Art Deco in Mumbai: A Fusion of Heritage and Modernity

In Mumbai’s architectural history, the emergence of the Art Deco movement stands as a testament to a period of innovation, cultural fusion, and socio-economic transformation. The movement, born from a global shift in design paradigms, found a unique canvas in the bustling cityscape of Mumbai during the early 20th century.

During our time in Mumbai in October and November this year, we became fascinated by the concentration of Art Deco buildings dotted throughout the city, which, interestingly, after Miami, contains the world’s second-largest concentration of Art Deco buildings, with more than 200 such structures.

The corner of Churchgate Road & Marine Drive in Mumbai

Art Deco buildings on Marine Drive. Photo: Studio Botanica, 2023. 

The Art Deco movement, originating as a response to the organic forms of Art Nouveau, took root internationally following the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris. Distinct in style, it celebrates geometric shapes, streamlined designs, and modern materials that were a hallmark of modernity and opulence.

Marine Drive, Mumbai in 1954

Marine Drive, Mumbai in 1954. Photo: unknown.

Mumbai, then known as Bombay, stood at the confluence of colonial influences, economic prosperity, and a cosmopolitan ethos that remains to this day. The city's colonial legacy, marked by British rule, facilitated the adoption of Art Deco within its architectural fabric. Mumbai’s economic boom, fueled by industrialization and burgeoning trade, acted as a catalyst for the infusion of this design movement into the city's skyline.

The Art Deco movement in Mumbai manifested in diverse architectural forms—from residential buildings to cinemas, commercial towers, and public spaces. Its distinct features, bold geometric motifs, sleek lines, and novel materials like reinforced concrete adorned the cityscape. However, what set Mumbai's Art Deco apart was its fusion with indigenous design elements, creating a hybrid architectural language that bridged Western modernity with Indian cultural nuances.

Al Jabreya Court on Marine Drive in Art Deco style

Al-Jabreya Court, Matruchchaya, Giri Kunj, Bharatiya Bhawan. Photo: Kennie Ting, 2018. 

The zenith of Art Deco's influence in Mumbai spanned the 1930s and early 1940s interwar period, leaving an indelible mark on the city's architectural landscape. Despite subsequent architectural movements, the legacy of Art Deco persisted, transcending time and trends.

In 2018, UNESCO's recognition of Mumbai's Art Deco ensemble along Marine Drive–locally known as the Queen's Necklace–and the Oval Maidan precinct underscored the significance of Mumbai’s unique architectural heritage. Moreover, UNESCO’s acknowledgment garnered recognition, celebrated the city's architectural brilliance, and highlighted Mumbai's commitment to preserving its cultural legacy.

Zaver Mahal on Marine Drive in Art-Deco style

Zaver Mahal on Marine Drive. Photo: The Heritage Lab, 2013. 

The Art Deco movement in Mumbai drew upon the talents of several architects who left an indelible mark on the city's skyline with their innovative designs and visionary approach. While numerous architects contributed to this architectural movement, a few notable buildings stand out for their uniqueness and progressive character.

Guardians of Modernity: The New India Assurance Building

Designed by Master, Sathe and Bhuta, with artistic designer N. G. Pansare, the New India Assurance Building was constructed in 1936 and located in the Fort neighbourhood of South Mumbai. The building’s architectural design combines modern Art Deco with a refined classicism. This unique blend is highlighted by the commanding vertical ribs on its façade, imparting a monumental allure that magnifies the building's perceived scale, transcending its actual size.

The New India Assurance Building in Fort, Mumbai

New India Assurance Building. Photo: Studio Botanica, 2023. 

Timeless Elegance: The Liberty Cinema

The Liberty Cinema is a testament to Art Deco design, conceived by British architect M.A. Riddley Abbott in 1947 and later completed by architects John Berchmans Fernandes and Waman Moreshwar Namjoshi. Nestled opposite the Bombay Hospital, it resides within the Liberty Building, a six-story amalgamation of offices and retail spaces crafted in the iconic Art Deco style.

The Art Deco interiors of Mumbai’s Liberty Cinema

The interiors of Mumbai’s Liberty Cinema. Photo: Kuber Shah, 2017. 

