Building Bombay

Architecture and Aesthetics in Mid-Century Bombay: Modernity Versus Tradition

The Modern Architectural Research Group (MARG) and the Progressive Artists Group (PAG) were two significant creative organizations responsible for generating new artistic, architectural, as well as sociopolitical ideas in Bombay (present-day Mumbai) in the mid twentieth century. Marg magazine, a Bombay-based publication run and contributed to by members of both of these groups, published its inaugural issue in 1946 and became a means of propagating these new ideas. The city of Bombay acted as an important cultural center, particularly as considered in the context of post-independence India. Consequently, the architects, artists, and critics active in Bombay at this time helped shape the development of a national identity, working to embody both modern and historical local characteristics.

These two dimensions of universal modernity and local tradition were perceived as potentially contradictory in this postcolonial moment. In her book Art for a Modern India, 1947 1980, Rebecca M. Brown states that there is “a paradox located at the heart of artistic production in post-independence India: how to be modern and Indian?”1 She explains that artists and architects working during the 1940s and into the 1950s experienced pressure to both “establish an Indian national identity and to participate in a universal modern while attempting to ‘catch up’ in a large asymmetrical game of development.”2 The tension between these two significant symbolic desires fueled much of the art and architecture produced during this dynamic era in India.

One means of dealing with this paradox was to attempt to mesh influences of diverse, even divergent, provenance. Influences from contemporaneous international art were incorporated into the development of Indian art and architecture in the mid-twentieth century through an increased global connectivity. An increase in the number of European immigrants to India due to World War II magnified this influence.3 On the other hand, the strong “desire to recover the supposed ‘truth’ of Indian culture” encouraged a search for a “pure, precolonial” Indian art and architecture, which was often in opposition to the universalizing, modernizing goals when put into practice.4 The challenge that thus faced Indian artists and architects working during this post-independence period was how to successfully meld modernity and tradition into one identifiable style, one that would communicate the identity of the nation. Marg magazine juggled these seemingly divergent political and stylistic ambitions by celebrating work that both allowed India to move into the realm of modernism, as defined internationally at the time, while also seeking out the elements that maintained a differentiated Indian identity.

Founded in 1946, just before independence was achieved in 1947, Marg magazine quickly became an influential arts and architecture publication. Marg signifies “pathway” in Hindi and also refers to the group of founders who called themselves the Modern Architectural Research Group (MARG). The collective consisted of significant architectural creators and influencers, including Otto Koenigsberger, Minnette De Silva, as well as the magazine’s first editor, Mulk Raj Anand.5

The goals of Marg were wide-ranging. Firstly, the editors wanted to inform their public about not only artistic and architectural trends occurring internationally but also share information regarding local artistic and architectural history. According to Rachel Lee and Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “no publication did more than Marg to make the Indian upper middle classes, whose considerable education did not usually encompass art and architecture, more aware of these aspects of their heritage.”6 Marg thus encouraged progressing forward by means of looking backward, utilizing a deeper understanding of the art and architecture of the past as inspiration for improvements in the future.

In making the public more aware of traditional local art movements, the journal did not intend to encourage a complete return to historical styles but rather to spur a modern reaction to them. As Devika Singh explains in “Approaching the Mughal Past in Indian Art Criticism: The case of Marg (1946-1963),” the journal’s “editorials and articles followed a clearly anti-revivalist line,” and instead the content “favored a return to the spirit of India’s prestigious artistic past but not its form.”7 Therefore, as stated in Marg Volume 4, Number 3, the editors believed that “the aims of a journal of art today should be to help new shoots of creative activity to grow at the same time as it disseminates information about the great masterpieces of the old tradition.”8

In addition, Marg highlighted architecture as a worthy vocation. Singh writes, “by educating the public in their appreciation of architecture and creating enthusiasm among an upcoming generation of potential architects, Marg hoped to elevate the social standing and public respect of the architect, making architecture a more appealing profession.”9 Lee and James-Chakraborty explain that at this time there was only one qualified architect per one million inhabitants in India. 10 It was thus crucial for the value of the role of the architect to rise in Indian society in order to encourage increased participation, ensuring intellectual and artistic progression in the field.

