Heritage hall

Print edition : November 02, 2007

The Cowasji Jehangir convocation hall at the University of Mumbai with its famed rose window and classic Gothic lines. - PICTURES: VIVEK BENDRE

The UNESCOs Asia-Pacific Heritage unit gave an Award of Distinction for the restoration of the convocation hall at the University of Mumbai.

The Cowasji Jehangir

SUPERB interdisciplinary technical achievement elegant renewal of one of the citys finest Victorian buildings. An architectural jewel beautifully restored at the centre of historic Mumbai an example to be followed in other municipal projects a model to be studied by the many future generations of students who will have the privilege of utilising this inspiring space. This is how the Asia-Pacific Heritage unit of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation described the work of conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah and her team in the restoration of the Cowasji Jehangir Convocation Hall at the University of Mumbai while giving the hall the first Award of Distinction.

Coming as it did at the end of the 150th year celebrations of the university, the award was that much more special. The convocation hall is 132 years old and its long-pending restoration was complicated. Leakage from the main roof, an asbestos-covered vault and rotting beams were just the beginning of the problems that the conservation architect had to tackle. Then the old gilt had to be renewed, the stained glass had to be repaired, and technology had to be used in an unobtrusive way to improve the acoustics of the cavernous hall. The greatest challenge came not from the volume of work but from the time frame. From bidding for the job to getting the necessary permissions for this Grade I heritage structure, Lambah had less than a year to finish the job. A mammoth task considering it was the first time the building was undergoing repairs since it was completed in 1874 by its architect Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Lambah recalls visiting the convocation hall in the middle of the monsoon in 2005 and seeing a waterfall pouring down one wall. That moment was something of a revelation as she realised the enormity of the task. It spurred the team on to working round the clock.

The team of professionals assembled by Lambah consisted of the firm Savani Heritage Contractors for the civil works; Jhaveri and Jhaveri, acoustical engineers; Rohinton Arethna and Parveen Mistry for the stained glass conservation; and Swati Chadgadkar for stained glass consultation; Arup Sarbadhikary for structural concerns; Vikas Joshi for electrical works; and AWA Architectural Lighting Designers for the lighting.

Together they tackled the collapsing roof, the stone which had been eaten away by the elements and by pollution, the removal of the thick layers of paint (possibly, evidence of the Public Works Departments misguided efforts at conservation) and the fine work of restoring the stained glass. As always, there were shocks and surprises.

The librarys Rajabai Clock Tower, one of Mumbais favourite landmarks, soars 280 feet high.-

The librarys Rajabai

The roof was something of a nightmare. It had been plastered with asbestos fibre in an attempt to waterproof and possibly provide good acoustics. Removing this hazardous material was a top priority. The stone vault too had taken a beating and the lime content had to be re-infused. Likewise, the ends of the Burma teak beams embedded in the masonry had rotted completely. As the team worked, amid falling clumps of wet asbestos, the need for structural and roof repairs became more and more apparent.

Next, the painted stonework was stripped and exposed to show off the limestone texture. To improve acoustics a 6-mm-thick cellulose-based fibre was used on the walls. In a restoration project electrical work is always crucial. Period fixtures are usually the least of the worries. Incorporating modern conveniences is the real challenge. Ceiling fans were unnecessary because of the halls design. Most of the original light fittings were preserved and fitted on to a running balcony that overlooks the hall.

One pleasant surprise uncovered when the walls were stripped was the presence of the old gas lighting channels. Lambah retraced these routes and used them for the new wiring.

Once the main structural work was done, the team settled into the nitty-gritty of the aesthetics. The original gold leaf needed a helping hand. The modern gold leaf gilding has a garish quality that Lambah baulks at. She finally settled on a team from Jaipur, which worked round the clock for three weeks using 24-carat gold to achieve the original burnished effect.

Finally, in nine months and at a cost of Rs.1.9 crore, the Cowasji Jehangir Convocation Hall was restored to its original glory. The convocation hall has a rectangular ground plan with an apse on the southern side while the northern end has a porch and a gently winding stone staircase. The hall, which is 104-feet (31.69 metres) long, 44-feet wide and 63-feet high, accommodates about 1,000 people. The eastern and western elevations each have a setback buttressing up to the second floor.

The convocation halls dimensions are small and the overall impression is one of compactness. Yet the prevailing memory is that of a grand, soaring structure. This can be attributed to the abundant architectural features of gargoyles, gilt, clerestory windows, four-cornered finials and stained glass that go towards creating a breathtaking lushness.

