Of Fonts and Faces: An Architecture Guide to Mumbai Art Deco

Plus, a neighbourhood guide to the city's art deco masterpieces.

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Mumbai is said to have the second largest collection of art deco architecture. Pictured here is the striking bas relief crowning the entrance to a fire temple. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy/Indiapicture

They’re such a common sight in Indian cities. Cows on the street rarely draw a second glance. Despite this, the white cow in Gaiwadi is difficult to ignore. Standing stolidly at the entrance to a block of flats in the old Mumbai neighbourhood of Girgaum, it watches the clamour on Jagannath Sunkersett Road without moving a muscle. The cause of the animal’s paralysis isn’t difficult to diagnose: it’s made of stone. But Gaiwadi’s guardian doesn’t look anything like the Nandi idols that sit in front of Shiva temples. Just like the buildings behind it, the statue’s surfaces are streamlined, even aerodynamic.

The holy cow and the Gaiwadi flats display the classic elements of art deco, the design style that became all the rage across the world in the 1930s. Characterised by symmetry and rectilinearity, art deco melded traditional motifs from a variety of cultures with modern construction techniques. The elegant style grabbed attention at an international fair in Paris in 1925 and landed in Mumbai right in time for a building boom that followed the fading of the Great Depression. As India’s commercial capital had done with so many other international cultural forms, it reached enthusiastically for art deco and moulded it cannily to express the city’s eternal optimism.

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A walk around Fort brings to light the architectural detail on old buildings. Don’t miss the iconic figures on the New India Assurance building (left) and the winged beings outside the Central Treasury Office of the Methodist Church in India. Photos: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy/Indiapicture

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The art deco buildings and restaurants on Maharshi Karve Road in Churchgate, have sweeping views of Oval Maidan (pictured here) and its cricket-crazed patrons who often book the lawns’ pitches weeks in advance. Photo: Petr Svarc/Alamy/Indiapicture

Art deco’s popularity in Mumbai was the result of a fortuitous coincidence of circumstances. In the 1930s, as land reclamation and a suburbanisation scheme in the Dadar-Matunga area gave Mumbai ample room to grow, the city’s first generation of architects trained in the West was returning home. On these plots, they created a variety of art deco masterpieces, both public and private, some grandiose, others rather more functional.

Soon, traces of the chic new style became visible on the facades of  Zoroastrian fire temples, Jain meeting halls, office buildings, movie theatres, and homes down the length of the island-city. These structures bore an eclectic range of imagery: their lines reflected the nautical curves of steamships and the sleek flow of new-fangled jet planes; they were decorated with patterns that drew from Egyptian and Greek art. Central to these displays of “domestic deco”, as historians have labelled this genre, were subcontinental flourishes. Mumbai’s deco buildings deployed bas reliefs of toiling farmers, stone parapets just like the ones you’d find in Rajasthani palaces, figures of sacred animals, and goddesses.

Of Fonts and Faces: An Architecture Guide to Mumbai Art Deco 1

Elements of the art deco architectural style, which flourished across Mumbai in the 1930s, can still be spotted today. The typography of cinema hall signboards like the one at Liberty (pictured here) are characteristic of the style. Photos: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy/Indiapicture (Liberty and Agiary), Dinodia Photo (Chicago Radio and Rope Co.)

Some of the best examples of domestic art deco can be observed along the western side of the Oval Maidan in the Churchgate area. The buildings here, built in the 1930s, have names like Palm Court and Greenfields and Court View. Don’t miss the panels of tropical birds at Swastik Court, the clouds, sun and waves on the metal grilles at Empress Court, the Greek frozen fountain motif at the entrance of Court View.

Art deco has become such an essential part of the landscape, it sometimes seems like it was born in the city. That is exactly what Salman Rushdie would have us believe. In his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, he gleefully puts this thought into the mouths of one of his characters. “I actually grew up believing Art Deco to be a Bombay style, a local invention, its name derived, in all probability, from the imperative of the verb ‘to see’,” the man declares. “Art dekho. Lo and behold art.”

A Quick Walk Through Mumbai’s Art Deco Neighbourhoods

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The iconic Eros theatre is one of Mumbai’s most popular Art Deco buildings. It leads the trail to a slew of other gems in the area, with art deco font and beautiful, old metal grills. Photo by: Dinodia Photo

Mumbai is believed to have the second largest collection of art deco buildings in the world, second only to Miami’s Art Deco District in South Beach.

Marine Drive 
Mumbai’s most popular art deco building is a flourishing movie theatre called Eros, that attracts hoards of manic Bollywood fans for Friday matinee shows. Just opposite Churchgate station, this structure is built in typical art deco style and is a good place to begin exploring the area. From Eros, walk past Churchgate station and the slew of restaurants and airline offices on Veer Nariman Road until you reach Rustom’s, a local legend known for the Parsi owner’s quirky temperament and ice-cream biscuits. Get a treat and begin your walk along Marine Drive. The breezy seaside promenade is lined with budget hotels and residential buildings with curvy balconies, signs featuring the classic art deco font, and beautiful, old metal grills. Legend has it that in the 1940s, apartments in buildings facing the ocean were far cheaper than those overlooking Churchgate railway station because residents feared they would be the first to be attacked by invading forces during World War II.

Girgaum
Girgaum is known for its mandirs and ethnic munchies. The neighbourhood’s narrow gullies are crowded with no-frills stores, thali joints, and temples that date back centuries. Gaiwadi, near Dadi Seth Agiary Lane, is guarded by the bust of a stylish, art deco cow. Stroll around the neighbourhood for a while and then head to Shree Thaker Bhojanalay for the best Gujarati thali in the city.

Marine Lines 

A minute’s walk from Bombay hospital is Liberty cinema, the most well-preserved art deco theatre in Bombay. The old-world gem has been put in the spotlight again, thanks to a clutch of indie music and film producers that are using the space for audio-visual music performances. It’s one of the venues for the week-long Mumbai Film Festival in October. The West End Hotel, across the road, is a great place for a pre- or post-show drink. Chez Nous, the hotel’s bar, looks just like it did four decades ago during its inception.

Fort Precinct

Mumbai’s bustling heritage block is full of architectural treasures. Among the neo-gothic, Greek revival, and Renaissance revival buildings in the area are a clutch of art deco buildings like the New India Assurance Building on Dadabhai Naoroji Road, which is a shining example of domestic deco style. The Vatcha Agiary near Flora Fountain (farther south on the same road) on the other hand is built in Assyrian deco style while Regal cinema at the cusp of Colaba employs the kind of deco details you might see on buildings in Miami’s Art Deco District in the United States.
— Neha Sumitran

Appeared in the October 2013 issue as “Mumbai’s Art Deco”. Updated in July 2018. 

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  • Naresh Fernandes is the editor of Scroll.in and the author of books, including "Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay's Jazz Age" and "City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay".

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