A third aim of Marg was to assist in establishing Bombay, if not all of India, as modern. Through the publication as well as the Modern Architectural Research Group’s general push towards increasing the awareness as well as the patronization of respected international artists, “they were seizing for themselves the right to be modern, which they believed contained within it the promise of economic advancement.”11 Not only did the members of MARG predict that there were internationally social and political benefits of becoming a “modern” nation, but they also believed it would be particularly strategic to assist their newly-independent India in finding its economic footing.

Marg magazine, the Modern Architectural Research Group, the Progressive Artists Group, as well as the environment provided by the city of Bombay were all extremely significant intersecting and interacting elements that allowed for and inspired the development of a simultaneously modern and traditional culture. As Rachel Lee and Kathleen James-Chakraborty explain:

Marg was a product of the Mumbai society of the 1940s. Cosmopolitan Mumbai was then the centre of Indian architectural thinking—many of the British and Indian practices were based in the city, and the Sir J.J. School, under Claude Batley’s direction, was the country’s foremost architecture school. Moreover, influential artistic movements, such as the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), began in Mumbai.12

The existence of these groups in the same geographical area allowed for an extended exchange of theories and aims as well as cross-participation in their realization, between groups and among members from numerous locations around the world. The historical context is thus crucial in understanding the work that artists and architects produced during this time.

To look at the manifestation of these developing concepts regarding art, architecture, and India’s national identity, I will examine four specific works in greater detail. These works include two paintings, one building plan, and one built construction: Banganga Tank and Walkeswar Temples, Malabar Hill, Bombay (1940-1950) by Walter Langhammer, Untitled (1948) by Francis Newton Souza, the original plans for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (1945-1947) by Otto Koenigsberger, and finally the Eros Cinema (1938) designed by Sorabji Bhedwar.13 I will focus on the formal elements of these works in an attempt to better understand the acting web of influences, both local and international, and I will look at each in terms of the development of an image of Indian modern that is in conversation with both universal, international ideas of modernism as well as local tradition, highlighting the way in which the resulting style worked to communicate certain ideas about the newly independent nation’s character.

Banganga Tank and Walkeswar Temples, Malabar Hill, Bombay (1940 –1950), Walter Langhammer
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Walter Langhammer, Banganga Tank and Walkeswar Temples, Malabar Hill, Bombay (1950 – 1950), via ArtNet.

In the mid 1930s, Walter Langhammer traveled to India from Austria to escape the Nazi occupation, immediately immersing himself into the art scene in Bombay upon his arrival. He had befriended an Indian woman named Shirin Vimadalal at the Viennese Academy where they were both studying art, and through this connection, he was appointed the first art director of the Times of India in 1936.14 This position allowed him to become well acquainted with many artists working in Bombay at the time.

As he became more deeply involved in Bombay’s artistic crowd, one of his roles was assisting in the formation of the Progressive Artists Group. As explained by Lee and James-Chakraborty:

The formation of PAG was catalyzed and supported by a trio of German speakinémigrés: Walter Langhammer (1905-1977), painter and art director at the Times of India, Rudy von Leyden (1908-1983), art critic for the Times of India, and Emmanuel Schlesinger (1896-1968), an entrepreneur and art collector. While von Leyden contributed articles to Marg, Langhammer’s dinner parties and salons, much like Mulk Raj Anand’s ‘athomesoirees,’ were social hubs where aspiring young artists and architects rubbed shoulders and exchanged ideas with Mumbai’s cultural and moneyed elites, among which the minority Parsi community was particularly significant.15

It was during these dinner parties that ideas were developed and shared, both among artists and with the cultural upper class, as Langhammer told of his experiences in Europe and international artistic concepts relating to the past, present, and future were discussed at length.16

Langhammer was an important facilitator of intellectual, artistic exchange among those artists interested in developing a distinct Indian modern art. In addition, he was a practicing artist himself. Langhammer’s Banganga Tank and Walkeswar Temples, Malabar Hill, Bombay is one example of his work. This oil painting presents a peaceful landscape scene of a few buildings lining the edge of a body of water. Langhammer’s style is colorful and painterly, emphasizing brushwork in a in a manner that suggests Impressionist influence. His work remains very much grounded in realistic representation, though the patchwork shapes of bright colors, particularly those used to depict the individuals crowded on the steps to the left of the water, hint at ideas of abstraction.

