, who simply wanted to capture Art Deco buildings for the group through photographs. “It all excites me,” says Kumar, pointing to the booking window of Regal as an example of what people often miss out on. “Look at its detail, it’s beautiful,” he says.