Rajabai Tower, standing in the Mumbai University complex, is counted among the 14 Revival-Gothic heritage buildings in South Mumbai’s ‘Fort’ precinct. It is more than 125 years old! It is exciting that this whole precinct, with Gothic and Art Deco buildings created during the British rule in India, is now counted among prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India which number 28 as of 2010! This will help conserve this colourful era of history….Incidentally, New Delhi’s Edwin Lutyens-designed cluster of buildings – including the Rashtrapati Bhawan – may also be considered for the honour!
A hundred and twenty five years ago, if you stood on the surf-lashed escarpment of the thickly wooded Malabar Hill in Mumbai, you would probably see a spectacular, sweeping view of the Arabian Sea. And beyond it, you would see a picture-postcard cluster of Revival-Gothic-style buildings etched against the sun-speckled blue sky. You would also wonder if you were looking at a replica of the skyline of the faraway British capital: London!
The creation of this impressive ‘mini-London’ cityscape was the fulfillment of one man’s dream. Sir Bartle Frere came to Mumbai – then known as Bombay – as the Governor of Bombay Presidency in 1864. Frere – after whom an arterial road is named to-date in the metropolis – was a man of path-breaking ideas. He knew that by the mid-sixties of the 19th century, British rule was firmly established in India. There was little fear from the Marathas and the power of Muslim rulers was all but gone. The fort bastions and the surrounding wall built by the British on the southern end of the island of Bombay to protect their port and offices were no longer functional. Indeed, he thought, these could well make way for a beautifully designed group of public buildings which would be comparable to the skyline of his home city: London.
Sir Bartle Frere
Frere’s dream of building a mini-London began to take shape for other reasons too. Britain was hard put to import cotton for its mills from America. India was a cheaper and more prolific producer. The Industrial Revolution had given Britain an unprecedented boost and the Suez Canal had opened for sea trade in 1863. In India, the railways had set off a journey of industrial progress in 1853 and many businessmen had raked in fortunes in the new climate of burgeoning trade between India and Britain. Mumbai’s famous Flora Fountain was created in honour of Sir Bartle Frere.
Many of these business barons – including Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy, Jagannath Sunkersett, David Sassoon, Sir Premchand Roychund and Sir Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney – were willing to contribute towards building a new Bombay with the cooperation of the government. Each of these tycoons built monuments on government land to bring to fruition the dream that had taken shape in the mind of Sir Bartle Frere.
CST Victoria Terminus, Mumbai
The cluster of buildings which Frere wanted for the British fort area included two railway termini (the CST or Victoria Terminus is already in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list), a hospital, a college and a public hall, a post office, an art school, a market, a bank, a court, a university with an impressive library and tower, a secretariat, a building for the newly active municipality, a library and a beautiful church. The plan also provided for several ancillary buildings, which would serve the city’s rising population.
These buildings were surrounded by vast open green spaces, lined with sprawling trees, such as the Oval, Cross and Azad Maidans, to enhance Frere’s vision of grandeur. Well-known British architects, who were familiar with the architectural traditions of Britain, were assigned to design these buildings in the Revival-Gothic style of architecture, using ethnic Indian features to make them unique in colour and style.
Because the Arabian Sea lapped the shore close to the monuments – before the reclamation of the sea created today’s glittering Queen’s Necklace or Marine Drive Promenade – Frere also thought that a view of the ‘little London’ would help approaching British ship crews to overcome their homesickness.
Arguably, the most spectacular among these 14 buildings in Frere-town was the clock tower and library building of the Bombay University, established in 1857. It was financed by industrialist Sir Premchand Roychund and named after his mother Rajabai. Roychund donated a handsome amount of Rs.four lakhs and charged the British heavy interest for delaying the construction of the tower and library, which was completed in thirteen years. Designed by the famous British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, the Rajabai Tower compared well with the Big Ben of London. Though Scott himself never came to India, local architects and builders – both British and Indian – followed his plans after adapting the designs to Indian requirements and used the best Indian construction materials.
The Rajabai Tower, when completed, rose to 85.37 meters and comprised seven storeys. It stood 36.59 meters above its neighbouring buildings and was the tallest structure in the city for many decades. The design included sculptures that decorated its four sides within the niches and canopies made of best quality Porbander stone. These represented the 24 castes of Western India. Typical sculptures of immortal litterateurs like Homer and Shakespeare decorated the capitals over the entrance columns. The winding staircase had a vaulted ceiling lit by large stained glass windows facing the east and each landing was decorated with richly carved animal sculptures. The tower had a four-sided clock, which became operative in 1880. With its 3.8 meter diameter, the Rajabai Tower clock was one of the biggest in Bombay. Its huge dial was originally illuminated by gas jets placed behind. The clock was programmed to play 16 tunes created by an equal number of bells, the largest of them weighing three tons. Among the musical trills played by the clock were typical British-empire tunes like Rule Britannia and of course, the national anthem, God Save The Queen. Recently, the heirs of the Roychund family donated the portraits of the donor and his mother. These hang now in the entrance hall.