It is clear in this work that Langhammer is working in a European tradition, developing his own style yet responding to artistic concepts of past movements, including Impressionism and ideas of realism. In the broader narrative of artistic progression in India during the mid twentieth century, it is equally as important to understand the art of those working in previously popular styles as well as those forging ahead into novel artistic terrain. Langhammer was an influential figure in the arts in Bombay from the early 1930s on, thus it is especially interesting to view his relatively less innovative pieces, as seen through contemporary eyes, as they communicate the tastes of the local public.

Untitled (1948), Francis Newton Souza

UntitledUntitled (1948), Francis Newton Souza, via Artstor Digital Library.

Francis Newton Souza, a native Indian artist, was dedicated to experimenting with new styles, learning from international trends as well as developing his own personal approach. Souza spent his early life in Saligao, Goa, relocating to Bombay as a young adult to study at Sir J. J. School of Art. He was expelled, however, for his involvement in the Quit India Movement, which demanded an end to British rule of India. This dedication to the freedom and development of India coupled with his artistic talent led him to found the Progressive Artists Group with a few other artists, including S. H. Raza and M. F. Husain, in 1947.17 This same year, India achieved independence, and in response, the group took on the challenge of developing a style that would reflect both a modern, forward-looking attitude as well as a distinctly Indian character. According to Kishore Singh, the group was “formed to evolve a unique Indian modernist language, rejecting both the prevalent academic realist style as well as the Orientalist revivalist style Bengal School.”18

Souza’s style continuously shifted over the course of his career, however during the late 1940s into the 1950s, he worked mostly in a language of abstracted figuration. Untitled from 1948 is an example of this moment in his artistic progression. While it is apparent that this painting presents a representation of a human figure, the shapes are simplified into an abstract composition and the emphasis is on the expressive qualities of the lines as opposed to the realness of the image. In contrasting this abstract language with modes of realism most often associated with portraiture, Souza comments on this longstanding tradition. Utilizing the portrait format to engage in conversation with centuries of art history, he then breaks from expectation to achieve his imagery in modern means, clearly demonstrating the power of geometry and the simple yet effective contrast between white and black. This strategy of birthing novel forms from traditional concepts aligns directly with Marg’s goal to not revive the past but to instead use it as a springboard for moving into the future.19

In addition, the emphasis on simplicity and functionality reflected in Souza’s Untitled can also be seen occurring in architecture at the time. Souza used only the lines and colors necessary to communicate the intended subject to the viewer. These ideas are echoed in concepts associated with increasingly popular functional architecture, in which the design of the building primarily serves the needs of those that will use it, and the complexity of additional ornamentation is limited if included at all. Stripped-down forms thus became both more practical and more aesthetically pleasing to the eyes of most modern viewers.

Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (1945 – 1947), original plans by Otto Koenigsberger
Sarah-Palmer-Garrett_Identity-of-a-Nation_Research_IDSEM_3_Koenigsberger

Otto Koenigsberger, “South-facing elevation of the theoretical block at TIFR”(1946), via ABE Journal

Otto Koenigsberger was a German architect from Berlin. After fleeing Europe in 1933, he eventually made his way to southern India, where just after a short while he was made Government Architect of Mysore State. 20 Koenigsberger’s approach to architecture emphasized the use of science and technology to design buildings that responded to the environmental conditions of their location and were also comfortable to exist within. He worked to develop these ideas through his projects in India. According to Rachel Lee, Koenigsberger even suggested that “India could become a pioneer in developing ‘a new scientific architecture,’ equating it to the creation of a national style.”21 Just as the Progressive Artists Group had their own ideas regarding a national artistic style, Koenigsberger considers ways in which scientifically-inspired architectural advancements might also contribute.

In 1945, Koenigsberger began to work on plans for the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bombay. Founded by Homi Bhabha, a prominent scientist and scholar, the institute went on to become “one of India’s most groundbreaking and internationally respected scientific research institutes and pioneered India’s nuclear energy programme.”22 Koenigsberger’s “strikingly modern” design for the building matched the institution’s innovative program. The plan consisted of “two separate asymmetrical oblong blocks: a five-story theoretical/main block and a lower experimental block” in order for the two different types of physics research to take place in designated locations.23 In the details of the design, Koenigsberger responds to the specific site by orienting the construction to emphasize the ocean views, equipping the building with the necessary features to handle the local climate, as well as paying close attention to the way in which the space was to be used. For example, he included a rooftop terrace to provide both “additional air circulation space and social space for the institute’s employees.”24

Formally, the design is geometrically simplified, referring to the same minimal style as utilized in Francis Newton Souza’s Untitled. Koenigsberger employs limited but effective shapes and lines to create a pattern that is both aesthetically pleasing, drawing on international modern architectural approaches as inspiration, and also functional, as the building responds directly to the exterior space in which it was planned to exist as well as the activities that were intended to occur on the interior.

