Victorian grandeur

Published : Dec 29, 2006 00:00 IST

THE GRAND STRUCTURE has gargoyles and grotesques leaning out from towers and turrets in typical Gothic style. -

THE GRAND STRUCTURE has gargoyles and grotesques leaning out from towers and turrets in typical Gothic style. -

A new book immortalises Victoria Terminus, one of Mumbai's most beloved public buildings.

THE most remarkable thing about Victoria Terminus is that this grand structure, with its sculptured ornamentation, architectural curiosities and prestigious status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is first and foremost a fully functioning railway terminus. In the heart of south Mumbai (Bombay), this venerable building - which still goes by the name VT despite being renamed Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus - handles more than 10 lakh commuters every day and houses the headquarters of the Central Railway; no mean achievement for a structure that is 118 years old.

This grand structure, with its lavish and eccentric collection of statues, carvings, stained glass and embellishments, has been immortalised in the book A City Icon by the architect Rahul Mehrotra and the city historian Sharada Dwivedi (Eminence Designs Pvt Ltd.). The 285-page book is a meandering delight, richly supported with contemporary and archival photographs. The authors have wisely stayed away from a dogged timeline-style of presentation, preferring instead to weave VT's story around the development of the railways, the ensuing prosperity that marked the city's growth and, of course, VT's architectural and engineering marvels. A City Icon gives the building the status it deserves: a historical landmark, an architectural gem and a symbol of the city's growth and prosperity. The book not only captures the essence of VT but also is written with an almost intuitive understanding of what the reader would want to know next.

Any book on VT would focus on its architect, Frederick Williams Stevens. Indeed, any book on Mumbai would be incomplete without referring to 19th century Bombay's most prolific architect, who constructed a number of prominent public buildings and shaped the city's architectural landscape. His greatest contribution is undoubtedly Victoria Terminus. So valued was he by his employers that the government refused to accept his resignation from the Public Works Department. When his resignation was eventually accepted four years later, he set up Stevens & Company, which completed VT.

Stevens was clearly partial to the Gothic style but his years in India influenced him in large degree and led to the development of a style that is unique to the subcontinent. For convenience, this is commonly referred to as the Indo-Gothic style, but it is such a rich and curious blend that the more humourous appellation of Victorian-Gothic-Saracenic-Italianate-Oriental-Baroque would be more appropriate if it were not so lengthy. The Indo-Gothic style allowed the architect's imagination to run riot with gargoyles, statues and stone reliefs that depicted anything from the headgear of different communities to the venerable former chiefs of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway. Given the manner in which it has borrowed and grown, it is astounding that it never deteriorated into the outlandish, tasteless or kitsch and grew into one of dignity. Perhaps the style thrived because at its root it was practical. Long and wide corridors, high ceilings, the use of stone, vast rooms, tall and shuttered windows and porches - these were all architectural responses to the climate. The result was adequate space, light, ventilation and a natural coolness that allowed officials to work in comfort. But there was also another side to the Indo-Gothic style that went beyond convenience and aesthetics - it made a statement about the power of the British Empire.

The soaring majesty of VT certainly expressed this. The dome, which rises cathedral-like above the street, is VT's most imposing feature. It is reported to be the first octagonal ribbed masonry dome in this style. Atop it stands a 16-foot figure of a woman holding a flaming torch in her right hand and a spoked wheel in the other. She symbolises progress. All around her are innumerable gargoyles and grotesques.

The statuary is typical of the era when progress and commerce were equated. Statues symbolising engineering, commerce and agriculture are poised on various pinnacles. Its lower half consists of arched stained glass windows that are rich in primary colours. The cantilevered staircase that leads to the dome is a masterpiece of engineering. Its only companion in the city is at the Taj Mahal hotel which, Dwivedi reveals, was also designed by Stevens. (He died soon after making the plans and the work was completed by W.A. Chambers to whom the design is often mistakenly attributed.)

Sculptured ornamentation is the heart of the Gothic style. Stevens' involvement with the project was so great that he drew all the ornamentation details himself instead of delegating this to an assistant, as was commonly done at the time. He even designed the furniture. His original sketches, reproduced for the first time in A City Icon, demonstrate his eye for detail. The authors write, "... well-proportioned architectural and spatial fusion, with a rich narrative expression manifested through the details and ornamentation makes the terminus architecturally significant and interesting. Significant... in that it is layered with symbols and icons that mark the imprints of the makers of the building..."

There is evidence at VT for all to see that first class artisans were at work. James Mackenzie MacLean's A Guide to Bombay (1875 & 1902), the authoritative guide of the day, said: "Everywhere within the building is to be perceived a corresponding lavishness of labour expended upon the greatest minuteness of detail, all sections of the work being instinct with artistic taste and yielding effects full of beauty. This is especially the case in that portion of the offices with which the public will be most concerned. Their waiting hall and the chief refreshment room are full of surprises in decorative art, and with the grand central staircase, will at once take rank among the `lions' of the city."

The Star Chamber, which is the ticketing office for the local service, is a prime example of art and aesthetics reaching out to the public rather than being reserved for the boardrooms. According to MacLean's guide:

"This corridor is divided into four compartments beautifully groined in coloured stones, the main ribs and arches of each being supported by massive groups of coloured Italian marble columns and local stones, capped with richly carved foliated caps. In the vaults overhead, geometric designs are worked in red and white stone courses. The openings are most spacious, and the general effect strikingly dignified. As the handsome entrance doors fall back an interior of unique beauty is revealed. This fine lofty hall (80 feet by 72 feet by 40 feet) contains the booking offices. A colonnade of coloured marble columns, arranged in elegant but massive groups, longitudinally divides the central area, their capitals - worked in boldly designed foliage and animal grotesques - carrying the main arches which support the main walls of the building and the large wooden ribs of the groining. Similar half groups of columns with foliated capitals run parallel to and on either side of the central colonnade, and in their turn support the galleries around the hall and the walls above, the wooden groining, simple as it is in decoration, being very pleasingly managed. The main ribs of the groining are emphasised by straight lines in red, buff, blue and gold, while the groundwork of the ceiling is azure blue with gold stars."

Work on the terminus began in May 1878 and took 10 years to complete. The total cost for the offices and the station was Rs.26,75,810. On June 1887, Queen Victoria's Jubilee Day, the building was named Victoria Terminus in honour of 50 years of her rule. A statue of the Queen was installed over the main entrance of the building and it stood there for many years. It was removed at some point in time - no one seems to recall by whom or why - and is now untraceable. Political demands to install one of Shivaji in its place have been laid to rest for the moment.

Although VT was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004, the honour is double-edged; if the building is not maintained its status could be withdrawn, but maintenance and restoration is difficult. Funds are, of course, an issue, but so are the logistical implications of carrying out repairs on a heritage structure that is in intensive public use.

To manage day-to-day functioning, restoration plans have been divided into two phases. Phase I, at Rs.4 crores, will cover the essentials of waterproofing, upgrade the fire-fighting system and clean the yellow Porbunder sandstone and grey Malad trap stone. Phase II will cost Rs.11.5 crores and concentrate on restoring damaged portions of the structure and ornamentation.

The increased demands of office space, commuter traffic, age and pollution have damaged the building's aesthetics. However, skilful restoration and sensitive management of the Central Railway are ensuring that the stained glass, vaulted roofs and Maw and Minton tiles are beginning to reinstate themselves in all their glory.

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