The life and legacy of G.B. Mhatre

A master architect who shaped Mumbai’s landscape through his building craft

Gajanan B. Mhatre, Original Source: Buildings that shaped Bombay, G.B. Mhatre
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Gajanan Baburao Mhatre, known as G.B. or Mhatre, born in Bombay in 1902, studied architecture at Sir J.J. School of Art. Here he interacted and learnt from many eminent architects, particularly Claude Batley, Principal of J.J.

Batley’s approach to modernism through an understanding of traditional architecture deeply influenced Mhatre. He examined numerous buildings from the past and developed a deep understanding of Indian architecture, particularly the Islamic architecture of Gujarat.

Madame Guimard’s Bedroom (1909/1912) by Hector GuimardMusée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon

In the early days of his practice, G.B. was also briefly influenced by the pioneers of Art Nouveau like Victor Horta and Hector Guimard. Their work, pictured here, especially the manipulation of surfaces, fascinated him. This exploration is evident in numerous details of his professional work.

Mhatre moved to England in 1928 to qualify for the Associateship of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Details above the entrance of Sunshine, Oval Maidan (2019/2019)Art Deco Mumbai

In 1931, he joined the firm of Poonegar and Billimoria as a designer. The company quickly recognised his capabilities and promoted him to the role of chief architect of the firm.

As chief architect, he designed and executed many Art Deco buildings across neighbourhoods of Mumbai.

Pictured here is Sunshine building on Oval Maidan in South Mumbai, with its dark brown streamlined architectural lettering and tropical-inspired sun motif which sits atop a marble stepped-profile in four colours.

Archival Image of Rao House, MatungaOriginal Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects

His relationship with Poonegar further evolved over time. They drew no formal contracts of partnership but the drawings were signed as “Poonegar and Mhatre”, acknowledging G.B.'s contribution. Pictured here is Rao House in Matunga, a predominantly residential suburb of South Mumbai.

A three-storey structure with a unique diagonal staircase tower as a focal point. Other remarkable features include its continuous eyebrows or chajjas that run along the length of galleries, window grilles and railing details.

Archival Image of Rajesh Mansion, Oval MaidanOriginal Source: The Modern House of India by ACC

G.B. also freelanced for some time and was designing for many other successful firms.

Rajesh Mansion, formerly Sorab Mansion, is a fine example of Mhatre's collaboration with Contractor Kanga & Co.

Street view of Soona Mahal, Marine Drive (2017/2017)Art Deco Mumbai

For G.B. each project was site specific and although the design was conceived in his mind to a great extent and later drawn in the studio, it was finally worked out at site and often changed. This aspect is very evident in the lay-out plan of the streamline masterpiece Soona Mahal.

Archival Image of Krishnabad, Cumbala HillOriginal Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects

Design elements like continuous eyebrows or chajjas and deep-set balconies, seen here; enable these stylised buildings to respond to the local climate in an aesthetically pleasing manner. These features showcase Mhatre's interest in, and ability to borrow from, a variety of traditions, including traditional Indian architecture.

Krishnabad, seen here, is located in Cumbala Hill, South Mumbai. This Deco jewel is a fine example that uses traditional weather treatments in modern form, features elements like winged balconies on every floor and a podium at ground floor that neatly wraps the street corner to form a commercial and retail space.

Picardie in Tardeo, View of the entrance (2019/2019)Art Deco Mumbai

Mhatre believed “the first impression is always the best impression…. A building however well designed in other details, may lose its effect and will not make an impression on a person entering it, if the entrance is not designed satisfactorily.”

Pictured here is a restrained yet inviting entrance to Picardie in Tardeo, South Mumbai. Notice the intelligent use of dark green colour, on the curved canopy and side support of the entrance steps as a contrast to the neutral wall colour. The colour scheme is soothing to the eye and the contrast highlights the different building features.

Street View of Sleater House No. 2, Tardeo (2019/2019)Art Deco Mumbai

Sleater House 1 & 2 are identical apartment buildings in Tardeo, South Mumbai. The building's noteworthy elements are symmetrical form with angular balconies, continuous eyebrows in red and bay windows. Forming its central axis, the maroon cylindrical tower with vertical ribbon windows rises above the curvilinear entrance canopy.

Most of these building possess the design quality of G.B.’s work but not his signature, a common occurrence across the volume of his work. This prompted many to call him a ‘shadow architect’, a name that he carried for the rest of his life.

Archival Image of Court ViewOriginal Source: The Modern House of India by ACC

Predominantly designed by M. N. Dalal in cooperation with Merwanji, Bana & Co.; Mhatre was awarded the work to redesign the elevation of Court View after the construction work had begun. He created a minimalistic façade with geometric balconies at every floor and red continuous eyebrows. The maroon bands help to accentuate the height.

The most striking feature on the façade was the reinforced concrete jalli (grille) with coloured finish that resembled a frozen fountain, positioned above the entrance canopy.

View of stairwell in Court View, Oval Maidan (2019/2019)Art Deco Mumbai

G.B. also had an instinctive understanding of materials, their properties and potential. In case of wood, he probably inherited from the collective experience of his community whose primary occupation was building. His insistence on the appropriateness of detail is well-known.

This carved teak wood staircase with silver metal grilles in the common lobby of Court View is a breathtaking example. The intricate details and colour scheme of this remarkable feature along with custom flooring details bring life into an otherwise modest but spacious building atrium.

Wide angle view of Karfule (2020/2020)Art Deco Mumbai

In Ballard Estate business district, Mhatre designed Karfule for the Late Gabriel Sequeira. Opened on October 3, 1938, Karfule is one of Mumbai's only surviving Art Deco petrol pumps. The most striking features of the service station are the magnificent blue cantilevered canopy on the central kiosk and red horizontal bands along the service bays at the back. With numerous signature details, Karfule continues to be one of the many iconic structures designed by G.B. Mhatre.

Archival photograph of Members of the IIA Council (1936/1937)Original Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects

Mhatre was also actively engaged with many initiatives of Indian Institute of Architects (IIA), a professional body of architects with headquarters in Mumbai. This group photograph of the Members of the Council 1936-37, shows him standing at the extreme left.

Philo Mena, street view (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai

G.B. did not fixate on a specific philosophy. This enabled him to freely borrow ideas, material, technology and forms, and use them in an individual way. But over a period of time, he evolved some elements which became his ‘leitmotif’ – particularly the design of the corner of a building, cantilevers often of daring proportions and, above all, the use of a single dominant idea in every building which was usually capable of being abstracted to a diagram.

This is particularly evident here in Philo Mena.

Street view of Ratan Mansion, Matunga (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai

G.B. Mhatre was one of the most prolific architects practicing in Bombay during the early 20th century. His practice was closely linked with the emergence of an architecture which, in the decades between the 1930s and 1950s, was significantly different from what preceded it.

On 4th October 1973, he passed away leaving behind a tangible legacy through his architectural work that not only played a significant role in shaping the city of Bombay but continue to thrive as fine examples of modern living heritage of Mumbai.

Credits: Story

Art Deco Mumbai showcases Mumbai’s Art Deco, advocates its conservation, chronicles its history, documents neighbourhoods and has created the only online repository dedicated to Mumbai’s Deco buildings. All the images are from Art Deco Mumbai’s archive.

To know more visit Crafting the Growth of ‘Bombay Deco’- The era of Architect Gajanan B Mhatre

Explore the Art Deco Mumbai Gallery

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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