A decade of midsummer

Where have I been during midsummer in the last decade? I thought I would look at my photos to jog my memory. I don’t have photos from the solstice on every year. For example, the last photo I took this year was a week ago in Mumbai; that’s the featured photo. So I just put together a photo selected from June each year, as close as I could get to the solstice.

2017: Granada (Alhambra)

2016: Frascati

2015: Beijing (Lama temple)

2014: the stratosphere

2013: Mumbai

2012: Thane (railway station)

2011: Paris (the Eiffel tower)

2010: Germany (countryside)

2009: Mumbai

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Street food heaven

The new moon was sighted last night, so today is the Id that ends the month of Ramazan. I thought this might be a good time to bring out this year’s collection of photos which show the food available at nights during the month of religious remembrance in Islam. As always, click on any of the photos to start on the slide show. For the practicing Muslim, Ramazan is a month of daytime fasts; food is allowed only between sunset and sunrise. The food streets around Muhammad Ali Road in Mumbai are brightly lit and dense with people during this time.

I missed most of the month due to travel, but made sure that in the last week I tried out my favourite places. The food street is surrounded by shops selling shoes, clothes, jewelery and perfume: all of which are de rigeur for the Id lunch. Id-ul-fitr, as you might guess, is a major festival with a daytime feast being a focus. Id mubarak to all.

Monsoon – the season of love

Kashchitkantavirahaguruna svadhikaratpramattaha
Shapenastangamitamahima varshabhogyena bhartuhu
yakshachakre janakatanayasnanapunyodakeshu
snighdhacchayatarushu vasati ramagiryashrameshu

Opening stanza of Meghdoot by Kalidasa (5th century CE)

A year from amorousness: it passes slowly.
So thought a Yaksha by his master sent,
For scanting duty, to the Ramagiry:
To mope in penance groves as banishment
By rivers Sítá’s bathing there made holy.

Translation by John Holcombe

In the temperate latitudes, the seasons are creatures of astronomy: does the hemisphere point towards the sun or away? In the tropics it is different; circulation in the atmosphere create the seasons. Just now over the Indian peninsula the monsoon winds are chasing away the heat of summer.

Here, in Mumbai, during the first monsoon rain I spotted a young couple walking along the sea wall on Marine Drive. Classical Sanskrit poetry associates the monsoon with love (sringara ras). I had to take this seasonally appropriate photo as my taxi sped by.

I fumbled with my phone and nearly lost it in the tailwind of the taxi, but I got the shot. The grey monsoon clouds hide the sea; the road is slick with rain, and a young couple walk along the sea wall, wrapped in the weather, lost to the world. About two millennia ago, poets were writing about such couples.

Wildflowers in the city

In neglected patches inside the city, one sees wild flowers blooming. In the late 16th century, when Garcia da Orta began to record the flora of the islands which became Mumbai, the vegetation was quite different. Over the last 450 years, urbanization has changed the balance of plants so that only the hardy and quick-growing survive in the city.

What you see in the photos above are weeds which flower in Febraury. The balance of flowers changes from month to month. I wonder whether I should take my camera with me on a walk to look at what is flowering this month.

The entertainment mill

My first sight of Kamala mills came many years ago, when I went to the then-new passport office in the compound. By then the place was already a big media hub. I finished my work at around lunch time, and walked around a bit trying to locate a place where I could get a quick bite. There were already several restaurants and pubs there, although the main entertainment hubs were then a couple of other mills nearby.

Mumbai’s enchanted years started during the American Civil War, when its cotton exports boomed. The cotton mills expanded until the beginning of the last century, and collapsed after the Japanese industrial resurgence in the middle of the century. The Govani brothers bought the moribund Kamala Mills in the 1990s when the government stopped trying to revive the mills and decided to allow redevlopment.

Now this is a landowner’s paradise. Decrepit buildings have been retrofitted into acres of restaurants. It is amusing to walk around a tall block which looks wonderfully swank from the front. The back is a crumbling post-industrial dump-yard (see the featured photo). Kamala mills comes alive in the night when the young arrive in droves to the water holes hidden behind each of the windows that you can see. The back is dark and invisible at night.

Look around and you find other lucrative reuse of land. Part of the parking lot has been turned into a go-kart track. Just next to it is what looked like a mini bungee-jumping set up. Opposite to that is a paint-ball hall. Is all of this legal? This remains a matter of debate even after last December’s fire. Still, the rentals are expensive, and restaurants have to make very large profits to survive. There is quite a turnover, as you might expect. Behind the mills stand the stalled towers of mid-town, brought down by the sluggish economy. Everything here seems to be marking time for an upward turn in the economy. But at night it does not look like the economy is doing too badly.

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.

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.