Empress Court, Mumbai

Mumbai has an extensive Art Deco heritage. A building that I pass very often is the Empress court, which stands on Dinshaw Vacha Road, facing the Oval Maidan. It is one of the row of Art Deco buildings which stand to the west of the center of club cricket in India, facing the Gothic revival buildings across the open space. Every time I walk past it, I look at the metal rails on the balconies (photo above). Last Sunday I stepped back across the road and looked at the north facade in its totality. The Art Deco style is clear, when you do this.

As you can see in the photo above, the north facade is plain, except for the vertical lines which enclose the balconies. Gajanan B. Mhatre was the architect of Empress Court, and several other buildings in this area. I suppose these must have been from the early period of his work, perhaps the mid to late 1930s.

I moved towards the entrance, which is exactly at the corner. The lovely scalloped arch above the entrance is detailed in two types of stone. The iron-work of the door is also typically Art Deco. I didn’t enter the lobby, but it is a beautiful space made with coloured stones. You can see a bit of it through the open doors. Instead, I stepped back.

From the corner you can see the streamlined shapes of the balconies massed over each other. This is typical late Art Deco. The gate post in front, and the ironwork gate are details which enhance the building. I guess some of this is the work of Kanga and Co, the executive architects on this project.

I stepped back across the road, scrunched far back into the iron rails of the Oval Maidan and looked at the building as a whole. From this distance the streamlined, faintly nautical, look of the late Style Moderne becomes obvious. It is also obvious that the top floor was added later. A little poking around brought up a few references which claimed that this was added in the 1950s. So that also dates the original structure as being built between the mid 30s and the 50s. The Empress Court remains one of the best maintained buildings in this area.


A red-tailed skink

I sat at the very edge of the protected forest near a rubber plantation in the neighbourhood of Thattekad in Kerala. In front of me two juvenile skinks ran along the leaf litter on the ground, and climbed over tree trunks and stones. The horizon was rising towards the sun, and we could see sunlight only on the tops of the trees around us. I guessed that these skinks were diurnal, but couldn’t figure out why I thought so. Had I seen them before?

A little search, and I figured that these were Dussimier’s skinks (Sphenomorphys dussimieri). That led me to the information that they are diurnal and eat insects. The IUCN red list says that they are widely distributed along the Western Ghats, and are not thought to be threatened. It also mentions that they are oviparous. That was puzzling, are some skinks not hatched from eggs? It seems so. Some skinks even have placenta, like true mammals! Not much seems to be known about skinks. It is not even clear whether most Indian skinks came with the drifting landmass when it separated from Africa, or migrated into it after it struck Asia. In fact, it is possible that there are as yet undiscovered skink species in the Western Ghats.

But the sight kept bothering me. Had I seen this species before? Some digging through my archives threw up the photo that you see above. Four years ago I’d seen a Dussimier’s skink 1500 kilometres north, in Matheran. That could be close to the northern limits of this species. In this photo it is clear that the species has four toes. The three black stripes, one on top, and two on the sides are distinctive. The red tail belongs to juveniles. I think it turns into the striped white and black in an adult. I’m so happy that I could trace down that itch in my memory.

Eros Cinema

The keystone architectural piece in Mumbai’s Art Deco district is the Eros Cinema. I’d noticed that it has been shut for a few weeks, so I walked up to it last Sunday. The doors were propped slightly open, so I peeped in. Two security guards sat outside the dark lobby. I could see the clean Art Deco lines of the outer lobby; the inner part was lost in the gloom. The senior guard saw my camera and stood up. “I have been asked to prevent people from taking photos,” he said. I appealed to his sense of filmic history, and he softened. “You can take photos of the outside, but please do not take any in the lobby,” he pleaded.

I stepped out and looked at the familiar building. The cinema is only one of the many things in the premises. One side has several eateries and a couple of bars. The other side has a chain cafe, and a gym. The building work had started in 1935, and the cinema opened in 1938. Mumbai’s underground will pass through tunnels below these roads, so much of this area is blocked off. It was hard to step back to take a photo of the beautifully stepped frontage made in red Agra sandstone. I had to satisfy myself with a side view (above).

There is a strange story of litigation between the labour department and the owners of the building which I pieced together from various newspaper reports I’d not paid much attention to. The cinema was shut down on the direction of a labour court which was adjudicating a dispute over unpaid salaries. A later report states that the High Court directed the cinema to be unsealed, since it is a tenant and not the owner of the premises, and it was possibly the owner against whom the labour court had ordered action. Since the cinema has not reopened, it is possible that a counter-suit is in progress. It would be a comedy of errors, if it were not for the tragedy of one of Mumbai’s iconic buildings lying neglected and in need of repairs (as you can see in the photo above).

