Under restoration for nearly two years, the iconic Flora Fountain emerged from behind scaffoldings last month and is likely to be inaugurated next week after the first phase of the work was completed.
The beautification project entails turning the 19th Century fountain from just a landmark to a plaza and recreate the ethos of the bygone era. “Every time you talk of open space, everyone thinks of gardens. Here, we want people to use it as a meeting space. We have removed the flanking elliptical garden and are going to pave it with basalt stones, which is how it used to be historically, on which trams would ply. We have also found the tram tracks and are going to lay them,” says conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, whose firm was given the restoration contract in 2016 by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
Dilawari said restoring the most important public square at the heart of a busy area with intersecting roads was challenging, as it is like an island in a sea of traffic. “The result is a culmination of great teamwork with the heritage cell (of the BMC), my team, the team of Indian National Trust of Art and Cultural Heritage, and structural engineer Kiran Bhavsar,” he said.
Dilawari likens the restoration project to medical interventions, like orthopaedic and plastic surgeries. Talking about why it took two years to restore the fountain, he said it took about six months to remove the layers of paint. “Only when we started removing everything slowly and systematically, we saw there was a crack in the neck (of one figurine at the base of the fountain) that needed to be mended. We had the original broken arm (of another figurine) with us, which needed to be re-fixed. There were two missing hands that had to be re-carved in stone. The artists had to make a rough mould and use photos and anatomy of the rest of the things,” he recalls.
But the most important part was the water engineering, which took a long time, he says. “There were no drawings. We investigated slowly and thoroughly and found the pipes concealed within the drum that go up to the fishes’ mouth, which releases water onto a shell, which then releases it on the lion’s head before falling.”
The mystery of the water network was revealed in 2017 when Dilawari’s team of structural engineers came across seven feet and six inches deep chamber at the centre of the fountain that had been sealed off about five decades ago. After the chamber was discovered, the team cleaned up the area and placed two support beams. A waterproof entrance to the chamber was set up and four sluice valves installed to replace the damaged valves.
According to data provided by the BMC heritage team, the restoration contract for Flora Fountain, at Hutatma Chowk, costs Rs 1.73 crore and the beautification contract for the surrounding area costs Rs 2.42 crore. The BMC decided to restore the three-tiered fountain after it stopped functioning over three years back and the project was allotted to Dilawari and his team in June 2016. The second phase of work includes enhancing the surrounding area, including illumination, paving of the surroundings and construction of the plaza.
“We have completed 50 per cent of the work and completing the remaining 50 per cent in the next three months is our target. Stones for 10,000 sqft will now be sourced from the quarries of Maharashtra and Gujarat border,” says Dilawari.
Inaugurated on November 18, 1869, Flora Fountain was dedicated to Governor Bartle Frere. It was commissioned by the Agri-Horticultural Society of western India and built at a total cost of
Rs 47,000 at that time. The design was prepared by R Norman Shaw and the fountain was sculpted, in imported Portland stone, by James Forsythe, who was among Britain’s finest sculptors. The fountain features four mythological figurines, along with the figure of “Flora”, the Roman Goddess, that sits atop the fountain.