Archival photograph of Sunshine, Oval MaidanArt Deco Mumbai
At the moment of its introduction in the subcontinent, Art Deco was seen as simultaneously Western and universal style: Western in its geographic origins but universal in its wide-ranging visual inventory and eventual ubiquity. Its ability to occupy both these categories made the style an appealing choice for aspirational Indians.
Detail view of Western India House (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
Local architects actively began to use Art Deco in the beginning of the mid-1930s. They modified the style in response to an Indian cultural and geographic context, resulting in a formal mixture of foreign and regional design. The symbolism of the new architecture straddled two opposing political discourses, expressing neither a reverence for the colonising world nor a total return to local roots.
SWADESHI ENTERPRISE IN THE FORT DISTRICT
The sudden popularity of Art Deco during the interwar years came on the heels of a remarkable surge in the number of insurance companies founded since the turn of the century.
Most of these were companies providing insurance to Indians and many had names that explicitly suggested pride in a nation still developing its sovereign conscience: United India Insurance, New India Assurance, and the Hindustan Cooperative Insurance Company are some examples.
Archival photograph of the Executive Council of Indian Institute of ArchitectsArt Deco Mumbai
The swadeshi leanings of the insurance firms extended to the architects they contracted as well-all of the Art Deco offices built in the late 1930s were designed by local Indian practices such as Master (seated, second from the right), Sathe & Bhuta, Iyengar & Menzies, Kora & Bhat, and Mistry & Bhedwar.
Furthermore, the partnership between designers, manufacturers, and insurance companies suggests that, more than just a convenient choice, Art Deco was also an opportunity to promote a network of local artists and material suppliers.
Swadeshi, means of one's own country.
Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road
Almost all these insurance buildings are opposite and adjacent to each other along the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Road. Built as part of the municipal Hornby-Ballard Improvement Scheme in 1928, all these offices are still in use today and located in the Fort neighbourhood, one of the busiest business districts of South Mumbai.
Street view of Warden House (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
THE IMAGE OF INSURANCE DECO
A distinguishing feature of the interwar insurance buildings could be found in their stone cladding. With their relatively uniform massing and stone cladding, these offices were considered more “restrained” translations of the style that adopted a time-tested material representation of reliability.
The Warden House, built in 1941 as the office of the Warden Insurance Company, programmed the upper room of its circular tower for directors’ meetings, where optimal exposure to sunlight inferred an enhanced prestige.
Street view of Western India House (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
The architects of the insurance offices often addressed issues of climate through choices in fenestration. The Western India House was designed around a void in the building’s centre that allowed for what one Times of India reporter considered “the sunniest and airiest offices to be seen in Bombay.”
They also used distinctive Deco typefaces to fix the names of insurance firms on their facades: “Western India House”, seen in the lower half of this image, is spelled out in recognisable streamlined fonts.
Detail view of United India Building (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
In contrast, United India Insurance had its name embedded into the central tower of its office in five-foot-tall majuscule letters. With its predisposition to advertising and its integrated ornament, Art Deco architecture thus became a convenient mode of expression for Indian insurance firms looking to both establish their own brands and promote those of native entrepreneurs.
Of all the Art Deco architecture in the city, the insurance offices are most striking in their substantial incorporation of traditional imagery, especially on their façades. The architects and insurance businessmen were able to advance their swadeshi goals by hiring local sculptors to carve elaborate reliefs, thus sustaining native artisanal practices.
The Lakshmi Building is perhaps the most iconic example of this sculptural practice widely seen in Bombay. Headquarters to the Bombay branch of Lakshmi Insurance Company, this building was crowned by a 25-foot bronze statue of the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune.
Detail view of elephant relief work on Lakshmi Building (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
Executed by local artist V.A. Kamat, the symbolism continues in lotus patterns on wrought iron gates, and the elephant motifs that repeated in red sandstone panels along the façade (seen here) and carved into the Malad stone at the building’s entrance. The insurance owners’ dedication to illustrating their firm’s namesake indicates a desire to embody the affluence and luck of the mythology they reference, by literally inscribing it into the front of the institution.
While the Lakshmi Building adopted a spiritual iconography, several insurance buildings displayed more secular images of both rural and urban India.
The entrance of the New India Assurance building is flanked by larger-than-life bas-reliefs, seen here, by sculptor N.G. Pansare.
In them, you notice “industrial labour with looms and wheels, farmers with bales and winnows, and common village professions and chores appear in a simplified gigantism in an attempt to connect the two Indias that were poised to diverge into their respective destinies.”
Detail view of relief work on Onlookers Building (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
A similar approach was taken for the People’s Insurance Co. Ltd office, now known as Onlookers Building. Its façade displays stacked bas-reliefs by local sculptor Shiavax Dhanjibhoy Chavda, portraying scenes of rural Indian life.
View of relief work on Western India House (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
At the crown of the Western India House, for instance, the large relief panel depicts a sari clad female figure surrounded by numerous people in regional attire along with cattle and machinery. It highlights the cultural and social practices prevalent in the agrarian, industrial and rural landscapes of India from 1930s.
Ultimately, in all cases, the amplified visibility and expressive intricacy of Art Deco made it a convenient medium of announcing the insurance firms’ financial principles and larger loyalties to the people of India.
Detail view of bas relief on New India Assurance (2018/2018)Art Deco Mumbai
A SWADESHI LEGACY
Through these building designs, the modern yet foreign style paradoxically kept Indian traditions alive and also made evident the formal similarities between Art Deco and indigenous architecture. It was Art Deco’s nomadic character—and its consequent propensity to meld every visual tradition it encountered along its way—that allowed local architects to incorporate Indian symbols into the architecture without disturbing the overall integrity of the style.
This led to the creation of one of the finest collections of buildings that confidently inserted a national sense of self into a larger architectural landscape, making them an integral part of the cultural legacy of Mumbai.
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 Swadeshi Moderne: Aesthetics, Politics & Appropriation in Bombay’s Deco
Explore the Art Deco Mumbai Gallery