Today, the Liberty Cinema is a radiant jewel of Mumbai’s Art Deco architecture. With its multi-level seating across stalls and balcony levels, the auditorium boasts a distinctive stepped ceiling adorned with concealed lighting troughs tracing down the sidewalls. The splay walls flanking the proscenium house alcoves housing elegantly stylized plaster fountains, each delicately illuminated from behind.

Adorned in opulent Art Deco ornamentation, the Liberty Cinema mirrors elegance and sophistication throughout and still welcomes cinema enthusiasts to this day.

Charming Tradition: Soona Mahal's Relaxed Grandeur

Soona Mahal, located on Marine Drive, captivates onlookers with its timeless Art Deco elegance. This architectural masterpiece embodies the quintessence of the Art Deco movement, with a harmonious blend of geometric patterns, sleek lines, and ornate motifs.

Built during the 1930s, Soona Mahal represents Mumbai’s sophistication and old-world charm. Its facade, adorned with streamlined curves, reflects the spirit of modernity that defined the city's Art Deco period. The building's exterior, painted in soft pastel hues, presents a striking contrast against the azure backdrop of the Arabian Sea and has drawn admiration from Mumbai’s locals for generations.

The iconic Art Deco Soona Mahal building in Mumbai

Soona Mahal on Marine Drive. Photo: Studio Botanica, 2023. 

Found at Marine Drive's Art Deco precinct, Soona Mahal's allure extends beyond its exterior. Step inside, and you're transported to an era of glamour and refinement. The interiors exude an air of grandeur, with lavish ornamentation adorning the ceilings and walls. Every detail, from the exquisite chandeliers to the meticulously crafted furniture, echoes the lavish lifestyle of its bygone era.

Beyond its architectural splendor, Soona Mahal is a significant icon in Mumbai's history. It holds its place in the city's cultural heritage, symbolizing the convergence of traditional craftsmanship and modern design sensibilities.

Today, Soona Mahal remains a cherished landmark, revered for its architectural magnificence and the stories it encapsulates within its walls—a gateway to Mumbai's vibrant past and a beacon of Art Deco design.

The building was named after Soona bai Kawasji Sidhwa, a strong-willed, graceful, and elegant Parsi lady. Soona Service Suites, run by Khorshed Sidhwa, functioned as a bed and breakfast that provided accommodation to persons working in Mumbai and was famed for its hospitality towards guests.

The structure gently commands its position on Churchgate and Marine Drive junction as thousands walk daily along the Marine Drive promenade. Young couples, families, and people from every strata of Mumbai society are greeted by the building approvingly as they congregate to enjoy views of the Arabian Sea and the silhouettes of Malabar Hil’s skyscrapers at dusk. Today, Soona Mahal still captures the essence of a city that immigrants transformed into an ethnic melting pot and still reflects Mumbai’s cosmopolitan fabric.

Eternal Icons: Mumbai's Architectural Visionaries and Their Enduring Art Deco Legacy

These architects, among countless others, were instrumental in shaping the Art Deco landscape of Mumbai. Their vision, creativity, and ability to fuse diverse design elements contributed to the city's unique architectural identity, blending modernity with cultural heritage. Their legacies endure through the timeless beauty of the buildings they crafted, which continue to grace Mumbai's skyline and captivate admirers of its architectural marvels.

Local residents at Marine Drive

Local residents at Marine Drive. Photo: Studio Botanica, 2023. 

Art Deco in Mumbai is not merely a design movement frozen in time; it encapsulates a narrative of a city in constant evolution, embracing diverse influences while crafting its unique identity within the global architectural tapestry.

In every edifice and every intricate detail, Mumbai’s iconic Art Deco buildings serve as an enduring confluence of influences, a celebration of innovation, and a cultural bridge that transcends time, consistently moving alongside Mumbai's evolving architectural landscape and cosmopolitan identity.

The preservation and endurance of Mumbai’s Art Deco buildings effortlessly harmonize heritage with modernity—continuing to inspire architects, captivate enthusiasts, and weave its story into the city's history as its new structures climb skywards.

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