Bombay's first crack at freedom
The stained glass of George Gilbert Scott's university building was at the receiving end on the stroke of midnight. Victoria was laid low. Fifty years on will she rise again?
Friday 15 August 1997
Fifty years later the wedding cake of a library, with its 280ft (95m) clock tower, carved stonework, ornate Minton tiled floor and stained- glass windows in the high Gothic style, is in need of more than just a facelift. Its creator was George Gilbert Scott, he of the newly restored Albert memorial and St Pancras station. Now his Indian library needs the same treatment. Chronic surgery is required to dismantle all 69 glass panels, clean, mend and refit them and restore the defective iron and stonework. The citric yellow glass panel that replaced Queen Victoria is to have a designer floral bunch in its place. The British Council, the Department of Trade and Industry and the University of Mumbai have embarked on the first phase of the project, training nine craftsmen under the auspices of British stained-glass designers with a conservator, Anthony Peers, 30. In six months this year, until the monsoon stopped work, they have restored one of a pair of windows and estimate they need at least another year and another pounds 100,000 from sponsors to complete the project.
So how important is the continuous British love affair, not just with India but also with the Victorians that drove it in the first place? While Scott may be back in fashion in Britain, the Indians associate the divine crenellations of high Gothic style with British imperialism. Anthony Peers is dismissive: "It's nothing to do with bringing back the Raj but a magnificent building which is used, and needs to be looked after. Historic buildings do grow older and die but as a conservator, we like them to grow older as slowly as possible." The Indian Heritage Society agrees. Built at the height of Bombay's growth as a commercial centre in the mid to late 19th century, the cluster of high Gothic buildings that remain makes it an architectural oddity unchallenged anywhere in the world. In 1926 Aldous Huxley panned it - "Bombay had the misfortune to develop during what was perhaps the darkest period of all architectural history" - an attitude that lay behind a great deal of the demolition of Victorian architecture in Bradford, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. Yet when he visited India on a British Council trip to talk about conservation and was asked to compile a report on the University library, he became impassioned by the library and clock tower.
Anthony Peers won't be drawn on whether other, more pressing sites should have taken priority, which is a good thing. Single-mindedness is essential in a country so full of spectacular ruins that preserving them is like picking out cardamom from a curry. Le Corbusier's model town Chandigarh, where crimson saris and turbans hang out to dry over its algaed walls, and cows wander in and out around the pilottis, is a chastening reminder to architects of form and function. Scott never visited India to see his library and clock tower. Building work with local craftsmen was supervised in the1870s by Lieutenant Colonel JE Fuller of the Royal Engineers. Its patron was a Parsi businessman, Prem Chand Roy Chund, who specified only that the clock tower should be ornate. That it certainly is, its 280ft (95m) Gujarati stone face carved with the most astonishing figures and gargoyles dreamed up by the Bombay School of Art, where, at the time, Rudyard Kipling's father, Lockwood Kipling, was head of the architectural and sculpture department. Prem Chand Roy Chund also insisted that the tower be known as Rajabai after his wife, which it still is, even as familiar place names change in the city. Big, brash Mumbai is not sentimental. No longer on the seashore now that reclaimed land has set it back 300 yards from the sea, the building is set about with billboards from Bollywood - the film industry - which threaten to dwarf it.
As the city hits a second boom, 21st century style, pressures on the existing municipal services are great. Mumbai already accommodates 50 per cent of its population in slums. Sewage disposal and clean water are big problems. With that kind of town planning impasse how useful will it be to have nine craftsmen trained in traditional stained-glass window making?
Anthony Peers believes it will be very useful. "Bombay has more stained- glass glaziers than Britain, largely because the country has a tradition for it and there is a call for them in hotels and convention centres." Unless you have stood enthralled as the tour guide in the darkened core of a Mughal pavilion in India lights a candle to make the walls come alive with myriad light from coloured glass tiles you will never know the power of stained glass in Indian architecture, Hindu or Mughal, Raj or real estate. And the team has to be hand-picked for training in preservation techniques because modern stained-glass designers work with copper foil, not lead, which is what holds 100-year-old stained-glass windows together.
Anthony Peers is stern about this detail: "Lead gives a little and that has been important over time in not buckling and splintering. If we changed the fabric of the building now it would be disastrous." Besides, traditional stained glass has ground glass, iron oxide and a binder burnt into the glass sheet in a kiln so that the colour becomes an intrinsic part of it, rather than an applied art.
While he awaits news of sponsorship funding and the end of the monsoon, Anthony Peers is making modern stained-glass windows at his home in Oxford. And hoping that the pigeons who like the library almost as much as he does will have moved out on his return
Divine Facades: Views of Indian Architecture, is an exhibition of 80 specially commissioned architectural photographs in celebration of the 50th year of Indian independence. The exhibition runs from 16 August to 5 October at the Impressions Gallery, York, tel: 01904 654 724.
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