Atas Behram, A (sic) fire-temple in Surat built by Jamshetji Mistri.
Atas Behram, A (sic) fire-temple in Surat built by Jamshetji Mistri.

Q. How far can you trace your family’s association with the building profession? What kind of training did they have and what materials did they use to build?

A. My family has been engaged in the building profession for at least five generations, originally in Navsari. Before the advent of academic courses, people were trained as apprentices, with skills passing down from father to son. A certain amount of practical training went with their upbringing, particularly in carpentry.

In those days, building work was undertaken by mistris, in the capacity of both architect and building contractor. This was a practical proposition because the general line of building was of a simple nature. The style and character of architecture in old Gujarat was moulded by the use of local materials, requirements and the building techniques available. Almost all the work in Navsari was in wood in those days, right down to the embellishments – all those marvellous doorways, for instance. There was no concrete or cement but stone was used for spanning things and for floors, though not very much.

Q. When did your family move to Bomaby?

A. Towards the end of the 18th century. One of my ancestors had heard a lot about this city so he and some friends made an expedition to Bombay. Remember, it was in the days before the advent of the railways and organised transport. He was so impressed by what he saw that he never went back – he was convinced there was a big future here and so he arranged to have his family join him.

Q. How did he establish himself in Bombay?

A. In a growing city, there was more and more demand for builders and he and his two sons did not find it too hard to make their way. At that time, it was possible to tender for big governmental jobs, even if they had been designed by someone else – military engineers, for instance. Professionalism had not developed and it was not considered unethical. (Today, a qualified architect is not allowed to have any financial interest in a building operation he is connected with.)

So it was that my forebears came to build the Royal Mint (it was dismantled only in this century and on its old site near Flora Fountain stands the New India Assurance Building) and the Colaba sea-wall. But on both those jobs, my family suffered considerable financial losses, due to escalation in costs resulting from a war in which Britain was involved. Interestingly, the government had entrusted the charge of the execution of those two jobs to a committee of prominent Indian citizens, who eventually decided against the allowance of increased rates in order to establish the sanctity of contracts.

They decided in the family that these contracts were a risky proposition. Already, a new style of functioning was emerging with architects doing one job and contractors another. The difficulty was that there was a big debt to pay. So they continued to take contracts. It was only towards the end of my great-grandfather’s life that the debts were finally settled. He retired and then his sons carried on.

Q. Which part of Bombay did your forefathers settle in?

A. The old family house is in Girgaum. Whether my forefathers lived anywhere before that, I don’t know, but I doubt it. Most Parsis at that time lived in the Fort area or just a little outside it and Girgaum was one of those areas.

The house is on its last legs and could collapse any day. It was built by my grandfather, though there was probably a smaller house before that. In the middle of the last century when it was built, Girgaum was a very nice place – not the crowded area you see today. I have seen the plans of that time. There were only a few houses – wadi they used to call them. The area was full of coconut trees – from which toddy used to be tapped – there were a few bungalows scattered about, and just beyond Queen’s Road there was the sea.

Q. Did the concept of the master builder end with your great-grandfather's generation?

A. No, it didn’t, except in my family. It was only later when professional ideas from Europe came in that it was more or less forbidden. Although my father and grandfather had stopped taking contracts, the practice continued probably till the turn of this century.

Q. With the British ruling India, did your forefathers face any difficulties or discrimination?

A. No, I don’t think so. In professional circles, the British were very reasonable. In fact, as urban development increased apace, schools for training civil engineers were established. Much later, a handful of architects established a school for architectural draftsmen, upgrading them to professional courses in this century.

Q. Where did your grandfather build and what were the influences in his generation?

A. I should imagine that before my father began to build outside, it was probably only in and around Bombay, because transport and other facilities were not so readily available.

In those days apart from skills handed down from father to son, they used to teach themselves – read books, including those from the West. Work in the mofussil areas also influenced them, though in a place like Bombay there were more foreign influences. For business purposes, they built imitations of what was being built in Europe at that time because office buildings were coming up.

