Every day, thousands of Mumbaikars walk past elegant façades like those of the Eros and Regal cinemas, the Empress Court Apartments, and the New India Assurance building without a second glance at their rounded corners, geometric decorations, and colorful stucco—features that define the Art Deco style.
Toward the end of the 20th century, as bigger and more generic new buildings rose in this space-starved city, Art Deco and other traditional architectural styles began falling into neglect. But in the past few years, citizen groups have begun to lobby for the preservation of Mumbai’s Art Deco legacy. One of the most significant steps in this movement was a 2012 petition to secure it UNESCO World Heritage status.
(The Victorian & Art Deco Ensemble of Mumbai is currently on UNESCO’s tentative list.)
Finance professional Atul Kumar was one of the petitioners. Having lived in an Art Deco precinct for most of his life, Kumar says he was “outraged by the lack of outrage” around the destruction of what he considers a crucial part of the city’s history. So he began his own conservation project, assembling a small volunteer team to document buildings, with each architectural element decoded and shared on social media. Kumar saw social media as the easiest and surest way to create interest among young people, the future custodians of the city’s past.
The project has already been moderately successful in “tuning [people’s] radar towards Deco,” Kumar says. He is particularly enthused by the fact that his team has been getting feedback from complete strangers, not just in Mumbai but in other cities, most recently Old Delhi, whose Chandni Chowk neighborhood has little-known Art Deco buildings of its own. “We did not start out with the idea of crowdsourcing, but we have got a tremendously positive response from people of all ages,” says Kumar.
Initially, Kumar was an anonymous and lone crusader, but then he decided to formalize the campaign and work with others. Art Deco Mumbai is in the process of registering as a nonprofit organization helmed by Kumar. The core team (now paid) comprises trained architects Prathyaksha Krishna Prasad, Aakriti Chandervanshi, and Nityaa Lakshmi Iyer. While they handle most of the research and documentation, paid interns carry out fieldwork on a project basis.
A couple of months ago, Art Deco Mumbai—which is funded by Kumar—launched a website that will serve as a repository of the city’s Art Deco legacy. Along with a gallery of photographs and explanatory texts, an “Inventory” tab lets visitors browse buildings in specific neighborhoods by name or feature (such as balcony, entrance, or “eyebrows,” projecting shades over windows), or by “Influence of Indian Tradition and Mythology.”