DO OTHER CITIES have famous landmarks, so famous that they are recognised even by the notoriously ignorant tribe of taxi drivers, yet do not actually exist? Mumbai had three: Kemp’s Corner, called that because the area had a famous medical outlet of that name; Kala Ghoda, because of an equestrian statue of King Edward VII (then Prince of Wales) and Opera House, the area in which was located the country’s only venue for staging them. Over the years, Kemp’s the Chemist moved because of redevelopment, the black horse with its royal rider was sent to the zoo (!) to remove a vestige of imperialism , and Opera House became defunct, then derelict. But the names stuck, and served as markers to find your way around South Mumbai.
Miraculously, in the last few months, the two real landmarks of the three have been given a new lease of life. Kala Ghoda has a new black horse (but without a rider). And Opera House re-opened in October 2016, renovated, refurbished and renewed so grandly that you could even dare call it by its original name—Royal Opera House.
It was given that appellation because it was inaugurated by King George V in 1911 (although construction wasn’t actually finished till the following year, and the architects kept adding embellishments for three years thereafter). The ‘architects’ were an English entertainer, appropriately named Maurice Bandmann, and Jehangir Framji Karaka, a Parsi who headed a coal brokers firm. Not surprisingly, the style they chose can be best described as Baroque, a blend of European and Indian architectural idioms. Notwithstanding that, the building looked imposing and must have stood in isolation from the city’s teeming multitudes with its long driveway, made especially for horse- carriages to roll in. The opera house’s patrons were mostly the ruling British elite and Parsis, who had already developed a taste for Western Classical music.
The interiors must have been impressive with seating on three levels, 26 boxes with velvet couches, gilded ceilings and stained glass windows. David Sassoon, the great philanthropist, donated two crystal chandeliers which adorned the lobby. Three cherubs stood on top of the building in the usual cherubic poses.
Given the absence of any opera company in India, Bandmann and Karaka’s vision can only be described as aspirational. Soon opera performances were interspersed with turns by Raymond, the American magician, Ragtime musicals and the like. Later, theatre companies took over, notably the Maharashtrian legend Bal Gandharva, and Prithvi Theatres, Prithviraj Kapoor’s theatre company. Dinanath Mangeshkar also performed there, and his daughter, Lata, made her stage debut here. That’s quite a heritage.
However, the growing popularity of cinema affected theatre everywhere and Opera House began to show movies. I remember seeing Amar, Akbar, Anthony there, the film’s extravagance an unintentionally cruel comment on the venue’s run- down state. In 1952, Bhojraj Sinhji, the Maharaja of Gondal in Gujarat, bought the property, ran Opera House as a stand-alone cinema house, then bowing to the inevitable, closed down the place in the early 1990s. Fortunately, it had been listed as a heritage building, so it didn’t go the way of other old buildings, to be pulled down and resurrected as a gleaming, glass and concrete commercial structure.
Ten years ago the Mumbai Urban Heritage Conservation Committee (bless its soul), with the backing of the Maharashtra government and the munificence of Jyotendra Sinhji Jadeja, the present maharaja of Gondal, set about restoring the place. One of the city’s leading restoration architects, Abha Narain Lamba was appointed, and what we see now is a brilliant re-creation of a bygone era. It must have cost a packet, but no one’s telling how much.
It doesn’t really matter: Jyotendra Sinhji and his wife Kumud Kumari Jadeja call it their ‘gift to the city’. The building may be a delightful anachronism, yet how one wishes there were more of them! In its new avatar, it has even staged an opera, plus a number of concerts. Most recently, the Orchestra da Camera di Mantova, an Italian chamber orchestra brought down by the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre, gave a magical performance of Vivaldi, Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart, Italians composers all. The seats are plush, the acoustics good if you are in the right row, and the place was packed. I don’t know about the others, but I did feel I should have dressed differently, perhaps white tie and tails…