The story of the century that shaped Bombay*, of the people who built and celebrated the city. Harking back to Bombay’s humble beginnings, this essay traces the industrial, socio-physical, architectural and nationalist underpinnings that catapulted Bombay into a modern Indian metropolis.
Few cities of consequence are birthed from the seas. Fewer still, if any, are built by a cosmopolitan concatenation of missionaries, merchants and migrants, as Bombay was. A sui generis in itself, Bombay, for the better part of its existence was a group of seven sleepy islands, without much historical baggage and disconnected from developments on the mainland. But beginning in the 16th century, a dovetailing of global and local forces substantially altered the fortunes of the city, so much so that by the turn of the 20th century, Bombay had become the ‘Urbs Prima in Indis’-The first city of India. The essay recreates this extraordinary transformation, focusing on key developments that unfolded within the century of 1850 to 1950.
From Seven Islands to a Bustling Port
Being the only sheltered harbour along the entire West coast, it was the weight of Bombay’s maritime potential that directed her historical trajectory.(i) However, for much of the history of the subcontinent, this potential remained unexploited. Trading ships along the west coast near Bombay usually came upto Bassein (Vasai), whence the Vasai creek gave direct access to the ancient trading centres of Bhivandi, Kalyan and Thane.(ii) As a result, the islands of Bombay that lay further south were overlooked. This was true even when the islands were in the possession of the Portuguese since 1534. They were primarily concerned with proselytization, and were headquartered at Mahim on the western shore that overlooked the open sea, and not the harbour along the eastern shore of the islands.(iii) In 1661, when the Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza married the English King Charles II, the seven islands were handed over as her dowry. As Charles II did not discern any particular advantage, neither of the marriage nor of its dowry, he rented out the islands of Bombay to the East India Company in 1668 for a paltry sum of 10 pounds a year.
Unlike the Portuguese, the East India Company, at the very outset, was determined to develop the islands into a trading centre. It built a fort around the harbour to secure it from the marauding Maratha armies (iv), and invited skilled workmen and trading communities with incentives. Striking a balance between cooperation and compromise, the Company guaranteed these communities freedom of religion, freedom from persecution, tax free lands and land ownership rights, all in return for raising a functional
trading town.(v) Thus, many Parsis, Banias, Bohras and Hindu Brahmins, some of whom were already trading at Surat, left for the shores of Bombay. One among them was the master shipbuilder Lowjee Nusserwanji Wadia who built ships and docks for the Company in place of the mud basins that lined Bombay’s harbour.(vi) In sum, within a century, the islands had metamorphosed into a trading hub. Mercantile ships regularly docked at the newly built ports, ferrying cotton and opium into the Chinese heartlands in return for Chinese tea, which was then shipped to Europe and America.
While the rest of the subcontinent would be gripped by violent clashes between the Company and the natives, Bombay became the crucible for a unique experiment of a city built out of collaboration as opposed to confrontation.
The Cotton City and its Cotton Kings
By the twilight of the 18th century, Bombay had written an epitaph to its provincial aspirations, and a new vivacious city that would be India’s premier industrial centre was in the making. Beginning in the 1850s, two capital developments were a watershed in ensuring the industrial clout of Bombay vis a vis the rest of the subcontinent- the cotton mills and the railways. The first cotton mill in the city, The Bombay Spinning and Weaving Company was set up in 1854(vii) and many of the early mills profitably exported cotton yarn to China. The inauguration of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (now the Central Railway line) in 1853, followed by others connecting Bombay to Poona, Ahmedabad and the Deccan hinterlands was a shot in the arm for the city mills.(viii) Running along the Western coast and expediting the delivery of raw cotton from the fields to the mills, the railways delivered Bombay from the constraints of pack animals having to cross mountain passes to reach the cotton fields of Gujarat, Khandesh and Berar.(xi)
Bombay’s stakes in the cotton industry were raised manifold with the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Owing to a blockade of the American ports that routinely fed the Lancashire mills of England, Bombay, with its highly functional mills and well developed rail networks, stepped in as an acquiescent substitute. The price of cotton in the city soon ratcheted up to six times, ushering in an unprecedented flow of capital, sprouting scores of
banks, private reclamation companies and shipping firms.(x) Although many of them failed due to the share market crash post the end of the Civil War, the modern Indian textile industry had firmly entrenched itself in Bombay. This impetus was further galvanised by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Directly connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Red Sea, distance between Europe and the East could be traversed in record time- 2 months as opposed to 5.(xi) Having long surpassed Surat on the Western coast, by the mid-nineteenth century even Calcutta was cast adrift, as Bombay emerged to be the most important port on the subcontinent.(xii)
Cotton thus became Bombay’s white gold, the genesis of its fortunes, prefiguring its transition from a trading to a manufacturing hub.
