History in colour

Published : Apr 06, 2012 00:00 IST

A book that celebrates the stained glass heritage of Mumbai.

A QUOTATION at the start of the very first chapter of Stories in Glass: The Stained Glass Heritage of Bombay sums up the essence of this wondrous art form. It reads, Let us make a thing of beauty that long may live when we are gone; let us make a thing of beauty that hungry souls may feast upon.

To understand this better, all one needs to do is enter the gate of St. Thomas Cathedral in Fort, the heart of Mumbai's busy business district. The heat and dust of Mumbai fall behind as the hungry soul feasts and soothes itself gazing at the glorious stained glass windows.

Historically and artistically, says author Jude Holliday, St. Thomas's Cathedral contains some very important stained glass it includes the very first windows from the studio of the renowned Charles E. Kempe, as well as stained glass designed by one of the most highly respected designers, or glass painters as they called themselves, of the nineteenth century, Henry Holiday. Part of the beauty of the cathedral's glass is that it exemplifies the beginning of the Aesthetic Movement [a combination of biblical subjects and mystical symbolism] and the continuance of the traditional style of the 15th century which focussed solely on ecclesiastical themes. The cathedral, which opened for service in 1718, bridges the styles of both eras.

The main pieces at St. Thomas' are three large stained glass lancets (a slender pointed arched window) which are in the eastern wall; a suitable location from the point of view of the congregation, since the glass tempered the fierceness of the morning sun, as well as from the point of view of aesthetics, since the strong light enhanced the beauty of the glass. Over the years, as the cathedral was redesigned, five more such lancets were added but now only three survive and they too are in their final resting place in the north wall where, unfortunately, only the choir can observe them. Their pattern was simple but a London journal, The Building News, wrote in 1859 that it had the pleasure of examining a large collection of superior examples of the glass stainer's art at the extensive new premises of Lavers & Barraud a three light window, of very large dimensions is also very noticeable, which is in preparation for Bombay Cathedral [as St. Thomas' was initially known].

Architecturally speaking, St. Thomas' is built on traditional lines but, interestingly, little provision was made for stained glass to the extent it was in use at the time. Part of the reason was lack of funds. And yet the church has an enviable collection. Much of this came by way of memorial windows given by donors who had the double satisfaction of giving to the church and seeing where exactly their money went. One such is the Seige of Jhansi memorial window dating back to April 8, 1858 when rebel soldiers surrendered the city to British forces after the Rani of Jhansi made her famous escape only to die on the battlefield.

While St. Thomas' is a repository of the Aesthetic Movement with work from the workshops of men like Henry Holiday, the stained glass at St. John the Evangelist's Church in Mumbai, commonly known as the Afghan church, is a storehouse of the stylistically new Arts and Crafts Movement. The church is so named because it was a memorial to English soldiers who fell during the First Afghan War. Erected in 1865, the church's tower and spire rose to 60 metres and was the first landmark for sailors approaching Mumbai. The Bombay Builder of 1865 noted, It is architecturally the best of our churches, if not indeed absolutely the best in India. Unlike St. Thomas' where stained glass was added to the existing structure, at St. John's it was included in the blueprint. The advantage is plainly visible the lights (panel of stained glass between window mullions) live up to their name and illuminate the area and, at the same time, visually integrate the loftiness of the church by breaking up the dark towering height of the ceiling. Sixty such lights (each seven feet tall by 1.6 feet wide) were delivered to the church in 1856 for the north and south walls of the chancel. They cost the princely sum of 157.

The piece de resistance is the west window designed by William Wailes of England. The first piece shipped out for the purpose was lost when the ship foundered on rocks off Madagascar. In 1857, a replacement arrived. The slight damages repaired, the glass was put up much to the awe of worshippers who no doubt gazed reverently at the New Testament saints surrounding Christ in all his glory.

Though stained glass has ecclesiastical origins dating back to the medieval European Christian Church, it is, like all good art, enormously adaptable. All over Mumbai there are examples of secular stained glass seen in skylight panels, balcony panes, panes bordering mullions, arches over main doors and various decorative architectural elements. Some are covered in dust and are unrecognisable as masterpieces from another age. Others have had the good fortune to have their value recognised and are therefore preserved or even restored. Like those in the University of Bombay which is filled with 2,300 square feet of stained glass, all from the workshops of the English firm Heaton, Butler and Bayne, or the Petit library in the city, where there are portraits in glass of the donor family ( Frontline, January 23, 1998). The stained glass at the university was restored 14 years ago ( Frontline, May 30, 1997) with a generous grant from the British government.

There is another exceptional point about Mumbai's stained glass. In Europe, where the craft originated, it was common for a stained glass installation to be changed after a few decades. This was in keeping with the trend of the times. In erstwhile Bombay, however, it was an expensive import and so the old glass was kept even after the new glass arrived. While this may have not been quite so fashionable, it certainly makes for historic uniqueness and interest because the progression of styles can be easily traced and thus we have a living history of the evolving art of stained glass. Holliday writes vividly of this. Stained glass arrived in India in the mid-nineteenth century as a direct result of the introduction, predominantly to Bombay, of the neo-Gothic architectural form that was taking Britain by storm. Ships carried stained glass from England in long, hazardous voyages, destined for locations over the length and breadth of the country. It graced palaces in Southern and Western states, it adorned churches and cathedrals in Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, and made its way by bullock cart to remote settings such as the tiny churches at Shillong, Chittagong and Roorkee. Such was its appeal that it was added to existing, pre-Gothic Revival buildings that had no precedent for it in their architectural style. The grip it had is seen in the observations of a 12th century abbot who wrote how his church would be pervaded by the wonderful and uninterrupted light of most radiant windows. It is this allure of the sapphire glass which brought fame to firms like James Powell & Sons, C.E. Kempe & Co, Heaton, Butler & Bayne, Gibbs & Howard and other London workshops numbering less than 20 that dominated the business.

The book is eminently readable, providing in equal part detailed histories and delicious tidbits. Moreover, in a book of this sort which relies as much on research as on photographs and their layout, the final product is undoubtedly a matter of teamwork. Recognising this, the author gracefully acknowledges the contribution of the photographer Noshir Gobhai, well known for his architectural and interior photography; Jak Printers, who are now sought after for their superior printing; Fravashi Aga for the layout and the difficult task of seeing that the photographs by and large are alongside the text; and, of course, the late Sharada Dwivedi, whose publishing house, Eminence Designs, brought out the book and coordinated the whole effort. It has to be said that while the glossary is a boon, what is sorely missed is an index. Not being able to refer to details readily is frustrating.

But what has to be appreciated is that in a city where every building constructed prior to the 1900s had some element of stained glass, Holliday has avoided the pitfall of making serious omissions by choosing to concentrate on the most prominent and the most representative examples of stained glass. Her book has filled a niche that has been empty for too long.

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