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UNESCO tag for Mumbai buildings will encourage preservation of living heritage in India: Experts

The UNESCO recognition for Victorian Gothic and Art Deco buildings in Mumbai will set a “good precedent” and encourage other cities in India to also preserve their modern architectural legacy, according to experts.

They also opined that such old structures have largely been “overshadowed” by ancient or medieval heritage.

At the 42nd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC), currently underway in Bahrain capital Manama, 94 buildings primarily of 19th-century Victorian Gothic revival and early 20th-century Art Deco style of architecture, were yesterday included in the World Heritage List.

Mumbai-based conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who had prepared the voluminous nomination dossier, said, “The most wonderful thing is that the tag has been given to a living heritage of the city, and not just one building, but a whole cluster of it.”

“In India, the idea of heritage has traditionally been restricted to ancient archaeological sites or medieval-era tombs and monuments. While we are proud of that, as a country we must also value and celebrate our living heritage. The UNESCO honour would definitely put a spotlight on our modern-era heritage,” Lambah told agencies.

The Victorian buildings form part of the larger Fort precinct situated to the east of the Oval Maidan. These public buildings, include the Old Secretariat, Mumbai University Library and Convention Hall, the Bombay High Court, the Public Works Department Office, Watson’s Hotel, David Sasoon Library and the Elphinstone College.

“These are all living, breathing buildings used by people everyday, and perhaps even taken for granted. These are not monuments and tombs frozen in time, but courts, libraries and cinema halls, which we interact with regularly. Hence, Mumbai’s success story can be replicated in other cities,” said Lambah, who was part of the Indian delegation in Manama.

The Art Deco-styled buildings to the west of the Oval Maidan were raised in the early 20th century on the newly reclaimed lands at Marine Drive and symbolised the shift in expression to represent contemporary aspirations.

They include the first row of houses on Marine Drive, the Regal and Eros Cinemas that have earned the recognition. This is the third UNESCO site for the western metropolis after the famous Elephanta Caves and the majestic Victoria Terminus (now Chhattrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus) railway station, which earned the coveted tag in 1987 and 2004 respectively.

Mumbai-based conservationist Kamalika Bose said this achievement will set a very good precedent for other cities to follow.

“We know the condition of colonial-era buildings in most of the cities, and one of the reasons they suffer neglect is because the government or the society at large doesn’t really treat them as heritage or something worthy of preservation.

“While we must continue to use them, as as a more conscious society, we must also value them as our architectural treasures of a certain period,” she said.

Bose says Mumbai is basking in its glory right now but the road has “not been easy and has taken long battles” and ordinary people have played a “very critical role” to help achieve this honour for the city.

“UNESCO tags don’t come on a platter, all stakeholders have to really work in synergy. And, that is what happened in this case, as civil society initiatives like Oval-Cooperage Residents Association, Nariman Point-Churchgate Citizens Association and Kala Ghoda Association, have come together and pooled their energies. But, it can only come from pride in our heritage,” she said.

Lambah, who has restored some of the most iconic buildings in Mumbai, the latest being the Royal Bombay Opera House, said it was in 2004 that she had first made a presentation on Mumbai’s iconic buildings being among the finest modern architectural heritage, at a UNESCO conference in Chandigarh.

Mumbai-based conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, who had worked on the nomination dossier for Victoria Terminus, said, “The news filled me great happiness.”

“Several of these buildings are already protected and I am sure this UNESCO tag will help further create a climate of historical preservation in Mumbai and other cities of the country to value modern, living heritage.

“Many cities and town have old heritage precincts but need proper planning and vision for upkeep. But, most importnanly people must come forward for their city and impress upon the government,” he said.

Delhi-based conservation architect Aishwarya Tipnis says Mumbai’s drive and energy for preserving heritage is worthy of emulation for other cities like Kolkata, Bengaluru, Lucknow, Patna, all of which are endowed with amazing living heritage.

“Mumbai’s success story is an inspiration that common citizens can come together and convince the governments –local, state and central– that when people care about heritage they can make a difference,” she said.

Last year, Ahmedabad was declared as a World Heritage City, the first city in India to have earned that tag.

“I think the back-to-back wins of Ahmedabad and Mumbai will inspire other cities to pick their own battles. Trees will grow but we must sow the seeds first,” Bose said.

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