A Digital Diary of Mumbai’s Art Deco

A new website maps the stunning 1920s architectural style.  
dhanraj mahal, Mumbai
Built by architects Gregson, Batley & King in 1938, Dhanraj Mahal at Apollo Bunder is one of the largest and most beautiful art deco buildings of its time. It was once the palace of Raja Dhanrajgir of Hyderabad. Photo Courtesy: Atul Kumar/artdecomumbai.com

Few can miss the grand sweep of art deco buildings while whizzing past Marine Drive, Churchgate, and Colaba in south Mumbai. The city might have the second largest concentration of this 1920s architecture style after Miami, but not too many residents know about the charms of its clean lines, curvy balconies, and bold geometric patterns. It is this gap that Atul Kumar, a Mumbai-based finance professional, is out to plug with his website, artdecomumbai.com. The self-funded project documents art deco structures beyond well-known ones such as Eros and Regal cinema. Its website and social media have an absorbing collection of photographs peppered with tidbits of keen research. It also features a map that takes a viewer to art deco beyond South Mumbai, smack in the suburban lanes of Dadar and Matunga. However, the creative heart of this project lies in how it lets the little details shine: there is documentation of spiral stairways and banisters that ooze art deco aesthetic; wooden rocking chairs, beds and cabinets that showcase the style; a grill that frames a residential building’s elevator, flaunting geometric symmetry à la art deco.

Kumar tells National Geographic Traveller India about how Art Deco Mumbai hopes to build a community of people interested in its quirks and details.

 

Matruchaya, Mumbai

The renovated lobby of Matruchaya building at Marine Drive retains the lovely art deco backlit lights that flank the entrance.
Photo Courtesy: Atul Kumar/artdecomumbai.com

What spurred your interest in documenting Mumbai’s art deco architecture?

Having grown up in the art deco-rich neighbourhood of Marine Drive, I realised how little people knew about this incredible style even though we were surrounded by it. These buildings have been overshadowed by the grander, more prominent Victorian and Gothic structures. I founded Art Deco Mumbai because I want to try build communities that would actively engage with art deco. The challenge was to create a platform that would appeal to two kinds of people—the casually inquisitive locals and travellers, and the more academically oriented researchers, historians, and architects. My team and I wanted to showcase engaging photographs of this century-old style, tell a good story, and ensure that the information wasn’t too technical.

 

Tell us about the recces and research process behind the website.

There were quite a few interesting revelations after I began strolling around neighbourhoods packed with art deco architecture, taking photographs of buildings and design elements. On one such walk, I noticed a resident of the Oval View building in Churchgate keenly observing me from the balcony of his home. Later, he came downstairs, and after a small chat invited me to his home and gave me a detailed tour, sparing no furniture or corner. I took in his beautiful mosaic flooring, the ceiling and balconies with their characteristic art deco railings. It was heartening to know that he wanted to preserve art deco design in spite of the fact that his children wanted to renovate the house with modern interiors.

Over time, I trawled through a lot of articles and books and realised how art deco inspired furniture and fashion in the 1930s. We even found an article about how art deco influenced the design of the Chrysler Airflow car—an excellent example of how the style’s streamlining technique extended to automobiles too.

 

Pai House, Mumbai

Pai House building is one of the few structures that flaunt art deco architecture in suburban Matunga. Photo Courtesy: Atul Kumar/artdecomumbai.com

 

Art deco has been well documented in books on Mumbai. What does your website add to that information?

I think the Art Deco Mumbai’s biggest achievement is that it digitises information on the style and reaches readers online. The website has sections such as “Inventory,” which features a map that tracks art deco architecture in the city, so you could just, say, take a walk in Colaba and use a filter to search the neighbourhood for art deco buildings. There is also a list of curious art deco elements such as “eyebrows” (flat overhangs above windows), ziggurats, and some lovely nameplate designs. People have gotten in touch with us to know whom they could approach for art deco furniture. Our team conducts walks called “Deco on the Oval” along the Oval Maidan, as the strip of buildings around it are the most well-preserved, and speak to people about interesting art deco features. This is my way of contributing to this unique architectural style.

 

Art Deco Mumbai conducts walks along Oval Maidan by request. Fill out a form on artdecomumbai.com to participate (Rs1,000 per person; groups of 5; 1-1.15 hr).

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    Sayli Godbole loves exploring the cultures and architectures of different places to write about them, and occasionally, sketch them out.

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