The rest of the story

I’d started a story from the middle when I posted about flamingos in the backwaters of Mumbai. In order to finish the story, I have to give you its beginning. We gathered before sunrise in the region between the Thane creek and the aeration ponds of the Bhandup pumping station. As The Night drove in, a flock of flamingos flew overhead. The sky was the light grey just before dawn. A coucal flew into the bushes ahead of us. As the horizon dipped below the sun, and the sky began to light up, we walked back down the canal.

We saw several birds on our slow walk. I’d seen most of the waders, and could still recall their names. I’ve just begun to notice the warblers, and the clamorous reed warbler which we saw was a lifer. One interesting thing about birds is that they are creatures of habit. If in addition they are territorial, then they tend to appear at the same time in the same place every day. We met birders who come to this place very often, and sometimes they told us to look out for some bird or the other, because it should appear soon. It usually works. Passing on socially acquired knowledge is characteristic of our species, isn’t it?

Eventually we went on to ducks and flamingos, but those are stories I have already posted.


Door with Goats

Walking through Jodhpur, I saw this striking doorway with two goats tied up outside it. The door brought to my mind the story that V. S. Naipaul reports about his father, Seepersad. The father was the first journalist of Indian origin who worked for the Trinidad Guardian. As a confirmed rationalist, in one of his articles he questioned his compatriots’ belief in animal sacrifice. This incensed members of his community who forced him to sacrifice a goat. According to Vidia Naipaul, his father did not recover from this humiliation.

What form did my father’s madness take?
He looked in the mirror one day and he couldn’t see himself.
–Conversation between V. S. Naipaul and his mother
(in Finding the Center)

I’m sure that a clever writer like Naipaul meant something more with this reported conversation than just what one reads. I’m pretty certain that Naipaul the son presents this conversation as a metaphor for Seepersad’s inability to comprehend those in his island who believed in animal sacrifice. I wondered as I took this photo what I did not see here. How strange to find a resonance with Naipaul’s Trinidad in this distant town!

Fairlawn: part Deco

The elegant facade of Fairlawn is fairly well-maintained by the standards of the Backbay Art Deco district. There are buildings which are better maintained, and those which are much worse. But the thing that caught my eye last week was the totally inappropriate retouching of a second floor flat. As you can see in the featured photo, the windows and the balcony have been replaced by ones which clash with everything else.

All other details are wonderfully streamlined Art Deco. As you can see in the photo of the balconies above, the clean lines are duplicated in the uniform unadorned rectangles on all the frontages on the road. The wonderful Deco banding at the bottom of the balconies is a lovely touch. The facade is a little plainer than the other buildings in this row. I couldn’t find who the architects were, but the building was clearly built in the mid to late 1930s, as the others.

I took a closer look at the windows. The plain rectangle was decorated with beautiful wrought iron grilles. The spiral pattern is repeated in other windows that I could see, and also in the ironwork grille atop the low boundary wall (see the photo below). The boundary walls along this row are an uniform height, but the individual buildings are distinguished by the different patterns of railings. What a wide variety of forms the Art Deco style allows!

A stairwell runs up from the central lobby. The semicircle over the lobby is also repeated in several of the buildings along this row. Behind it I found that the lobby is more plain than in some of Fairlawn’s neighbours: no stone or coloured cement. The grille atop the entrance has a different pattern than the railings, which made me think that maybe it had been installed later.

As you can see in the photo above, the change in the balcony in the first floor flat jars with the understated elegance of the building. The dark wood certainly is not in harmony with the white painted wood of the remaining flats, and the rest of the buildings along the row. I guess there is no effective way of ensuring a stylistic unity against the wishes of individual owners.

Deconstructed Tuesday

Some days should be spent in quiet contemplation of the sheer awesomeness of the previous weekend. Today I find myself silenced by a wonderfully deconstructed Black Forest cake. The pink ice is flash frozen cherry flavoured ice cream, topped with sponge soil with a Maraschino cherry buried in it. The bars of chocolate ganache stacked on the side melt in your mouth. Need one say more?

Court View, Mumbai

The elegantly curved first-floor balcony with an eye-catching stucco decoration on it (see the featured photo) always catches my eye when I’m hurrying past the Oval Maidan. I stopped to take photographs a week ago. This is the Court View house, appropriately named since it faces the Gothic-revival facade of the High Court across the open space.

The Art Deco style is clear not only from the elegant shape of the balcony, but also the styling of the facade. The wonderful verticals enclosing the central stairwell are typical of the style as practiced by the three firms which collaborated on this building: Gajanan Mhatre, Maneckji Dalal and Merwanji, Bana and Co. The building probably dates from the mid to late 1930s, when this space was reclaimed from the sea.

The curves of the balconies are repeated in the ironwork of the gate (photo above) and the railing around (photo below) the property. The boundary wall was less interesting than in some of the neighbouring buildings. As you can see from the photos here, the wall and the gate posts are plain, rectangular and unornamented. Since they do not agree with the colour scheme of the building, I wonder whether they were reconstructed later.

The entrance and the lobby are much more spectacular than the facade. The intricate geometric design around the door is typically Style Moderne. Stone and “colourcrete” are mixed in this. Coloured cement was very much a “modern” element of that time, and the architects used it liberally in this building. You see only a little bit of it near the dozing guard in the lobby.

I didn’t walk into the building, so I didn’t get a first-hand view of the stairwell. An article in Livemint contains a wonderful photo down the stairwell. The architects seem to have gone bonkers with their coloured cement inside, in a very pleasant way.

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?