I walked round to the back of the building. The profile that I could see from here was a typical late period Art Deco profile: If you could mentally subtract the clutter of wires and pipes tacked on over the years, you could see the elegant curves and long straight lines of Art Deco. The details in red over the cream coloured balcony, and under it, were also straight out of the Art Deco design book of the architects Shorabji Bedwar.

Just before I walked in to the cafe for my shot of espresso, I noticed the side entrance with a trio of guards passing a quiet Sunday morning chatting with each other. One beautiful detail caught my eye. The holder for the light above the entrance is outlined in a neat white circle. A nice light touch, isn’t it?

Pressing matters

Walking around Shaniwar Wada in Pune, I was impressed by this juicer. I’ve earlier seen this kind of a machine being used to extract juice from sugar cane. Here it has been put to use to extract juice from pineapples too. The man in the checked shirt got a large mug of pineapple juice. I guess a press of this kind can be used to extract juice from any hard fruit.

I liked the sight of that charm hanging over the machine: the lime and chilis on a string. The shopkeeper also has made the effort to put a garland of flowers around the press. That’s nice. The bells tied around the big wheel make a nice jingling sound while the press is running.

The area around Pune produces sugarcane as a primary crop. So I guess machines of this kind are fairly common. Then it stands to reason that the same machine will be put to other uses as well. Innovation!

Commoners take over the Court

Shaniwar Wada in Pune was the seat of the Peshwas in the declining years of the Maratha empire. The palace complex was built in the first third of the 18th century CE, and burnt down in 1828. A Peshwa was originally the prime minister of the Maratha king, but during these years became effectively the head of the empire, and the position became hereditary. Although the empire was not as strong as it was in the beginning of the 18th century, a large part of India’s politics was transacted in this complex. This former place of power is now effectively a walled garden for Puneris.

As we entered the main gate of the palace, I saw this middle aged man relaxing near the entrance. I wondered whether he was retired and found this a good place to get away from home and do some people watching, or whether he’d had a tiring day at work, and was just sitting here for a while before making his way home. It didn’t look like he was planning to stay here long.

From the ramparts I looked down at the front apron. Families were milling about, each trying to take a photo against the walls of the palace. As I watched, this girl positioned her family behind her and took a selfie. It took a couple of tries, but the one she’s examining in the photo above seemed to satisfy them all.

I positioned myself in front of this arch because the doorway and the stairs behind it made a nice picture. The photo would come to life when someone came down the stairs. I was lucky, the first people to descend were this young couple. I saw many couples like them in the complex. The seat of the Peshwas has now become a garden for couples to spend time in.

This lady was clearly determined to have a little time by herself. She was in a rather nice sari, sitting alone on the bench (it was very pleasant in the shade). She was quite relaxed while watching people around her. But she noticed me taking her photo and stiffened.

In 1818 the Maratha empire lost their final battle against the British forces in Khadki and Koregaon, not far from this palace. Just a short hundred years later, three or four generations, almost in living memory, the court of the Peshwas has become the playing ground of commoners. What could happen in another hundred?

Wrought Angles

After watching a little club cricket in India’s cricketing nursery of Oval Maidan, I crossed the road to take photos of the wonderful wrought iron railings that I’d noticed for years. Next to an elegant design in right angles set off by one wavy line, I spotted this young man lost in his phone. The right angles of his posture mirrored the railing. He didn’t notice me standing near him and taking photos. A passerby stopped to exchange a smile with me.


We came into Muenster on a rainy Sunday in November. Muenster is usually very lively, but Sunday is a bit of an exception. Many things are closed. When we came to the beautiful building called the Erbdrostenhof, we found that it was closed. This is the work of the master German baroque architect Johann Conrad Schlaun. The building was completed in 1757. My first reaction to it was that it was much smaller and cramped than I had imagined it to be.

The Family and I admired the three-winged building from outside the closed gates. The central facade is of sandstone, and the two side wings is faced with red clinker. These and the quartered windows are characteristic of the buildings that Schlaun designed. Unfortunately, since the building was closed, we could not go in to see the ballroom, which is supposed to be a marvel of restoration. We walked around to the back, but the walls there were high and did not let us have a good look. I guess we will have to go back to see this again.

Walking around a village

We drove a few hours from Kochi to Thattekad, and reached a home stay on the far side of the Periyar river. In the evening we crossed the river for a walk around Thattekad village. From the highway it looked like there was only a rain-forest nearby. Then I saw the little path worn away by regular use. As we followed the path, I realized that this was not a pristine rain-forest; it had been cleared for human use.

