Indian architecture is a pastiche of religious and European styles that illustrate India’s past. The ruins of Hampi, or the French and Portuguese influenced structures in Pondicherry and Goa, or the British colonial buildings of Delhi tell stories of India through the ages. But there is only one style that not only captures the zeitgeist but also manifests a belief in the future.
In the early 20th century, modernity, commercially and intellectually, had the world in its grip and Art Deco single-handedly captured the intense dynamism and imagination sweeping around the globe at the time. Art Deco, a term coined in the 1920s but never really used until the 1960s, emerged as the complete embodiment of the insouciance and playfulness that characterised the era of opulent lifestyles, and the exuberance that everyone felt at the end of World War I.
Art Deco takes off in India
In India, Art Deco burst onto the architectural scene as the well-heeled upper class consisting of merchants, businessmen, and royalties began to travel across the world and returned enamoured by the grand visions of sophistication they had seen. And nowhere did they reproduce these grand visions more than in the architecture of Mumbai.
At over 200 structures, Mumbai has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world, after Miami, a collection that was given the heritage status by UNESCO in 2018.
They stand testament to a time of wealth when post-war Bombay comprised progressive swish sets who celebrated life with ritzy cocktail parties. Inevitably, lifestyle changes occurred too. Nights in Bombay came alive with jazz-drenched soirees filled with western dance routines, the women in exotic dresses, their elbows linked with suavely turned out gentlemen who had pastimes like horse racing.
But it wasn’t just the money. The story of Bombay’s capitalistic era driven by innovations in industrialisation and modernisation is etched in every contour of the city’s Art Deco architecture.
Until then, Bombay was dominated by mostly Gothic Revival and British Colonial buildings. But now, Art Deco became the favoured medium of expression for architects to hew this paradigm shift in the social mood and Bombay’s increasing prosperity onto buildings.
Rounded corners, geometric patterns, and striping began to feature in the new buildings coming up in areas like Fort, Malabar Hill, and Marine Drive where businesses were flourishing. Take the Empress Court building opposite the Oval Maidan, for instance.
Wide, ornate arches, flowing curves resembling the decks of a ship indicating Bombay’s nautical heritage, and soaring lines make this a classic Art Deco building. Designed by the staunchly modernist architect Gajanan B Mhatre and reminiscent of a great ship moving forward, Empress Court distils the elegance and charm that clung heavy to Bombay during the time. Until then, Art Deco patterns were seen mostly on cinema houses like Eros, Regal, and Liberty catering to the mindset of the nouveau riche and educated clientele that thronged them. But with Empress Court, Mhatre designed one of the first residential buildings in the Art Deco genre. To him, living in a building like Empress Court was an overt expression of your status and success.
The pluralistic nature of the Art Deco genre was not limited to the transition in the immediate environment but encompassed happenings from the world over. The discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt, the first solo transatlantic flight, and the world’s first talkies were just a handful of the events that influenced the Art Deco style.
The New India Assurance Building, designed by Art Deco specialists Master, Sathe, and Bhuta, incorporates these global elements through its lofty columns, and very evident Egyptian aesthetics denoting its worldliness. Commissioned by the Tatas, the building exudes power elegantly. It stresses on vertical design symbolising growth and the grey concrete reinforced the Tata’s sombre and dignified persona.
Through the interim war years, noted Art Deco structures including cinema theatres like Metro, residences like Fairlawn, and the popular identical buildings of Keval, Kapur, and Zevar Mahal, among others added glam and colour to Mumbai’s skyline. But with the onset of World War II, Art Deco started fading in popularity as the world sunk into monochromatic depression.
Today, Art Deco is making a comeback in the form of home decor and furnishings. The irrepressible joie de vivre that once adorned entire facades is now seen in rounded-style couches, ziggurat-shaped lighting or wall hangings featuring Art Deco fonts.
Once again, we are leaning towards a bon vivant life infused with fervour and faith, which only Art Deco is capable of projecting. Because only Art Deco “has maintained that most damning of all qualities – fun,” as the renowned historian of art and design Paul Greenhalgh once remarked to the New York Times.