Saturday, August 12, 2006

The fat lady sings only in Mumbai!

Its rich history and intricate architecture, make the Royal Opera House in Mumbai a major tourist attraction. K D L Khan on the only opera house in India.

These days opera houses are an important tourist attraction in major cities. We have the example of the fabulous Sydney Opera House. Dubai and Singapore are fast building state-of-the-art opera houses that can accommodate upto 2000 people. In India, we have the Royal Opera House in Mumbai, which was built in 1909. Efforts are now being made to keep it as memorial of the days it served performing arts.

It is the only opera house built in India although there were a number of theatres in other Presidency capitals of Madras and Calcutta fashioned after their London counterparts. From the days of the East India Company upto the 1920s, Kolkata (Calcutta) had been the capital of the British, but the local culture czars did not think it profitable to invest in an opera house. For some time, a theatre known as Victoria Opera House provided the venue for visiting vocalists.

Historian Sharada Dwivedi has penned a detailed paper on the history of the first and only opera house in India in Mumbai. Constructed in the Baroque style, the opera house, she says, was the brainchild of Maurice E Bandmann, a renowned entertainer from Calcutta and Jehangir Framji Karaka, who headed a coal brokers firm. An advantageous corner site was leased at the northern end of Queen’s Road in the vicinity of the Sandhurst and Kennedy bridges, and in 1908, Karaka and Bandmann drew up the designs for the theatre. Bandmann’s manager was responsible for the design of the auditorium while a Goan, Collaco, took charge of the construction. The Baroque-style design incorporated a blend of European and Indian detailing. A long frontage was a must so that the carriages could drive right up to the entrance. Exhaust fans were needed to counter the hot and sultry climate. A cloakroom each for the ladies and the gentlemen was designed and 26 rows of boxes behind the stalls were put up for the best view of the stage.

And what would an opera be without good acoustics? The ceiling was constructed to enable even those in the gallery to hear every word said on stage. Carera marble was obtained from Italy for the statuary at the entrance. Frescoes decorated the interiors of the domes.

Work was completed in 1912, but several modifications were carried out until 1915: the figure atop the pediment was replaced by three cherubs, the entrance got rich statuary installed and frescoes decorating the interior of the entrance domes and exquisite dados below the boxes were executed. A pair of crystal chandeliers gifted by the Sassoon family hung in the main lobby. The opera house got its royal prefix in honour of King George V’s visit to Bombay (Mumbai) in 1911.

By the 1920s, cinema was gaining popularity and like other theatres of the time, the opera house, in part, became a cinema hall. Pathe rented it in 1925 for screening films. Between 1929 and 1932, Madan’s Theatre occupied the theatre and it was later leased to other Indian theatrical concerns. In 1936, it was completely renovated by its new owner A C Patel and continued to enjoy pride of place during the heyday of Indian films. In the 1980s, with the advent of videos and television, the opera house, like many cinema halls in the state, fell by the side. Today, it is owned by the former Maharaja of Gondal.

In 1995, the building was declared a Grade 2A heritage building, which meant the exteriors and interiors of the structure were to be maintained. According to Sandhya Savant, architect who prepared area guidelines for the opera house precincts, the lobby with its gilded ceiling and the frescos needs to be restored. She says one option for the revival of the opera house can be to change the classification to Grade 2B.

This would enable the owner to develop the vacant land in accordance with the guidelines so that part of the funds can be used for its renovation. If that goes through, the growing clientele for opera can then look forward to enjoying a performance in the place nearly a century old.

(Maharaja Features)

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