Art Deco: Mumbai connect to design movement of machine age

When a design movement called Art Deco flourished between the two World Wars in Europe, it made its way to Mumbai around the same time and found many takers in the city. Kalyani Majumdar delves into the story

Did you know that Mumbai has the second largest number of Art Deco buildings in the world right after Miami? For most people, it comes as a surprise. Possibly the reason could be that Mumbai is mostly synonymous with the Gateway of India that is an Indo-Saracenic architecture or the famous CST (formerly the Victoria Terminus), a neo-Gothic architecture. So, where are the Art Deco buildings? There is no doubt that Mumbai cityscape is dotted with iconic architectural masterpieces from the colonial period, and walking around South Mumbai is like visiting a museum displaying different architectural styles. However, if you pay attention on the built structures while walking around the Oval Maidan, Marine Drive and Colaba it is not difficult to spot these Art Deco buildings with their signature design elements such as symmetry, geometric designs and decorative motifs on the façade.  Curiously, one might even wonder what it was about Art Deco-style that it found so many connoisseurs in the city. To understand that we need to dive into the history of Art Deco.

A long view of The New India Assurance Building Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar
A long view of The New India Assurance Building Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar

A movement that started in France

Art Deco derived its name from the French words “Arts Décoratifs”. It was an exhibition that was held in Paris in 1925 called the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts). To get selected for the exhibition the works had to be modern that was without the influence of past design-styles.

Originally, the exposition was to take place in 1915, but was postponed due to the First World War. To a great extent the War had a strong influence on Art Deco’s popularity. The devastation and loss due to the war had left everyone disillusioned of the future. The horrors of war were being expressed through many new art movements that came up around the 1920s such as Cubism, Surrealism and Fauvism. Literary works by Ernest Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald give us a fair idea of the society of that time.

The decorative motifs on the façade of the Regal Cinema Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar
The decorative motifs on the façade of the Regal Cinema Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar

With socio-political changes taking place in Europe and around the world, the exposition was a success. Art Deco found many takers as there was something very appealing about this style that was modern and had moved away from the formal design styles that was prevalent till then. Post World War, the world was looking for optimism and that was exactly what Art Deco represented with its simple geometric lines, decorative motifs that brought in inspirations from around the world, and the use of vibrant colours. It was heralding the machine age with the use of technology.

The designs could be replicated easily, thus bringing down the manufacturing costs along with the introduction of stainless steel, plastics and other unconventional materials. Apart from architecture, this design movement influenced jewellery, automobiles, and furniture designs as well. In the world of architecture Art Deco was fast becoming popular all around the world with the US giving the world the two iconic Art Deco buildings of that era, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. As Art Deco rose in popularity the world over, it had surely become an international movement from its French origins.

The New India Assurance Building on Mahatma Gandhi Road Fort Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar
The New India Assurance Building on Mahatma Gandhi Road Fort Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar

Art Deco found its way to Mumbai

The time when Art Deco was taking over America, especially Miami, another city across the globewas fast becoming the second home for Art Deco to flourish in. It was none other than Mumbai. It was on the world map as an important port city for British India. Every new trend that was prevalent in the West found a home in Mumbai. In the 1920s the well-heeled and educated Indians from the city that were making frequent trips to Europe brought back the Art Deco style with them back home.

Between 1920s and 1940s Art Deco graced the South Mumbai landscape, especially the residential buildings on Marine Drive that came up on the newly reclaimed land around the same time, thanks to the Backbay Land Reclamation Scheme.  With its optimistic and modern designs that had moved away from the imprint of colonial design-styles such as the Gothic and the Victorian, the Mumbai home owners wanted to do up their properties in the Art Deco style. Art Deco was vibrant and had a global appeal. It was the trend everyone wanted to be part of. Thus, in India just like in the rest of the world, Art Deco made its presence in a big way.

Eros Cinema located near the Churchgate Station Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar
Eros Cinema located near the Churchgate Station Photo by: Kalyani Majumdar

Apart from the geometric patterns and the need for symmetry, one also observes nautical elements being part of the Art Deco buildings in Mumbai. One can see the new age design elements on buildings such as the Eros Cinema right across Churchgate station that was completed in 1937, or the decorative motifs on the façade of the iconic Regal Cinema in Colaba that was opened to public in 1933. Another notable Art Deco building is on the Mahatma Gandhi Road in Fort — The New India Assurance Building. It has bas reliefs depicting rural life in India, but what catches your attention first are the two huge statues on the façade that appears of Egyptian origin. It is indeed a long list of beautiful Art Deco buildings that exist in the city.

So, next time when walking on the streets of Mumbai do pay attention to the buildings that you pass by, you might stumble upon an Art Deco hidden somewhere in the urban cluster of high rises that stands as a testimony of the era that was popularly known as the roaring 20s or the Jazz Age.

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