The ‘financial delirium’ post the American Civil War saw much wealth being used creatively on urban improvements such as libraries, museums, schools of art and hospitals.(xiii) Many established mercantilists in the city financed institutions that would be receptive and sensitive to Indian requirements and enhance the potentialities of Indian interests.(xiv) Bombay had its very own class of merchant princes, and opium and cotton Kings, among who were Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Cowasji Jehangir Readymoney and Premchand Roychand. While their commercial interests thrived under colonialism, they were pioneers partnering in public projects through acts of philanthropy.
They envisioned and built educational and healthcare institutions such as the Bombay University, its Convocation Hall and Library, the Rajabai Clock tower, the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art, the Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy Hospital etc. The Petit family of entrepreneurs and mill owners financed the J.N Petit library, built in 1856. As a fillip to scientific education through the medium of display, Bombay was bestowed her first ever museum christened ‘The Victoria and Albert Museum and Gardens’ (now the Bhau Daji Lad museum), generously funded by Jagannath Shankarsett, David Sassoon, and many leading entrepreneurs.(xv) Jagannath Shankarsett, a prominent banker of his time, also founded the Native School of Bombay, which later became the Elphinstone College. The sheer volume of these charitable contributions altered the physical landscape of the city, and at the same time transformed the nature of its civic culture.(xvi) These institutions continue to dot the cityscape, in proud avowal of an unspoken understanding between the native and colonial interests, that sustained both the city and its enterprising spirit.
Embracing a Diverse Social Milieu
By the 1850s, Bombay was also undergoing a unique experiment in cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. The coming of the mills and the dockyards led to an inflow of migrants from different parts of the country escaping famines and seeking social mobility. They predominantly belonged to communities such as the Marathas, Dheds, Mahars, Chambars, Mochis as well as Muslims, arriving from the Deccan and the Konkan.(xvii) Many communities also set sail from West Asia, fleeing persecution and economic hardships. Notable among them were the Baghdadi Jews, the Irani Zoroastrians and Shia Muslims.(xviii) This was in addition to others who had already arrived in the preceding centuries such as the Memons, the Khojas, The Bohras, The Bene Israelis, the Armenians, etc. The culminating effect was the emergence of a city in flux, with communities constantly engaging in negotiations for space, power, money and influence. Amidst the ravages of colonialism, there was hardly another city in the subcontinent where economic prospects brought such a diverse mix of people to cohabit cheek by jowl.
Although social interminglings were confined within the bounds of caste and class, Bombay became a melting pot of several tongues, cultures and lifestyles.
This social diversity also reflected in spatial configurations within the city where these communities settled in pockets that gradually evolved into distinct enclaves.(xix) Thus, while the Parsis settled on prime land within the Fort, the Bhatias flocked to Bhuleshwar and the Gujaratis to Kalbadevi, the Pathare Prabhus claimed Girgaum and the Bohris and Memons clustered around Mohammed Ali Road.(xx) Even when layers of its history are unraveled, what never gives way to doubt is the social resilience of a city ahead of its time.
