City of landfall and landfill

April 19, 1996

BOMBAY: THE CITIES WITHIN By Sharada Dwivedi and Rahul Mehrotra India Book House Pvt Mahalaxmi Chambers, 5th Floor, 22 Bhulabhai Desai Road, Bombay 400 026 335pp, Pounds 40.00 (p+p extra) ISBN 81 85028 80 X

This excellently illustrated book examines the growth of Bombay from its first European origins in the 1650s through to the present day. Its first section examines the 16th to 19th century, its second the 1850s to 1890s. The third section discusses the 1898 plague outbreak and chronicles the solutions proposed by the Bombay Civic Improvement Trust formed in the aftermath of this disaster. The final section concerns itself with the 1930s to the present day.

The book includes a large number of period and contemporary photographs and the images are one of the book's principal strengths, as they greatly assist the authors' descriptions of the city's evolution and growth.

Bombay began at its present site in 1554 with one Portuguese manor house and a small adjacent garden constructed by the botanist and physician Garcia da Orta. The surrounding land was largely swampy and undesirable. Bombay consists of seven islands joined together with landfill and causeways, a process which has occurred consistently even in this century.

The four sections encourage an appreciation of Bombay's historic context. In that sense neither the book nor Bombay's urban problems are unique. The authors recount the terrible pressures which the crush of various migrant populations and a poor underclass have put on the city's systems and established organisational patterns. They explain in detail how the city was made attractive to potential migrants and how it has grown to cope with their arrival and needs. Landfill has been Bombay's godsend since the city's inception but, as is wisely pointed out, a more encompassing solution to Bombay's present-day problems is needed.

The research presented here on the Civic Improvement Trust's work between 1898 and 1933 is a contribution to existing knowledge of the city's history. The fourth section's survey of the art deco and moderne style is also the first occasion on which such material has been published, though it owes much to Jon Alff's uncredited research and initial study. The authors also discuss how reinforced concrete and steel structural elements began to affect the townscape.

Bombay's stylish art deco movie houses and apartment blocks of considerable splendour are examined at some length and the architects responsible are listed, though with little discussion. The chapter concludes with a look at skyscrapers and the output of speculative property developers from the 1950s to the present. Here the shame of Nariman Point's business district is hammered home. Yet no solutions are proposed by the authors. Instead wistful questions are raised in lieu of a conclusion.

Much earlier research on Bombay has been by non-Indian historians. Thus, it should have been interesting to look at the city through Indian eyes. The section in which the authors contrast western town planning with the Mughal approach, derive the names of present-day locales from Indian plant or descriptive names and discuss pukka (proper) and kutcha (home-made) development, shows promise. However, the overall organisation here wanders like the picture of Bombay's development it describes and the authors are heavily dependent upon others' research, though none of this is acknowledged. Whereas the bibliography is incomplete, sources for material and the illustrations are fully referenced, a sure indication of the authors' primary focus.

There are errors in citations, dates, figures and spellings. For instance, the sculpture of George V by Rao Bahadur Khatre (1938) is given as Herbert Hampton's sculpture of Lord Hardinge of Penshurst; the J. J. School of Art constructed in 1874 is given as having been built in 1857; the Elphinstone Building opposite St Thomas's Cathedral of 1872-75 is given as being of "the early 1900s", and so on. The authors also provide no index for the featured architects.

Larger misunderstandings surface with the discussion of Indo-Saracenic architecture and its first arrival in Bombay. Here the dates are all wrong for its arrival in India, as Indo-Saracenic buildings were being constructed in the 1870s by certain architects, nearly 40 years before the Post Office building's completion. Furthermore, the history of the commission for the Post Office is misrepresented. An authoritative article was written on this subject in Marg, September 1994, but this is not called to the reader's attention. It outlines George Wittet's dislike of the Indo-Saracenic style in detail.

The authors state that they wish to "trace the evolution of Bombay and its varied worlds - the many cities that were created upon it". Despite my reservations, the book does provide such an overview, and for the reader new to Bombay's history, it is the best focused study available. Its profuse illustrations and coverage of the city's historic development are a first for Bombay. The maps and a timeline table at the back are handy references.

The photography is excellently laid out and produced and the aerial photographs by A. R. Haseler and period shots by Raja Deen Dayal and Farooq Issa are telling reminders of how much the city has changed. The illustrations should be the principal reason for buying this book; many vintage images are here published together in one volume for the first time.

It should, however, be noted that the book's hardbound exterior binding has cracked in the course of one reading, though its stitching has held up.

Christopher W. London is the editor of Architecture in Victorian and Edwardian India (1994).

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