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.

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?


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.


Sumer is icumen in

I’m suffering from a cough and cold even as the temperature climbs into the mid thirties (Celsius, in case you are confused). The humidity has already started creeping up, reminding me of how bad May will get. Right in front of the window I see a mango tree beginning to fruit. If these fruits stay on the branch, they would ripen by the middle of May. Mangos are the compensation for the discomfort of summer. But it is very likely that these mangos will have become panha well before they ripen.

This is also the season when you get the most colourful moths. Walking to the lift the other day I noticed many of these two kinds of moths sitting on the wall, basking in the morning sun. They are about two centimeter long, and extremely visible in the light. The fact that crows and other birds do not make a quick snack of them probably means that they are either poisonous or not very tasty.

It has become warm enough to remind me of the medieval English song: “Sumer is icumen in/ Lhude sing cuccu.” A Koel is a cuckoo, isn’t it? I did hear a Koel the other day, but I think that was a ring tone on someone’s phone and not the bird. It’s nor really summer yet.


Six pieces from the ancient world

Walking through the wonderful exhibition called India and the World at the museum in Mumbai, I noticed something that everyone knows. The oldest artifacts of humans are stone axes and blades. Then, almost as soon as agriculture is invented, we begin to find almost everything that we use in our daily lives today. What a massive change in lifestyle that was!

When the waters of the oceans were locked up as ice, the lowered sea level created land-bridges across the planet. It is incredible that our most ancient ancestors walked across them, and settled into almost every one of the continents. As the glaciers retreated, humans found themselves in a slowly warming and wet world. In a geological eye-blink, a span of just over a thousand years, agriculture was invented independently many times over. And with agriculture, came the first cities.

The oldest “modern” object I saw in the exhibition was the piece of decorated pottery from Balochistan, almost 5000 years old. The box from Ur celebrated their life; the face that you can see in the photo here shows agriculture and animal herding. The calcite tablet from Egypt, about the size and shape of an iphone, and the limestone tablet from Lagash show the first writing. And you can see the exquisite jewelery of Oaxaca and the Indus valley in the remaining photos. Bowls and boxes, jewelery and writing; truly we live in the shadows of these early civilizations.


Globalization 2.0

A special exhibition at the Mumbai Museum had been talked about for months. Everyone who had gone to see it was raving about it. The Family and I finally found the time to visit it on the last day of the show called India and the world. The exhibits unfolded a story of parallel developments and trade throughout the known world over the last four thousand years. We spent two hours walking through the galleries with our audio guides. At the end The Family said “We should have come earlier.” Indeed, now looking back at the few photos I took, I wish I had the time to go back and examine the works again at leisure.

By many modern accounts, today’s world sprang from the great churn brought about by the Mongol breakout of the 13th century CE. The resulting violent mixing of the Islamic and Chinese civilizations with Europe and India created the dynamics which is still playing out. This is what I think of as the second wave of globalization.

The gallery which you can see above contains a few pieces which resulted from this churn. The traditional Yoruba style carving of the queen Victoria is a wonderful example of this. The Chinese porcelains found in Delhi are proof of old, and underappreciated, trade links. The throne and discobolus are part of an ongoing conversation about global influences.


An odd bird

At the point where you come to one end of the tidal creek in Bhandup the water is absolutely stagnant. Not even a normal high tide lifts the water enough for waves. This fetid water turned out to be a place where mosquitos breed in swarms. I had covered myself in anti-mosquito gel, but that was not enough to keep away these pests. They swarmed over me, even settling on my sturdy and loose trousers! Was it worth it? The only birds I’d seen on this stretch were sparrows, cormorants and bulbuls. These were not worth it. But a couple of other birdwatchers were coming back from further up this path with puzzled looks. “Do you know what this could be?” they asked showing a photo one had just clicked. To me it looked like a longer sparrow, maybe a thrush. But J. Multiflorum asked “Could it be a wryneck?”

