Awash in history, this city landmark regains its footing as a vital, vibrant part of south Mumbai. We spoke to the architect behind its two-year long restoration
Walk slowly around Flora Fountain. Imagine it is 1864. You are in Bombay, a port city with a population of approximately 8,00,000. It has just been a decade since the first Indian railway snaked its way from here to Thana [now Thane]. The government has been discussing tearing down the old fort walls that ensconce the British settlements—within which majority of the city’s residents live—from the greater city and allowing for growth. Finally, the first governor of Bombay, Sir Bartle Frere, orders the removal of the obsolete ramparts, fortifications and degraded buildings. In some ways, this is the moment that lays the ground work for the modern city of Bombay.
“When the fort walls were pulled down, new buildings were commissioned to benefit the city,” conservation architect Vikas Dilawari says, “The CTO [central telegraph office], the public works department, the high court, Mumbai University, the municipal corporation—these new landmarks also became the new ‘imageability’ of the city, and Bombay [now Mumbai] became known as one of the finest east of the Suez.”
Created in honour of Frere in 1864, Flora Fountain, was initially meant to be placed in Byculla’s Victoria Gardens [now the Jijamata Udyan]. But when the fort walls were removed, the authorities decided to mark the intersection of new roads here with what was then called the Frere Fountain.
The saviour behind such landmarks as the Rajabai Clock Tower and the impressive Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Dilawari and his team was appointed back in 2008. When work began in 2016, “We realised it was in bad health,” he says. The neglect, sloppy refurbishment and abject ignorance the structure had suffered over the years were evident. Water was oozing out of several places in the fountain, the statues had been painted over, which was detrimental to the original Portland stone. There were breakages—fingers, two hands, a crack in the neck and a damaged nose—some possibly caused by past attempts at refurbishment, including clumsy bamboo scaffolding damaging the soft limestone.
The team envisioned greater scope to the task at hand. Dilawari says, “A statue is only proper when its pedestal is proper and in that spirit, we realised if we restored the fountain and the surroundings were not congenial, it would not be ideal.” Therefore, the inclusion of the plaza in the restoration by the heritage committee of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) came as a relief.
Then they set out for the long haul. “A lot of people treat conservation as an overnight, interior job,” Dilawari says, “We took two years to just clean one fountain.”
Portland to Porbandar
The team used the best resources, working with professional conservators from Mumbai and New Delhi branches of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) on marble cladding, waterproofing and related works carried out by its civil contractors. The soul of the fountain, however, its water engineering, was a mystery to be unravelled.
Leakages, accretions and damage all interfered with the water flow. The team had to excavate added concrete, search and locate different aspects of the plumbing and create a map. In what is now a well-known nugget of this restoration story, Dilawari chanced on an architect’s etching of the fountain’s water engineering online. They then enlisted the services of Burjoor Framji & Co, the city’s oldest plumbers to move things along.
Matching stone from Portland was hard to come by, so the architect matched limestone from Porbandar to fix the statues. But here, too, there was much time travel needed. “For a missing hand, you had to create a visualization based on old photographs. We had to get the anatomy right, see the expression of the hand and then have several moulds made, give them to a carver and when it was done attach them with stainless steel,” Dilawari smiles.
While work on the plaza continues, Flora Fountain has been restored to her former glory, steadfastly reminiscent of a different era, and ethos. “The city is always evolving and changing—renewal is a part of it,” Dilawari says. But it is important to remember that as the city shape-shifts, “architecture is a mirror of society and that can be the best and worst comment on where we are today. It is obvious that the people who were running the city (when Flora Fountain was built) had good taste. And today there is tremendous change in the MCGM; young officers, even the higher-ups, have opened up their purses where (the conservation of) individual buildings are concerned.”
Now Lady Flora stands regally, watching the pedestrian and vehicular traffic surging past, taking her presence as a given. But sometimes, perhaps one of them looks up and meets her eye, wondering all that she has seen—and our own fleeting moment in the march of time.