From Art Deco To Part Deco: Exploring Mumbai’s Unique Architectural Style

(L) Soona Mahal, Shiv Shanti Bhavan (R)
(L) Soona Mahal, Shiv Shanti Bhavan (R)(L), (R)

If you have been anywhere near Instagram lately, you would have noticed the micro-trend of ‘romanticising Bombay’ reels that have sprouted up across the platform. These 30-45 second snippets showcase the same areas of Fort, Colaba, Marine Lines, and Churchgate, with many of the same buildings being shown and for good reason. The architectural style of South Bombay’s cult favourite localities is extremely unique to the rest of the city, boasting a more laid-back sense of architecture, in comparison to the more brutal Victorian-gothic buildings like the CST building.

The term ‘Art Deco’ was coined in 1966 by The Times’ writer Hillary Gelson, taken from arts décoratifs in French when America was experiencing a renaissance of this architectural style from the 1920s. It became a catch-all phrase for anything built from 1925-1939, responding to the change in culture from the more feminine Art Nouveau style, to a harsher, more masculine Art Deco style.

However, Mumbai’s style of Art Deco architecture is slightly different. When we think of Art Deco, we think of jazz-era flappers, extravagance, and glamour, reminiscent of the Chrysler Building in New York. But Mumbai follows the Miami-influenced ‘tropical Deco’ style, with rounded edges, pastel colours, racing stripes, and overlapping lettering. After Miami, Mumbai has the largest number of Art Deco buildings anywhere in the world, with over 200 such structures spread across not only Fort and Colaba, but also Matunga, Mahim, and Dadar.

Keval Mahal, Mumbai, Image Courtesy:

Driving down Marine Lines, all the way up to Malabar Hill, you can see scores of Art Deco buildings and even modern buildings that have been inspired by the bygone eras. These old buildings are more recent than the ones built during the British era and are a breakaway from that style of British Gothic-Indo Saracenic style architecture adorning monuments and public buildings. In contrast, Art Deco buildings were community-forward, with apartments, schools, and movie theatres being built in that style. The area around Oval Maidan provides a visually striking architectural history of both Victorian-Gothic on its East side and Art Deco on its West side, creating a trajectory of Mumbai’s vast history, from its British era to a more mod, independent, and cosmopolitan India in 1947. Mumbai’s Eros, Regal, and Liberty Cinemas are all brilliant examples of this bygone style of architecture and bring back feelings of nostalgia and remembrance, especially as these buildings are becoming fewer and further between.

In ‘ye olde’ 1930s, living in an Art Deco building was a sign of prosperity and the creation of a new professional working class. These architects built these buildings keeping Mumbai in mind, influenced by its tropical imagery, weather, and strict building regulations for reclaimed land.

Marine Lines, Mumbai, Image Courtesy: Courrier International

It is only recently that UNESCO declared a cluster of these Art Deco buildings a World Heritage Site. A small group of Mumbai’s citizens are lobbying for the preservation and restoration of these buildings to their former glory, like Atul Kumar, an architectural enthusiast, who began his Instagram page and foundation Art Deco Mumbai in 2016 in an effort to document and catalogue all of Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings. Speaking to Mr Kumar, he says that Art Deco brought in a new definition to Bombay’s geography, and created a modern living heritage- they are live spaces where we have spent our lives- creating an emotional connect that spans generations. A trustee of the foundation, Ms Shirin Bharucha adds that the trust holds tours in various localities in Bombay.

Another is The Oval Trust, a group of residents near Oval Maidan who work to conserve their beautiful residential apartments. After overlooking the contribution of this iconic style, we have finally come around to realising the historical and aesthetic values that these buildings bring to the city, despite the fact these buildings are by and large fading and falling into the background.

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