A New Urban Landscape
A substantial change in the social composition of a city is a precursor to an alteration in its physical set up. In Bombay, by the 1850s, a rapid surge of population and wealth, coupled with newer waves of migrations had begun to congest the area within the fort walls. Since the city no longer needed to serve as a Western defense centre, Sir Bartle Frere, the Governor of Bombay at the time ordered to demolish the fort walls.(xxi) Removal of the ramparts entailed the availability of new land for development, but the Government had misgivings about handing over public restructuring and reclamation works to private entities. This was tried once before and had proved to be disastrous in the face of the share market crash of 1865. Thus, it was decided that public bodies should be set up instead, and so began a period of municipalisation and public ownership. (xxii)
Administrative institutions such as The Municipal Corporation of Bombay (1872), and the Bombay Port Trust (1873) ushered in modern urbanism, and in their wake, wide roads, open spaces, maidans and parks replaced the space taken up by the redundant fort walls. The Bombay Port Trust reclaimed land along the eastern coast of the city to build docking stations, depots and warehouses.(xxiii) There was also a concomitant improvement in civic amenities such as street lighting, drainage, sanitation and piped water supply.
However, as urban planning was not all encompassing, the Fort area with its new Secretariat, High Court, Post Office etc. developed into an administrative and commercial hub while the working class neighbourhoods of Byculla, Parel, Mazgaon etc languished in abject neglect.
Two parallel and diametrically opposed visions of the city emerged. Challenging the elegant metropolis was another image of Bombay full of filthy lanes, godowns and ill ventilated slums crammed by the proletariat.(xxiv) Owing to such privations, the outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in 1896 was an impending calamity. Rising death tolls and an exodus of people from the city brought business to a standstill, which pushed the Government into action.
This was the backdrop that led to the engineering of ‘planned neighbourhoods’ in Bombay, carried out by the Bombay City Improvement Trust constituted in 1898.(xxv) At the very outset the Improvement Trust was tasked with demolishing the overcrowded slums and creating new neighbourhoods to relocate the working class masses. It created new interlinking north-south and east-west roads such as ‘Princess street’ and the ‘Sydenham road’ (now Mohammad Ali road), that carried the sea breeze into densely populated areas.(xxvi) The new suburbs of Dadar, Matunga, Wadala and Sion were built north of the mill lands with large open spaces. Such state intervention in the sphere of urban development through the creation of an agency devoted solely to civic restructuring was unprecedented in colonial India.(xxvii) Although the Improvement Trust was responsible for substantially altering the built environment of Bombay, it failed in its primary aim of housing the poor. Displaced by its demolitions, they could no longer afford the exorbitant property and rent rates post redevelopment.(xxviii)
Tasked with restructuring Bombay’s port activities and decongesting the Fort area in terms of commercial office spaces, the Bombay Port Trust undertook the Ballard Estate Scheme in 1908.(xxix) Another agency that was created to monitor the city’s urban development post the First World War was the Bombay Development Directorate which implemented the Backbay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s.(xxx) Although mired in controversy, this scheme reclaimed 439.6 acres of land from Marine Drive up to Colaba.
An Imperial City set in Stone
With reclamations, urban development schemes and industrialization in full swing, not only was Bombay undergoing an internal physical restructuring, it also became a focal point for channelising a new vision of imperialism. The latter motive gained precedence with the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown in 1858. Architecture with its expressive symbols reflected the essaying of Britain as an imperial power and its colonies as extensions of its glorious self.(xxxi) Stately buildings proclaiming imperial sovereignty and longevity, that would draw one’s gaze in supplicant wonder were designed and built between the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With its flying buttresses, vaulted arches and pointed rooflines, the high style that had resurfaced in Europe- the Victorian Neo Gothic, came to adorn Bombay.
Frederick William Stevens is the architect to be credited for three of the most iconic Neo Gothic edifices in the city -The Victoria Terminus (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus), The Municipal Corporation building and the Headquarters of the Western Indian Railway. Gothic buildings in the city were built out of igneous basalt and soft limestone, that were sourced locally, and crafted by Indian craftsmen and students of the J.J. College of Art.(xxxii) Conceding to the Indian tropical climate, these buildings also sported sloping tiled roofs, carved balconies and verandahs.(xxxiii) Thus, Bombay Gothic emerged as a distinctive architectural style that drew on design sources of Europe but at the same time was sensitized to the Indian site, climate and materials.(xxxiv) However one must be cautious in estimating the extent of the indigenous influence, as much of it was at best additive and not innovative.(xxxv)
Gothic structures in Bombay, in essence carried the image of their European prototypes, which were far removed in space and style from Indian realities, yet vividly asserted imperial ownership.