This imitation, I feel, was a necessity because we had a very evolved style of architecture right upto the Mughal period, an architecture suited to very different conditions of work, life and organisation of society. From this, we took a quantum leap, especially in the cities, into what one might call the machine age. Now normally in a country, this evolution takes place over a long period of time in which it adapts itself to changing conditions. We unfortunately had no opportunity to evolve gradually. What we had was not readily adaptable to building cities and urban life. The British were there to show us what could be done. And they also had to adapt. They, too, were not capable of amalgamating their architecture with ours. And so there was a long period when we lost our way. I don’t think we’ve found it yet.

Q. Your father, I believe, was the first in the family to receive professional training.

A. Yes. My father was born around 1860. After taking a degree in civil engineering from Poona, he was offered a government job – highly prized in those days – but he declined it because of a strong urge to practise. He set up his own firm a little over 100 years ago. Though he was a civil engineer by training, he was an architect by predilection. He soon established himself in a preeminent position in the profession, often siding with architects rather than civil engineers on professional issues. His advice was frequently sought by offi bodies, individuals and even members of his own profession. He served on many committees, particularly those relating to Bombay and its development.

Q. What did he build and were his activities confined to Bombay?

A. In the course of his extensive practice, he built hundreds of buildings all over the country. His speciality was the building of textile mills in India and Ceylon, probably because the birth and the phenomenal growth of this industry coincided with the heyday of his career. Besides these, many of his factories, residential, office and school buildings, theatres, churches, mosques, temples and fire temples still adorn the streets of Bombay and other cities.

Among them are the Oriental Life Insurance Building in Calcutta; the Mohotta Palace, the Mama Palace and the Central Bank Building in Karachi; the Royal Palace and Guest House, the General Hospital, the Solarium (the first of its kind in India) and the Museum and Art Gallery in Jamnagar; the Yusuf and Ismail Buildings near Flora Fountain, Prospect Chambers, one of the buildings for the University and many more in Bombay.

An odd but interesting house built by him for an Arab client – Jassim House – still stands in the middle of Cuffe Parade. All the plans for this building were prepared just before the client went abroad. When he saw the plans he expressed great disappointment, since he had expected something in the Saracenic or Mohammedan style. The plans were prepared again and sent to him in London. He was very pleased with the revision and so the house was built.

Q. Was your father’s approach to building different from that of his forefathers because of his professional training?

A. Yes, my father’s approach differed a great deal both in theory and practice and aesthetics. The whole meaning of architecture was different for him. Previously, architecture tended to be dictated by the quantum of accommodation required, not by the pattern of living and working to be adopted.

Q. How did your father establish his practice?

A. My father was an extraordinary man. The little time I spent with him was an eye-opener. In those days, the textile industry used to go through frequent ups and downs. You had to be very careful to survive a depression. Now the owner of Swadeshi Mills in Girgaum wanted to build an additional two storeys without disturbing the working of the mill, because he couldn’t afford to stop work even for a single day. He contacted several architects, all of whom expressed their inability to undertake the project. Then he spoke to my father, who was very new in the profession. He instantly agreed to do it. He improvised a cover and did the job.

Another time, in the early days of his career, the office of the Gresham Insurance Company of England at Flora Fountain was facing a serious problem. It was rapidly sinking. Several architects were contacted but nobody had any ideas on how to save the situation. Finally, the company sent for their architect in England. He too was perplexed.

Then someone suggested that my father, Jamshetji Mistri, be consulted. So the British architect called my father, who took a quick look at it and said he could stop the sinking by injecting cement mixed with some other materials under the foundation. When the British architect looked disbelieving my father merely said, “I’ll do the job for you. You go back to England. Wait for a year and then pay my fees if you like. Does that satisfy you?” The man was impressed by that and asked him what his fee would be. Without a moment’s hesitation – he was always very quick – he said, “Ten thousand rupees.” It was a large sum of money but there was no alternative except to demolish and rebuild. So he agreed. The building is still standing today. It was things like this that helped my father build up a whopping big practice. You could say that he made a real contribution toward the building of Bombay.