By 1911, when the building was not even half complete and just the shell of the building and the walls had been put up, there was a performance that was set up in honor of the visit of King George V to Mumbai. Without the building being ready, they used a lot of drapes and temporary fabrics to actually put together the performance. The Opera House opened exactly 100 years ago on October 16, 1916 and remains Mumbai's prime cultural space for plays, performances of all types and concerts by the likes of legendary figures such as Prithviraj Kapoor, Dinanath Mangeshkar and Lata Mangeshkar and Bal Gandharva.
In 1935, Mahatma Gandhi is said to have held a public meeting at the Opera House, but even before that, it had switched from being just an opera and performance theatre to screening films. The earliest films to be screened here were the British Pathé films, the black and white news reels that really pioneered that movement in this part of the world. Many film shootings have happened here and some great premieres were held here too. In fact, most of the Raj Kapoor films were premiered at the Opera House.
Then by the 1970s, various changes were made in the interiors of the building and the historic baroque theatre and the interiors of the baroque style were renovated and refurbished into a more modern or art déco style. Art Déco style and a lot of the interior elements such as the multi-tier baroque side-balconies and the historic plaster ceilings were either concealed or removed altogether. By the 1980s and 90s, with the advent of VCRs and home theatres and a lot of video piracy, there was this gradual decline in single-screen cinema halls across the country and Mumbai was no exception. We saw the decline of legendary cinema halls and theatres, the Capitol and Edward theatre and Opera House among them; many were actually forced to shut down and with the coming in of multiplexes, it was difficult for these historic single-screen theatres that didn't offer air-conditioning and modern facilities to really keep pace.
So by the 1990s, Opera House too became part of this statistic and shut its doors to the public, and over 20 years of dereliction and monsoons and the vagaries of ancient time led to its severe structural and architectural distress. So when I was asked by the owners Maharaja Saheb Jitendra Singhji Jadeja and Maharani Saheb Kumud Kumari Gondal of the royal family of Gondals to restore this building, it was, for me, a dream come true because I had always marvelled at this beautiful monumental structure that seemed to be caught in a time warp and was part of the iconic history of Mumbai's cultural scene but was yet no longer open to the public.
We started work in 2009 and our biggest challenge and our first priority was obviously the structural restoration of the building with roof repairs and water-proofing. There were severe threats to the basements and the balconies that were leaning outwards, and the first two years, in fact, were solely focused on restoring the structural stability of this project. I was very grateful for the inputs of veteran structural engineer Satish Dhupelia, who guided our whole team towards ensuring its structural conservation, and after that came the final challenge of restoring the historic interiors and reopening opera house.
With this, we hope that the project would not only bring back to life a very important grade one heritage building within the city of Mumbai, but also give back to the city a very important venue in the heart of the city of Mumbai to host live theatre and live music performances and therefore restore a part of Mumbai's cultural history.
In pictures: Mumbai's Royal Opera House ready for a new beginning
(Abha Narain Lambah is a conservation architect with a masters degree in architectural conservation from the School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi.)
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