Scott, known as the great English Gothicist, clearly knew the impact of stained glass. The hall had over 2,000 square feet of stained glass crafted at the London studios of Heaton, Butler and Bayne and shipped to Bombay (now Mumbai). Considering that the glass dated back to 1873, it was in remarkably good condition. The crowning glory is of course the rose window on the northern face.

Twenty-four feet in diameter and with an approximate area of 453 square feet, the rose window depicts the sun as the centre of the universe. The inner ring shows the months of the year and the outer, the zodiac signs. One noteworthy aspect of the hall is its flooring. While the Minton tiles (so beloved then) are all prevalent, there is a strip of grey-and-white Chinese marble (not from China) that begins at the front door and, like a carpet, unrolls down the length of the hall until the stage at the southern end.

Here seven lancet windows, with their geometric foliate design, make a beautiful backdrop to the stage. Not to be left out, the eastern and western walls are also lined with stained glass panels depicting various coats of arms. Perhaps no part of the hall has escaped ornamentation. Even the iron brackets that support the wooden galleries running on either side of the hall are carved and gilded. And the brackets rest on carved stone heads exhibiting different Indian social castes.

The convocation hall is just one of the many jewels of the universitys Fort campus. The library building with the Rajabai Clock Tower is another. Both have Grade I heritage status. This means they are part of the elite group of 48 other Grade I entries in the city, one of which is a banyan tree. The university stands alongside other buildings from the same era all of them are built in the Victorian Gothic style which Mumbai is renowned for. The style is characterised by a prolific use of statue niches, open spiral staircases, stained glass, pointed arches, lancet windows, flying buttresses, elaborate stonework and a wonderful understanding of the citys climatic requirements.

It is a point of interest that Scott, the chief executor of this style in the city, never visited Bombay. He merely sent plans from his London office and their execution was supervised by resident architects in Bombay. Necessary changes were made to adapt the design to Indian conditions and the availability of materials. Almost all the materials from the Porbandar and Kurla stone to marble and limestone were local, as were all the craftsmen. Perhaps only the Minton tiles and the stained glass were imported from England.

Standing in a row with the High Court and the old Secretariat, the university stands out for its fine ensemble of style and form. Its imposing Rajabai Clock Tower was once the tallest structure in the city. In 1996, the library was restored and in 2001 it received an Honourable Mention from UNESCO. The tower, a classic and beloved symbol of the city, is a masterpiece and lends a superb balance to the university campus.

The library is something of a contrast to the convocation hall. It is a merry mix of styles that gives it an almost fairy-tale castle quality. Though primarily toeing the Gothic Revivalist style, the library has defiant extravaganzas that flaunt the more delicate Venetian style. Compare, for instance, the two slender fluted stairways on either side of the library with the solidness of the clock tower above the library porch.

The stairways flanking the colonnaded arcades rise with an airiness and culminate in conical feather-cut patterned roofs. The clock tower, on the other hand, spurns the flightiness of the Venetian style and chooses to make a solid statement it speaks of Empire, of trade, and of wealth. Though it rises 280 feet there is no doubt that its feet are planted firmly on the ground. Twenty-four statues representing various communities of India stand in niches at various levels of the tower.

Shakespeare in stone at the library hall. The heads of Shakespeare and Homer were carved on two dwarf columns formed by two cross arches.-

Shakespeare in stone

The variety of designs and forms in the library complex is enthralling. Starting with the stonework in the porch, there is no dearth of architectural delights. The entrance hall has a groin-vaulted ceiling and wooden screens that separate two lecture halls. The screens, with their stained glass inserts, are part of the original furniture and are rendered in a Gothic Revival banqueting style. The central staircase has carved panels of animals, birds, plants and faces. At one point two cross arches meet to form two dwarf columns on which are carved the heads of Homer and Shakespeare. The culmination is the reading room with its 32-foot-high vaulted ceiling that resembles a ships hull. Bar tracery windows look out on to the quietness of well-laid-out gardens with old trees.

The library was built in 1864 on a donation of Rs.2,00,000 given by the merchant prince Premchand Roychand who offered the money towards the erection of a university library which may be an ornament to the city, and by becoming a storehouse of learned works, not only of the past but of many generations to come, may be the means of promoting the high ends of the university. Roychand doubled the amount so that a stone clock tower could be erected in memory of his mother Rajabai. It took 14 years for the work to be completed.

The glory of the university campus is accentuated by the fact that it stands alongside some of the finest examples of institutional architecture in India. Earlier the reclamation buildings faced the sea, separated only by a maidan. While the maidan still exists, the sea has been replaced by buildings. The view from the university has definitely changed but its architectural magnificence remains as alluring as ever.

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