When you stare into a jungle the jungle stares back at you

We walked out of the Star Chamber of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CSMT to all of us time-starved people) to admire the decorations outside. When you look up at the capitals of the columns around the station, you see a veritable jungle. The monkey in the featured photo seems to have been startled by the camera peering at it. The rough chiselling of the stone probably shows that a very large amount of stone carving had to be finished in a short time. The artistic innovation is delightful: the texture of the animal’s fur is evoked by the chisel marks.

Inside the ticketing office I’d admired this panel where two mongooses faced off against each other between swirls of Attic vines. Dear Rudyard, east and west do meet, again and again, to produce such wonderful works as these, just a few steps from your childhood home.

I looked up at the tower at this corner of the building. There was a whole line of heraldic devices carved into the stone. They included the cross of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, compasses for navigation, a sailing ship, animals, a cherub and a steam locomotive. Very much a high-Victorian mish mash of symbols. The Family and I looked up at the beautiful facade where four colours of stone are harmonized. This reminded me faintly of Mughal monuments. The jali also seems to be inspired by the similar structures.

Looking up further, we spotted a very decorative peacock above an open window. On closer look I was quite taken aback. It is hard to capture a peacock in stone, since its main attraction is the shimmer of colour in the male’s raised plumage. The artist has done a rather good job of capturing the general idea in monochrome stone.

Closer above our head I admired owls and sundry birds, dense foliage below the paws of a stone lion about to leap on to unsuspecting passers-by. Below the owl I admired a line of ferns, their delicate leaves and spirally unfolding fronds giving the owl a perfect toe-hold.

The foliage in this jungle on the pavement is so completely different from that inside the ticketing hall that I found it useful to compare the two. Inside, animals from an Indian jungle cavort through this southern European flora. Outside, the\ese vines are often relegated to the edges of decorations, when an Indian jungle takes over the main pictorial space.

But not always. In the panel you see above, eastern fauna meets western flora again. Artists will mash up what they have spent years perfecting. That’s part of the reason I think that the work of decoration was done by students of the J. J. School of Arts and not by local artisans. The repertoire of classical western decorative motifs would not be available to Indian artists who had not studied them.

Outside, I took a closer look at the part of the structure which holds the offices of the Central Railways. This part of the building has been restored, and it is possible to visit during office hours. We will have to go back to see it from inside.

Victorian Gothic you say? Where are the gargoyles then? You have to look far up, where they jut out of the turrets, puctuating the sky, looking down on the huge stone lions holding steel banners to the wind.

Advertisements

One door closes, another opens

I rushed into my departure gate at Mumbai airport thinking that boarding would have started, and found that the flight was slightly delayed. That gave me a few minutes to kill in an area with a wonderful art installation. I’ve written about the carved wooden doors of Gujarat sometime earlier, but I had no photos to share. This installation was full of them.

One of the things I like about older localities in Ahmedabad are the exquisitely carved doors of old havelis. The doors are certainly very attractive, as you can see here, but when you look at the architecture they are embedded in, it is clear that they are there in a supporting role. It is the whole architecture which is the star. Here, in the airport, the doors were extracted out of their settings and shown as beautiful pieces of art. Abstracted from their context, I thought they lost just a bit of life.

Used as an art installation they take on a different role, as desirable pieces. Seeing them here reminded me of a conversation I had recently with someone who was thinking of modernizing an old building in Gujarat and getting the money for it by selling the doors and windows of the house. That is a lot of money, which means that there is a market for these doors. Don’t be surprised if one of these old doors turns up in a corporate office you see, or a hotel you walk into.

Two memorable desserts

Every now and then I go back to the restaurant I consider Mumbai’s finest. The dessert sticks to my mind as much as to the rest of me. This time was no exception. I’d been there twice in the same week, which is a bit of overkill. My excuse? The first time was a dinner with colleagues after work, the second with family. One of the things I like about this place are the very helpful suggestions made by the staff. The first time we went, everyone wanted a dessert by themselves. The server suggested that after a big meal some of the desserts could be shared. He was right.

There is a lot of turnover in the menu, so going back makes sense. The family dinner ended with two desserts I’d never had before. The strawberry cassata (featured photo) was a playful nod at the famous dessert of the 1970s, when, for the first time one could have an ice cream flavour other than vanilla and chocolate in India. This was a modern version, fabulously light and fresh, a tart taste of the fruit uppermost, with the crunchy nuts supplying a very satisfactory finish. The other was a great take on the other Mumbai special: a falooda. This was The Family’s favourite growing up, and I’m just a johnny-come-late to the Badshah falooda. So I’ll just quote her: “Damn good.”

The Green Man

A couple of years ago I was so thrilled by the sight of a vertical garden that I would write a post about each one I saw. Since then this has become so common, that it tells me two things: how strong a need people have to connect to plants and growing things, and how quickly commerce can expand into niches. Two months ago I saw this clever use of a vertical garden while speeding past a construction site in the middle of south Mumbai. “How nice”, The Family said, “beats all the badly painted metal sheets that builders usually put up in places like this.” Then over the last two months I realized that this multimedia installation is now used extensively. Someone has caught on to the idea that it catches eyeballs. I have seen three construction sites which have the same image with a green wall used as the man’s hair.

It is still a clever design, and The Family’s amazement is right. Please stand up and introduce yourself if you designed this.

Circus? Seriously?

