Many tourists routinely throng South Mumbai to witness the relics of Victorian architecture but Ballard Estate, the European style early twentieth century business district, is usually not on their list. They miss out on this commercial area on the eastern waterfront that has many treasures including the precinct with its uniform architectural style, especially the buildings on street corners, the cast-iron porches and the central open space after each row of buildings. The area is infamous for turning into a ‘ghost town’ after office hours. The Mumbai Port Trust, which owns the Estate, has since January initiated a weekend street festival to open the area up for citizens and tourists to explore.
The ‘ghost town’ tag to Ballard Estate has not always been there. The Estate was a bustling hub of activity, with a railway station called Ballard Pier, a passenger berth inside the port and many commercial establishments of big companies, mainly shipping and industries.
Under the British rule, in 1914, with the significance given to ports for commercial activity, work began to create a dock along the seashore.
“To build Alexandra dock which is today known as Indira dock, a large amount of soil had to be excavated by the then Bombay Port Trust. At that point, the problem before the authorities was on where the large quantity of soil could be dumped. It was then dumped in the low-lying, marshy land which is today known as the Ballard Estate,” said Gautam Dey, a senior official at the Mumbai Port Trust. Around 22 acres of this reclaimed land, which was a site for dumping the excavated soil, was then flattened and developed into the Ballard Estate.
It gets its name after the first chairman of the Bombay Port Trust, Colonel John Archibald Ballard. It was the city’s first and the country’s second planned commercial area with land given on lease to companies for varied periods of time, extending up to 99 years.
Though the land was given to different companies, uniformity of architecture was ensured, recalls Dey. The architect consulted was George Willet, who is also known for his contribution to other significant buildings including the Gateway of India and the Prince of Wales Museum, known today as the Chhatrapati Shivaji Vastu Sangrahalaya.
“Willet who developed a whole master plan for every building ensured that there was a uniformity in architecture. Each lease covenant laid down rules like how tall a building could be, which kind of stone could be used, where should the signage be placed. This ensured that the area remains the most visually homogenous Edwardian Neo-classical architecture in the city,” said renowned architect Abha Narain Lambah. The area was declared as a heritage sub-precinct of the Fort precinct in 1995 when the Heritage Regulations were notified in the city.
Another significant relic is the war memorial at a street junction close to the Indira docks. The memorial with winged lions at its base stands in commemoration of the contribution of the then Bombay Port Trust in the World War I, including its employees who lost their lives in the war.
A brass plaque on the memorial contextualizes the significance of the Port Trust for the Allies in the war through stating among other things the 1,87,0000 troops and personnel who embarked and disembarked at the docks during the war.
Buildings including the Darabshaw House, the Grand Hotel, Mackinnon Mackenzie remain prime attractions. The offices of many shipping companies, the headquarters of the Mumbai Port Trust, Raymond and the Irani eatery, Café Britannia, continue to remain housed in the Estate.
Old timers say that with the development of new business areas including Nariman Point and more recently Bandra-Kurla complex, many industries shifted when their lease was over. After office hours, the area still continues to be bereft of people, save for some who take shelter in its deserted streets at night. Today, a walk into the area on a quiet afternoon during the weekend would make one witness to ongoing cricket matches or film shoots and more recently the Mumbai Ballard Estate festival which is hosted in a few streets on Saturdays and Sundays.