By the 1870s, there was a general consensus among the Public Works Department architects that colonial architecture in India needed to reflect the reality of its setting and be ideologically suited to the Indian milieu.(xxxvi) This concurred with the imperial understanding that an assimilation of local styles with the European scale would be politically expedient to showcase Britain’s accommodation of the tastes and sensibilities of its subjects.(xxxvii) Thus, the Indo-Saracenic style was born out of a synthesis of Indic idioms inspired by the Mughal and Rajput styles, executed upon European planning and construction methods.(xxxviii) In 1909 John Beg, who at the time was the consulting architect of the Bombay Government, designed the General Post office building in the Indo-Saracenic style. Following in his steps, his protégé George Wittet executed the two most exceptional Indo-Saracenic marvels in the city- the Gateway of India in 1911 and the Prince of Wales Museum in 1915. Even though it incorporated Indic idioms, conceptually however, Indo-Saracenic was a product of European imperial traditions.(xxxix) The style was also patronised by native interests across the country. When Jamshetjee Nusserwanji Tata, the man who pioneered the hydro-electric and iron and steel industries, decided to build the first luxury hotel of the country, the Taj Mahal in 1903, he chose the Indo-Saracenic in all its glory.(xl)
Art Deco and the arrival of Modernism
The era of the 1920s ushered in a new architectural style inspired by international art movements and spawned by indigenous initiative. This new style moderne popularised between 1930 and 1950, came to be known as Art Deco in the 1960s. New tracts of virgin land reclaimed by the Backbay Reclamation Scheme in the 1920s, along Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan, paraded this architectural diversity. Confronting each other in a theatrical architectural display across the Oval Maidan, the 19th century Victorian Gothic and the 20th century Art Deco, signified a unique historical dialogue(xli) between the high point of colonialism and the beginning of its end, respectively. First generation Indian architects, many of them trained in the European styles took the initiative in executing these buildings inspired by modern renditions of industriousness, elegance and functionality.
In rejecting the medievalism and ostentatious ornamentation of the Gothic style, Art Deco idealised modernity and pragmatism.
Primarily used for residential constructions, it signified the acceptance of a living space that transcended linguistic and regional barriers, defined by the new ‘flat’ or apartment system.(xlii) In many ways, it ushered in a new public culture that was global in aspirations, yet rooted in the local idiom.(xliii)
Art Deco was also at the vanguard of introducing democratic spaces in the form of cinema theatres into the social fabric of the city. The visual exuberance within these theatres stirred the imagination of the people who were exposed to new ideas and lifestyles, mostly of Western import, such as Hollywood, jazz, cabarets and the like. Although segregation in the form of expensive balcony seatings and exclusive soda fountains and bars for the elites(xliv) were an impediment to social intermingling, the cinema theatre became an important pedestal for fomenting a sense of unity, arising from a shared experience in a shared space. The Metro, Eros and Regal cinemas were among India’s first Art Deco edifices that were crucial in this regard, of construing a politically charged public culture against the backdrop of the unfolding nationalist movement.(xlv) Inspired by Western modernism, Art Deco was at the same time accommodative of Indian nationalism. Named in commemoration of the Indian independence, the Liberty Cinema was a Deco jewel that had opened in 1949 to exclusively premiere Bollywood movies.(xlvi)
Construing a National Identity
As our timeline draws to a close, the single most important event to have transpired in its last decade is the independence of the country in 1947. Bombay’s contribution to the nationalist struggle is the subject of an independent inquiry whose scope exceeds the limits of the current essay. However, in order to comprehend the modern trajectory of the city, it is important to note with the aide of brevity, how Bombay shaped, and in return was shaped by the nationalist movement between 1850 and 1950.
