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Desi deco: How social media is driving attention to India’s Art Deco buildings


There’s a growing interest in India’s Art Deco architecture, buoyed by social media

New Delhi,ISSUE DATE: Apr 17, 2023 | UPDATED: Apr 7, 2023 21:26 IST

Modernist heritage: Hindu College in Delhi (left) and a building on Marine Drive in Mumbai. (Photo: Yasir Iqbal, A Savin)

Windows with arched eyebrows. Glorious sunbursts on the floor. Intricate geometric patterns. Towering ziggurats. Swastika patterns curving across a rounded balcony. These aren’t just glimpses of an artist’s fantastic reverie, but actual architectural features on certain buildings. Just keep your eyes open in your own city. Chances are, there is at least a neighbourhood or a building that has been built in the characteristic Art Deco style that was born in France and became popular globally in the 1920s, but caught the imagination of architects in India in the 1930s and ’40s.

On Mumbai’s Marine Drive and along the Oval cricket ground, a cluster of 35 mostly residential Art Deco buildings were inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2018. But the whole city boasts edifices that have been built in the same style. Atul Kumar, founder, Art Deco Mumbai, who is also on the Board of Directors of the International Coalition of Art Deco Societies, was the one who took the initiative to bring Mumbai Art Deco to UNESCO’s notice. He equates the modern architecture of Deco with a deep sense of cosmopolitanism, and the emergence of the city.

The impact of Bombay Deco, as it’s now often dubbed, also permeated the capital. Architect Geetanjali Sayal, founder, Deco In Delhi, recounts how she first did a walk through Ansari Road and Chandni Chowk on a Sunday, saw at least 10-15 buildings that couldn’t be called pure Art Deco but which did have elements such as ornamental jaalis, balcony grills or typography. She realised there were some commonalities. “We realised some patterns bore a resemblance to certain buildings in Mumbai. We thought that this needs attention.” She has since been working to document the many Deco buildings across Delhi.

Architect Ashmitha Athreya heads operations at Madras Inherited, an initiative passionate about heritage in Chennai. Apart from research, she also conducts heritage walks. “Awareness is growing. Participants are curious to learn more about the Art Deco style and end up relating a lot more to the Art Deco buildings they are surrounded by,” she says. Athreya recommends visiting T. Nagar, Mandaveli, Gandhi Nagar, and George Town areas to spot Art Deco.

In Kolkata, Chelsea McGill, co-founder of Immersive Trails, says, “Awareness is growing, thanks to Instagram handles and walks like ours.” Per McGill, Art Deco structures are scattered throughout the city and can often be seen right next to older colonial mansions. The most significant Art Deco clusters are in South Kolkata, especially in the area just north and west of Rabindra Sarovar, including Hindustan Park and the Lake Market area. “Unfortunately,” she points out, “these structures are not protected and many are being torn down to build new apartment complexes.” She describes Kolkata Art Deco as less of the classical kind you see in Mumbai or the US, and often featuring “a lot of Indian elements”. Scholars have termed this form ‘Indi-Deco’, she adds.

In Mumbai too, a similar evolution took place within the Art Deco style, changing from a more Western interpretation at Oval in the 1930s, then on Marine Drive through the 1940s, and later in areas further north such as Shivaji Park, Dadar, an increased representation of Indian identities in the motifs and even the names. Kumar observes, “It was a shift from identifying with the British to becoming more comfortable with an Indian identity. For example, in Matunga, you can see Art Deco lettering in Devanagari and Gujarati scripts.”

This distinct style of architecture and design can be spotted in almost every city across India, and many, such as those in Hyderabad, Jaipur, Pune, Kerala, Goa, etc., can increasingly be seen showcased on dedicated Instagram accounts.

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