The word ecosystem comes to mind as you walk around the village. The network of species is not as dense as it would be inside the protected forest, but you can see it here very easily.

A speckled piculet pecked away at a bare tree: there were clearly insects running up the trunk. I’d never seen a piculet before.

Ants swarmed over tiny yellow flowers which I didn’t recognize. They pollinate the flowers even as they harvest nectar. Elsewhere, a deeper food chain: aphid colonies have taken over a patch of bushes, and ants run up and down them, clipping their wings and harvesting the honey dew which they secrete.

There were flowers which I did not recognize. The one thing which I did was the touch-me-not, familiar from my childhood. Its leaves curl up if you touch them. This was the plant whose name, Mimosa pudica, first introduced me to Latin binomials.

Above us a plum-headed parakeet hung upside down, feeding on tiny fruits. Parakeets disperse seeds widely, and are key players in keeping a forest alive.

As soon as you get away from a city you begin to see the web of life which covers our planet.

The Luck of the Clock

The Sadar Market of Jodhpur sprawls symmetrically around the clock tower in the center. Most of the market is about a storey high, so you have no problem telling the time, no matter which shop you are in. One of the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Sardar Singh, had caused the market and the tower to be built. I’m usually too lazy to climb a tower. There are several clock towers in the part of Mumbai where I live, and the thought of climbing one never enters my mind. But this was only four storeys high. Not a problem at all.

I could find very little about the tower. I asked the person who was selling tickets for it. He told me to talk to the man who maintains the clock. I never found how high it was, although I guess it is less than 30 meters tall. A local newspaper, Patrika, claims that the tower was completed in 1910, and the clock installed in 1911. The clock was built by Lund and Blockley, the same clockmaker who had supplied the clocks to the University and the erstwhile Victoria Terminus in Mumbai.

Mohammad Iqbal, the man who runs the clock, did not know much about its history. He said his father had been the first person to maintain the clock, and that he had been appointed to the job in 1968. The newspaper article claims that the the father, Allah Noor, took five years to repair the clock after it broke down in 1991, and was subsequently appointed to look after it. Whether 1968 or 1991, I found it hard to believe that a clock which requires daily manual setting would have run for decades without someone to look after it.

I find it easier to believe that there was a succession of keepers who would do routine work on it, such as winding it, or keeping it oiled. Allah Noor may have come to this job in 1968, as his son claims. It is possible that when the clock broke down in 1991, as the newspaper story would have it, and no one could be found to repair it, Allah Noor took on the challenge. The newspaper story and Md. Iqbal’s version agree that after the father’s death in September 2009, Iqbal inherited the position of time keeper. Lucky as his name, it would seem.

Iqbal was happy to be photographed. He pointed out the three weights which power the escapement mechanism. The tall room behind the clock faces is a little cramped because of the massive wheels, escapements, and gears which run the dials on the four clock faces. The thick stone walls would not have come cheap; I could believe the newspaper’s claim that in 1910 the tower and the clock took Rs. 3,00,000 to complete. It is hard to calculate inflation rates before the founding of the Reserve Bank in 1934, especially since different princely states had their own rupees. If we assume that between 1910 and 1934 the value of the rupee remained unchanged in Jodhpur, then the clock and the tower would have cost about 7 crores and 30 lakhs of 2017’s rupees (that is INR 73 million).

I wasn’t ready to climb up a ladder to the cupola, so Mohammad Iqbal’s place of work was the highest point I got to. The light inside the clock room was challenging, but I managed to take the photos that you see here. Iqbal said that he is helped by his son, Mohammad Shakeel, who, he hopes, will succeed him as the time keeper. I wished him luck, and came down the stairs to meet The Family. She’d found a nice bench on the terrace of the first floor, and was busy watching people in the market below.

A doorway is just a place to wait in

On the best of days, the rest of Maharashtra thinks of the residents of Pune as thrifty. Stories abound of how a Puneri will buy a litre packet of milk, empty the packet, wash it, and sell it to the neighbourhood junk dealer. Walking around Shaniwar Wada, the seat of power in India until exactly two centuries ago, I came across this Puneri institution. The red sign board proclaimed that this establishment deals in junk of all kinds. The black chalk board set rates for old newspapers, and, yes, empty milk packets!

As I walked by, the owner came out to lean on the door. Puneris are supposed to be notoriously unfriendly, especially to people from Mumbai. So I didn’t ask for permission, but clicked away. He looked up, saw me, and walked back in. I could imagine him muttering to himself, “Tourist!”. So typically Puneri.