With changing tastes the term “Opera House” transferred to the area where the building stood – as a quiet reminder of better times until the recent attempts at restoration, writes Rafique Baghdadi.
Imagine the scene way back in 1911. Horse carriages clatter up the cobblestone roads leading to the grand façade of the Opera House. King George V of England, soon to wear the crown as Emperor of India, inaugurates it (although there is no record of what was staged that day in his honour).
Elegantly clad Bombay socialites alight, treading up the pavement beneath the Corinthian columns of grey stone that hold up the huge pediment displaying mistrals of old, the entrance itself a set of perfect arches holding up solid teak doorways. The wooden louvered windows near the top adding to the period charm. George V having tread there, they owners get permission to rename the venue as “Royal Opera House”. With changing tastes the term “Opera House” transferred to the area where the building stood – as a quiet reminder of better times until the recent attempts at restoration.
The brainchild of Mr. Maurice E. Bandmann, a renowned entertainer from Calcutta, and Mr. Jehangir Framji Karaka, who headed a coal broker firm, this baroque structure dominated the artistic world of Bombay for over three decades. Its quaint mixture of Indian and European architectural styles, its exquisite Italian marble and Minton flooring, not to forget its Porbunder stone, have been witness to some of the best classical productions of the 20th century.
This was the new luxurious venue for musical and theatrical production – with its 24 dressing rooms with hot and cold showers and (an obvious novelty of that time!) an exhaust fan. The orchestra stalls had comfortable cane chairs; 26 rows of boxes and couches were arranged behind the stalls, and these and Dress Circle gave a clear view of the stage. Special attention was paid to acoustics by constructing the ceiling in away as “to enable even those seated in the gallery to hear every word or song from the stage quite audibly.” Although the work was completed in 1912, several additions continued to be made until 1915 and the total construction cost added up to Rs. 7.5 lakhs. Among other things, the figures atop the pediment was replaced by three cherubs, the entrance got a rich statuary installed, and frescoes decorated the interior of the entrance domes; exquisite dados were executed below the boxes. A pair of exquisite crystal chandeliers (‘sans souci’)brought over from the Sassoon mansion, added to the luxury of this site frequented by the koi-hais of Bombay city.
While the credit for the first performer at the Opera House goes to Great Raymond, a leading magician from America, before the place was formally inaugurated, many notable personalities performed here between October and December 1911; then New Brandmann’s Opera Company and R.G. Knowles Company, Mathieson Lang and Hutin Britton’s Shakespeare company to name a few. Top drama companies and individual artistes from Europe provided exclusive programmes for Wealthy Bombay socialites.
After cinema become popular, several well-established drama houses changed over to become equally famous movie theatres. The Royal Opera House was rented to the French production major, Pathe in 1925 to screen their films. The original side-boxes were demolished sometime after it was converted into a cinema, although those at the rear of the stall continued to be used. In January 1924, it came to be known as The Pathe Cinema and was soon to become the rendezvous of all lovers of movies. Films were shown in the evening, whilst matinee performances offered popular Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati dramas.
In May 1927, the first demonstration in India of a process invented by Dr. Lee Deforest for synchronizing sound with picture called ‘Phonefilm’ took place here. The programme includes a film of the actor Basil Gill playing a scene from Julius Caesar. Madan Theatres Ltd then got a lease of the building in 1929 which they used until their demise, in 1932, for mixed programming of film shows and live drama; it was during this period that the venue reverted to its original name. In 1935 The Royal Opera House came under the control of Ideal Pictures Ltd enjoying a short spell as a first-run house for Warner Bros First National Pictures. In 1936, in the heyday of Indian films, it continued to enjoy pride of placewith A. C. Patel at the helm.
This was the launching pad for the famous Prithvi theatres and for a host of V. Shantaram movies between 1944 and 1959. Some classical hits of Indian theatre were staged at the Opera House some of which are “Shakuntala”, “Deewar”, and “Pathan”; great singers like Bal Gandhara, Mageshkar performed there. Films like Mughal-e-Azam, (1960) Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957), Navrang (1959) Himalay Ki God Mein (1965), Purab Aur Pachhim (1970) Hariyali Aur Rasta (1962), Aa Gale Lagja (1973) Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) did great business there.
By the end of the Second World War, however, slumping receipts forced the owner J.F. Karaka to seek a mortgage on the property from the Bank of Baroda, eventually selling out to the Maharajah of Gondal in 1952. The family now has a 999-year lease on the property.
The Jio MAMI Film Festival with star with its opening ceremony on October 20 this year is a fitting occasion for the rebirth of this iconic centre of old, once the cultural heartbeat of Bombay / Mumbai. It was the city’s first grand theatre (the foundation stone was laid in 1909) saw its best days as a theatre and a cinema house – to close in 1991.
Now 25 years (the last few of which went into its restoration) later, the phoenix is set to rise again. The scion of the Gondal royal line, Jyotendra Sinhji Jadeja, said that the Royal Opera House in its new avatar is “our gift to the City of Mumbai”. Architect Abha Lambah has worked tirelessly to ensure that this historical monument can be restored to its original glory.In its new avatar, the 500-seater will include state-of-the-art acoustics with valuable inputs and support from Harman International (India) and stage craft, lighting and air conditioning.
The opening ceremony of Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival with star is the beginning of a new phase in the life of this monument to the Arts. Perhaps its service to posterity could be ensured by a conversion into a theatre-cum-museum displaying memorabilia of the rich history of the city’s tradition in cinema, drama and folk theatre.