Since I knew nothing of wrynecks, I couldn’t find any reason why it should not be. At precisely the point where the density of mosquitos was highest, next to a dry tree was another pair of birders with the same puzzled look, “What could this be?” The tree was bare. “It keeps coming back,” they said, as they helpfully gave us another tube of anti-mosquito lotion. Sure enough it was back soon, and I took a couple of photos of the bird in silhouette. A little larger than a sparrow, but quite a different bird. It hopped on to the ground and began pecking away. I managed to take a couple of photos in which it had its head up. Definitely not a sparrow, the colours were much more interesting. It was the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla).

Later I found that it is in the same family as woodpeckers, Picidae. It nests in northern Europe and migrates to Africa or India in winter; the only woodpecker which migrates so far. Unlike most waterbirds which migrate in large flocks, the wryneck migrates in little groups. I did not see it foraging on a tree, which it apparently does in a manner similar to woodpeckers, with its tail held rigidly to the trunk. Unlike a woodpecker, it slurps insects from the surface of the bark. I was happy with this sighting. I’d literally paid for it with my blood!


Three ducks. Umm.. four, no five

Within a space of about twenty minutes during a weekend outing in the creeks of Mumbai I thought we saw all three ducks that we got to see. The first that I noticed was the small Garganey (Spatula querquedula), whose male has the white band on the head that you can see in the featured photo. There were lots of these winter migrants swimming about, occasionally dipping their heads into the water to feed. They have the usual mottled brown look of most dabbling ducks, and I would have been hard put to identify them if it were not for two things. One was the conspicuous white band on the head of the male, and the other was that I had an expert birder with me who unhesitatingly identified it. I really have gotten rusty if I can’t recall the names of ducks instantly.

Amongst these Garganey were one of the most distinctive ducks which you can see in India. This is the Indian spot-billed duck (Anas poecilorhyncha). Seen from the front, its face looks extremely colourful: a red spot on the lores, and a black beak with a big tab of yellow on it. The rest of it is the common mottled brown of dabbling ducks, except for the very prominent white stripe on the wing. About twenty of them were dabbling in the water for underwater plants in the company of Garganey. Since these are non-migratory, you can bet that they are descendants of some of the original inhabitants of these islands. In the photo above you can see one of the ducks with its head down, but that’s not what it does while dabbling. It really drops its head under the water, so you only see its rump up in the air. I wished I had a GoPro under water to catch it with its neck extended looking for food.

The third was a little further out in the creek, where the mud flats began. This was the Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata). Like the Garganey it nests in the northern latitudes and prefers to winter in warm climates with more food. The thick flat bill which gives it its name is distinctive. The brown mottled female only has some white on the tail (photo above), but the male is distinctive with its iridescent green head and white neck and belly. Maybe their feeding time was over, because I saw most of them standing in the mud, well away from the water. But I was lucky to see several take off into the air. They are quick off the ground (or water): a couple of steps, and a twist and with powerful beats of their wings they are off, as you can see in the photo below. Quite a sight when it happens in front of you.

The fourth duck was quite a surprise. I saw three of them far out in the tidal mudflats walking among a flock of flamingos. We passed them at a clip, and I couldn’t take a photo. Later, when I was going through my photos of the morning, I found a lone ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), somewhat out of focus, among flamingos in another part of the creek. Finally, just now before hitting the publish button I looked closely at three photos from that day with crowds of ducks, and found the common teal (Anas crecca) hidden in plain sight.


Flamingos in Mumbai

There was time when flamingos bred in the coastal flats of Gujarat and wintered around Mumbai. But like many such, some are now residents of the big city. The mud flats and tidal creeks of Mumbai are now their home. Their numbers increase with the usual winter influx. So this is a good time to take a boat through the creeks of Mumbai.

Most of these birds are lesser flamingos. The few greater flamingos can be distinguished by the shape of their necks. The necks of lesser flamingos are like an inverted letter J, whereas the long necks of greater flamingos are in the shape of an S. Sizes and colour differences between these two species are confusing. The only other consistent difference I’ve noticed is that the lower bill of the greater flamingo is always yellow.

The rest of the colour of the flamingo comes from the crustaceans that it eats. So it is interesting to ask why the flamingos of Mumbai are less colourful than their country cousins. Could it be that these creeks are now so polluted that the crustaceans are dying out?