We take a break from Guangzhou to take a quick look at Mumbai as the heat of October gives way to the pleasant weather of December. An evening’s entertainment happened to be a show by the Canadian circus-theater called Cirque du Soleil. The Family dragged me to this show while I shook my head and muttered “Circus!”

Once inside the grand chapiteau I quite enjoyed the music and spectacle, and took many photos with my phone. For a while there was little difference between me and that kid you see next to the stage in the featured photo. It was only much later that I was surprised by the quality of photos from my dinky little phone.

Durga Puja

We are past the middle of the season of festivals now. Ganesha showed the way at the end of the monsoon. Now Durga is gone for the year. This season is the Indian summer, the muggy period which sets in after the end of the monsoon. The season will end in another couple of weeks, when Diwali swings around again, and signals the beginning of the winter.

I took the featured photo at a puja in Powai. I love the sight of people taking selfies in front of the idol. The Family’s Instagram stream was full of such photos.

Urban Jungle

It is hardly possible to walk far in south Mumbai without passing by the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. This example of Victorian Gothic was designed by the architectural firm of F. W. Stevens, and completed in 1888 CE. The mosses and algae covering it have been cleared off in recent years, lights installed, and the carvings restored. As we walked past, The Family asked “Have you noticed that cat before?” I hadn’t, nor did I recall meeting its unfortunate prey, the rat.

When you pause to look at the building it is hard to tear your eyes away. I looked at the dressed stone, checking whether each piece in an arch was different, and it seemed that it was. There’s such a profusion of detail in and around the sandstone pillars and Gothic arches: animals peer out from the stone foliage dense with leaves, flowers and fruit. This is as good a jungle as a city can get

Walking past a school of arts

I decided recently that I would walk in most of south Mumbai. Many roads have been dug up for the Metro, which is under construction, and the rest are therefore blocked with traffic, so this is faster. I figured that it would also be healthier to walk. What I didn’t realize is that I would become a tourist in my own town, seeing things which I hadn’t noticed before. The first pleasant surprise was the student murals on the walls of the J. J. School of Arts.

One of the origin stories that Mumbaikars tell each other is that Lockwood Kipling, the father of Rudyard Kipling, taught here. The story is even told in the School’s website. As a result, the Nobel prize winner for literature in 1907 grew up in a walled campus which much of the city commutes part daily. Caught in traffic jams nearby I hadn’t given it a thought. But walking past, my eyes snagged on little things behind the walls. Like the weird pipes around which a artist painted the mural which you see above.

Shabby maintenance is also evident in the work which you see above. I liked the work, with the man lying down to admire the wonderful colours around him. But the wall on which it is painted is a picture of awful maintenance. The hole which was punched into the wall to hold an exhaust fan did not account for the shape and size of the fan, and no one bothered to fill in the hole again. That this reduces the efficiency of the fan does not seem to be a concern! This in one of the country’s more popular schools of architecture!

The lovely pattern of pigeons and their coops is a rather clever trompe l’oeil. If the trick fails, it is because the real window is shabbier than the painted coops. The moss growing on the wall is doing a good job to restore the trick; I guess it won’t be long before the painting looks as unlovely as the window.

Here is a photo of the remains of a painting that I found interesting. Was this a picture of a lion and an unicorn fighting over a throne? What were the hands doing? I wish more of this was left. The more I walk around town the more I notice how utterly shabby Mumbai is becoming. Zipping across it in a car with windows down you notice only the oases of good repair. Walking, you discover the desert of crumbling buildings.

Guerrilla art

Walking down a fashionable lane in Mumbai, I spotted this striking piece of art on the wall of Nirav Modi’s jewelery shop. The shop shut down because its owner left the country with about USD 2 billion allegedly embezzled from banks. My first guess was that the hashtag at the bottom of this piece of art, “#missingirls”, refers to a well-known snippet from the 2011 census of India. It turned out that in the population of 1.21 million that year there were 940 women to 1000 men. This means that there are about 35 million women missing from India. But I was wrong. This work is part of a campaign by an NGO to raise awareness about the trafficking of young girls. The clever campaign crowd sources the creation of this piece of street art.

An unfashionable address

It was a holiday. Downtown Mumbai was empty. The Family and I walked down a narrow lane where nobody goes any longer except to park their cars. Decades ago there was an open air concert area on the road, very popular for jazz and classical concerts. Then a court order banned open-air concerts within 500 meters of a hospital after 10 in the evening. That was the end of this place. I saw the gates closed. Next to it was a workshop, its shutters pulled down for the day. In the usual fashion of buildings in South Mumbai, it looked like it hadn’t been repaired since the Battle of Khadki. I liked the contrast between the shabby white wooden doors and the blue rolling shutter.

Right across the narrow lane is the back of Mumbai’s most well-known college (featured photo). It was shuttered for the holiday. These shutters were painted, clean, and in good repair. No moss grew on these stone walls. The high walls shut off the fashionable part of Mumbai from the shabby reality around it.

A low stone house seemed to hold some municipal offices. It was pretty down; tiles were missing from the roof, the stone walls had not been cleaned. Although the windows were recently painted, they were not in good repair. The municipality does not manage to do a good job with keeping the city in good repair, and this building showed that they cannot even really maintain their own offices. That’s a shame, because this is a charming building.

There was a chawl nearby. This was full of life, of people coming and going. I liked the sloping window shades that went right round the building. They broke the boxy shape of the masonry structure, and also harmonized with the sloping roofs. I hadn’t noticed this building before. But then, I had last walked down this lane before smart phones were invented.