For over a hundred years, the Rajabai Tower and Library building stood stoically like a sentinel watching over the fast-changing, frenetic growth of Bombay into modern Mumbai, a throbbing, pulsating 21st century financial hub of Independent India. The desperate priorities of a nascent nation overtook the need for conservation of Frere’s precious monuments until India began its own march on the road to development and progress. As the 21st century dawned and the liberalization of the Indian economy began to show results, a new awareness of heritage sites and the need to upgrade them spread among many Mumbai architects, NGOs, heritage trusts and the government. Many plans were drawn up to restore Mumbai’s Gothic structures. The Rajabai Tower and Library featured prominently in them. In the mid nineties, conservation architect Vikas Dilawari was entrusted the work of resurrecting the stained glass windows and restoring the library building. Repairs of the clock also commenced.
Dilawari’s preliminary research yielded interesting historical events. “The Gothic buildings built in the Fort area of Mumbai were a symbol of the mid-19th century British lifeview,” he says, “The Industrial Revolution had brought a ‘time-bound’ work ethic into focus. Since most workers did not own wristwatches, huge clocks were put on public buildings like the University, the Crawford Market, the Victoria Terminus and the Secretariat for public use. The Rajabai Tower was the first secular building where 762 meters of stained glass were installed without any religious motifs. We realized that priceless rosewood was used for all windows and stairways and that each detail of the building was designed in keeping with the Revival Gothic architectural style.”
Dilawari’s work began with the British Council Division, Mumbai and the British Department of Trade & Industry contributing Rs.80 lakhs towards the restoration and providing top stained glass experts and materials for the restoration. The remaining amount was provided by the University of Mumbai, which raised the money through several popular events. The restoration work began in 1997 and was completed in 1999. The assignment covered structural restoration and resurrection of the stained glass windows. The precious Minton flooring on the ground floor was also restored. The library was one of the first public buildings in the country to be restored completely with internationally accepted principles and methods of conservation.
“Of all our efforts, the resurrection of the stained glass windows was obviously the most challenging,” says Dilawari, “British designers Alfred Fisher, Sep Waugh and Mark Bambrough came to Mumbai with the required materials and worked with the Indian team for months till all the windows were brought to their former glory. The designs of the stained glass brought back the true ambience of the building, which is considered a magnificent example of Revival Gothic architecture. The mechanism of the clock was repaired to the extent possible and eight bells were made functional with their chimes playing every 15 minutes. Today, the clock is wound at regular intervals to function well. We are proud that the restoration work received an honorable mention in the Asia Pacific Heritage Awards.”
The historic Rajabai Tower and Library – with their spacious vaulted halls, nostalgic galleries, imposing stairways inspired by the Palazzo Ducale, Venice and exquisite stained glass windows – are now almost back to their original glory. The library houses 7418 priceless hand-written manuscripts in Sanskrit, 1190 manuscripts in Urdu, Persian and Arabic, 181 granthas (volumes) written on palm leaves and 1174 manuscripts of the famous 16th century Marathi poet, Moropant. The library has six lakh books and magazines of many eras, with the oldest book going back to 1490 A.D. – a travellogue from Germany to Jerusalem written by Breydenbach. It also houses collections of books, diaries, newspapers, clippings and records commemorating great Indians like Bharat Ratna Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, legal luminary A.A. Fyzee, philanthropist Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy and Sanskrit scholar Bharat Ratna P V Kane.
Today, the Rajabai Tower continues to rule majestically over modern Mumbai’s landscape. In its new, restored look, it attracts attention even in the hopelessly cluttered skyline. When it celebrated its 125th year, the University held many events to draw attention to its beauty and history. These included lectures by historians, conservation architects and literary figures. A permanent exhibition of priceless manuscripts was created in the ground floor hall and a commemorative volume was published during the year. There are also plans to digitalize the library. Along with Rajabai Tower & Library, many Gothic heritage buildings of Mumbai have had a facelift in the last decade. Thus, the newly restored ‘mini-London’ now offers a captivating view of Mumbai’s colonial history and continues to highlight the city’s unique personality. Leading architects and historians of the world consider this ensemble of buildings as ‘unrivalled anywhere in the world’!