Alt/ Urban: When Mumbai buildings spoke of the sea

What the nautical motifs on Bombay’s Art Deco buildings say about a period’s obsession with mobility

Art Deco buildings lining the seafront along Marine Drive, Mumbai (photos/images: Mustansir Dalvi)
Art Deco buildings lining the seafront along Marine Drive, Mumbai (photos/images: Mustansir Dalvi)

Mustansir Dalvi

We stand at the dusk of Mumbai’s relationship with the sea. As the forever night approaches, I wonder if Mumbaikars are even aware that they have turned their backs on that one entity that gave this city its relevance.

I walk on the Carter Road Promenade on an unusually clear morning. Soon the horizon, and the endlessness that once made hearts soar, will be lost in a morass of infrastructure.

Worli Seaface is even more depressing.

And so, I return to the solace of Marine Drive. For the present.

Think back. The city of Bombay and its unique geographical location has been commemorated by poets, writers and artists throughout its existence.

‘Mother of Cities to me,

For I was born in her gate,

Between the palms and the sea,

Where the world-end steamers wait’

So Rudyard Kipling famously wrote, in a time before reclamations reshaped the city and set, frankly, a very bad habit.

Waves lapped the western edge of the peninsula when Rudy was an infant, where the Oval Maidan is today. In the 1860s, the former Esplanade would have been covered with tents temporarily housing newbie migrants from Old Blighty seeking a better life in the city of gold.

The Esplanade and the tents on the Maidan, before the reclamations
The Esplanade and the tents on the Maidan, before the reclamations

The sea was everywhere. The grand neo-Gothic gave the city its first recognisable skyline visible from the sea.

Bombay’s waterfront architecture emerged in the 1940s, once the Queen’s Necklace was completed as part of the Backbay Reclamation. Marine Drive became the central promenade of the city and a symbol of modernity. The upper crust, from film stars to princelings, invested in the buildings that came up in a neat line, all facing west.

It’s difficult to use the bulk of a building to represent something other than itself. Architecture has also historically been limited by precedence and notions of appropriateness.

Marine Drive is special. Its buildings were able to overcome these cultural limitations, and actually speak to the city. Art Deco architecture gave them voice.

In the mid-1930s, Art Deco had already commenced full-blown on the Oval Maidan buildings, displaying all the characteristics of the style from flying balconies to surface ornamentation. Elsewhere, newer office buildings and cinema theatres dominated the city’s skylines.

Since its inception in the Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes (the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts) in Paris in 1925, Art Deco revelled in the here and now, rejecting all that came before it. It appropriated imagery from all over the world like a magpie, from Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus to the art of the Aztecs and the Mayans, from Russian ballet to Cubism, Constructivism and beyond.

But its most urgent muses were power and mobility. And these are best seen in the nautical and littoral imagery adorning the Art Deco buildings on Bombay’s seafront.

Soona Mahal, with its central staircase inspired by a ship’s conning tower
Soona Mahal, with its central staircase inspired by a ship’s conning tower

The early 20th century was also the Age of Travel, dominated by forms of transport becoming mainstream—cars, locomotives, airships (zeppelins) and ocean liners.

All these modes of mobility fulfilled the human aspiration for long distance travel. These desires were sublimated in the form and ornament of the buildings of their time.

Michael Windover, in his book Art Deco: A Mode of Mobility, attributes such architecture with aestheticising mobility and providing an ‘often future-oriented, optimistic vision of prosperity without a hard-line radicalism’.

Transcontinental seafaring had already been romanticised in cinema and advertising, particularly the bold graphical travel posters by Cassandre (Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron), a French graphic designer and poster artist.

India was already being promoted as a travel destination in the 1930s in stone lithographs and oleographs, art that kept several Indian and British artists in business.

The buildings on Marine Drive responded to the urges of the times, sometimes subliminally, sometimes overtly by presenting a variety of nautical references, evoking their unique seafront location. The names of the buildings themselves provided signifiers of the seafront—Sea Green, Riviera, Chateau Marine. Here and elsewhere, buildings were named after ocean liners— Normandie (below), Oceana.

Cassandre’s 1935 poster promoting the inaugural voyage of the Art Deco ocean liner Normandie (photo courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum)
Cassandre’s 1935 poster promoting the inaugural voyage of the Art Deco ocean liner Normandie (photo courtesy the Victoria and Albert Museum)
Victoria and Albert Museum

The facades of the buildings took elements from these ocean liners. Their corners were curved in the characteristic form known as streamlining.

If a building could be imagined as a great hull, then the balconies formed its many decks with pipe railings and porthole windows. Several of the buildings were ocean-liner white, further enhancing the symbolism. Krishna, Kewal and Kapur Mahal are good examples of this.

Buildings on the corners of two roads were specially treated along the diagonals. In Soona Mahal (pictured above), the central staircase shaft rises beyond the building in a stepped formation and culminates in a tower not unlike a funnel or a ship’s conn.


These features are not just restricted to Marine Drive.

Stylised motifs of the sea, waves and surf are commonly seen as stucco ornament patterns on façades, on metal grilles in windows or along compound walls. Sunburst motifs abound in Art Deco buildings. Palm trees and similar tropical imagery both evoke and exoticise Bombay’s unique location as a destination for seafaring R&R.

The most ubiquitous and least deciphered motif on Art Deco buildings of every scale and stripe (not only in Bombay but all over the country) has seafaring connotations—the circle with three horizontal lines running across it.

This is a reworking of the Plimsoll line (designed by Samuel Plimsoll in 1875), the reference mark located on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth to which the vessel may be safely immersed when loaded with cargo. This depth varies with a ship’s dimensions, type of cargo and water densities.

Its presence on Art Deco façades ties in neatly with the period’s obsession with mobility. The reworked Plimsoll Line was one more nautical reference, an addition to the themes of power, transport and the tropics, so common to Art Deco buildings in Bombay.

It is a matter of small transposition, of course, that this motif is seen on the upper parts of buildings rather than close to the ground. But then, like everything in Art Deco, it’s the thought that counts.

What happened to those expressionist urges with which architects made their buildings speak to both the city and the sea? Art Deco façades made a citizen look up, up, up to the ‘stepped tower’ features breaking past rooflines and rising to the firmament.

High-rise buildings today offer nothing to the street, blocked off by compound walls twice human height, with liveable spaces beginning only after nondescript parking floors stacked to twice the height of older buildings. My city is fading into urban anonymity. I look down as I walk. I watch my step.

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