According to Prashant Kidambi, Bombay’s tryst with nationalism can be traced in two distinct phases- the 19th century late Victorian and the post-World War One phase.(xlvii) In the 19th century, political activism was initiated by an Anglophonic middle class that expressed civic patriotism, but at the same time affirmed colonial loyalty.(xlviii) This assertion is given credence by the formation of organisations such as the Bombay Chamber of Commerce(1836) and the Bombay Association(1852) that were primarily used as platforms to negotiate concessions with the colonial government. As the language of subservience could not accommodate a violent repudiation of colonial authority, Bombay remained comfortably indifferent to the mutiny** of 1857 that created an uproar elsewhere.(xlix) In 1885, in the founding session of the Indian National Congress, which inaugurated the moderate phase of Indian nationalism, Bombay sent the largest number of representatives(l). This was not unexpected, given the city’s educated and enterprising middle class preferred a constitutional nationalism within safe bounds. Although this phase of moderate nationalism was not without its limitations, it cannot be discredited that the early nationalists such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Dinshaw Wacha and Pherozeshah Mehta who “invested in presses and worked as journalists and formed associations”(li) created a public sphere which would be exploited by the later nationalists for mass mobilisations.
The arrival of Gandhi in 1915, and the inception of mass nationalism refashioned the relationship between the city and the nation, and imperial sovereignty came to be outrightly contested.(lii)
Bombay, with its highly organised financial capabilities became a rallying point for sustaining mass movements. Its vistas and landmarks such as the open maidans and the Neo Gothic precincts served as symbolic podiums to mobilise and contest the imperial vision.(liii) The city also bore much of the financial costs of independence. Writing for the Young India in 1921, Gandhi lauded Bombay’s donation of over Re 1 crore to the Tilak Swaraj Fund, prophesying that ‘the burden of boycott has to be principally borne by Bombay’.(liv) Bombay became the launch pad for the Rowlatt Satyagraha in 1919, the Non-Cooperation movement in 1920 and the Quit India movement in 1942.(lv) The city was also host to a dialogue between several visions of nationalism, especially of the minorities that were not always in concurrence with Gandhi’s, such as those by B.R. Ambedkar and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.(lvi)
By 1944, prominent industrialists of Bombay were already envisioning an economic plan for the nation, detailed in the ‘Bombay Plan’(lvii) which highlighted the need for state intervention in the economy. In 1946, on the heels of the infamous Indian National Army trials, the Royal Indian Navy stationed at Bombay staged a mutiny, as the curtains came down on the British Raj. Three centuries after the first English ships had landed on its shores, in 1948 Bombay bid adieu, as the last of the British troops- the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry, retreated from the Gateway of India. Amidst cheering crowds and marching troops, the event would have been marked not by a sense of mutual acrimony, but rather of shared reminiscences, as the parting Governor wished for Bombay ‘Godspeed and every good wish for the future’.(lviii)
A hundred years may seem like a fleeting moment in the life of great cities. But for Bombay, the period between 1850 and 1950 mapped its trajectory to becoming one. In a world predominantly connected by trade and imperialism, an industrialised Bombay with highly efficient mills backed by physical connectivity, prevailed upon the exigencies brought about by global events. The city also possessed in equal measure, an ambitious amalgam of workers that powered it’s mills and docks, and business elites who expanded the frontiers of its commercial interests. Its occupational magnetism attracted communities in a common quest for sustenance and it thrived on the attendant cosmopolitanism. As it became the poster child of Britain’s imperial propaganda, modern urbanism and architectural extravagance came to define its physical landscape. However, an incipient nationalism coupled with imported ideas of modernism found expression in its new Art Deco edifices and nationalist mobilisations, paving the way for a complete estrangement from the imperial yoke. From the seven sleepy islands of yore, Bombay had transformed into a trading entrepot and a manufacturing hub, spearheading the nation’s financial prowess as it marched into the 21st century.
Meera Panicker for Art Deco Mumbai
Meera believes the past empowers the present and is enthusiastic about democratising history and making it more accessible. Her research interests include exploring Mumbai's rich cosmopolitan, architectural and cultural heritage. She is a History graduate from St. Xaviers College, Mumbai and a 2017 awardee of the Erasmus Mundus scholarship at SOAS University, London.