Due to “continuing problems with the choice of site,” however, the project was delayed and ultimately Koenigsberger’s plans for the Tata Institute were not used. Instead, “the TIFR building was finally designed by Helmuth Bartsch of Holabird and Root, Chicago.”25 Koenigsberger’s design nonetheless exposes a great deal about the artistic ideas and functional priorities of the time, particularly in considering the numerous influential roles he played during this period and thus the likely extensive effect of his work.

Eros Cinema (1938), Sorabji Bhedwar
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Jerome Ryan, Eros Cinema, Art Deco Building, Was Opened in 1938 (2014), via Mountains of Travel Photos

The Eros Cinema, designed by Sorabji Bhedwar in 1938, is located in Bombay and still exists there today. Bhedwar was a local Bombay architect practicing during the early to mid twentieth century. For many years, Bhedwar worked with Jamshetji Mistri at an architectural firm they started together. Minnette De Silva, who studied at their office as a young professional, described their firm as “one of the very big ones.”26 Bhedwar’s Eros Cinema illustrates the global popularization of the Art Deco style, particularly as it was associated with Bombay’s jazz age as well as the development of the film industry.

The cinema is located on a “triangular site across from Churchgate railway station, at the junction of several roads and at the end of an unbroken line of Deco apartment blocks.”27 According to Michael Windover, the building “highlights the sense of cosmopolitanism,” as it was described in an advertisement as “The Rendezvous of the East.” He goes on to explain that “the cinema had international sources of inspiration, including US technical and financial support, yet instantly expressed the modernity of the new middle-class neighborhood, which included reinforced concrete, flat-style apartments cooled with electric fans.” The Eros Cinema thus makes both stylistic and socioeconomic statements through its design, relating to international and local movements simultaneously.

While the Art Deco style at large reflected certain foreign influences, it developed into its own practiced technique in Bombay and is today considered a significant piece of the city’s architectural history. From the Eros Cinema’s curved, streamlined aesthetic to the details including the font of the building’s main sign, this construction encompasses an influential component of the zeitgeist of the 1920s –1930s in Bombay. The language of Art Deco was utilized to communicate the modernity of the increasingly cosmopolitan city, and thus set the stage for further progress.

Conclusion

Products of both art and architecture have the capacity to communicate values and ideologies believed to be significant in the particular place and time in which they were created. Taken together, these four formally varied works reveal a piece of the complex narrative of artistic and architectural development in Bombay from the 1930s into the 1950s. The intricacies of this development express not only the stylistic trends and creative goals that were prominent at the time but also certain social and political desires regarding the establishment of an appropriate national identity. Within the work of individual artists and architects as well as within the collection of works celebrated by internationally recognized publications like Marg, a mixing of styles told a very purposeful story. Through the incorporation of the new and the old, the modern and the traditional, the local and the international, artists and architects worked to shape the trajectory of the nation’s identity, celebrating a deeper cultural history while also looking toward continued progress and modernization in the future.

  1. Rebecca M. Brown, Art for a Modern India, 1947-1980, Durham: Duke UP, 2009, Print, 1-2.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Rajnarayan Chandavarkar, History, Culture and the Indian City: Essays, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2015, Print, 12-56.
  4. Brown, Art for a Modern India, 1947-1980, 2.
  5. Rachel Lee and Kathleen James-Chakraborty, “Marg Magazine: A Tryst with Architectural Modernity,” ABE Journal: European Architecture beyond Europe, 6.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Devika Singh, “Approaching the Mughal Past in Indian Art Criticism: The Case of Marg (1946-1963),” Cambridge University Press, 2012, 169.
  8. Quoted in ibid, 169.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid, 6.
  11. Singh, “Approaching the Mughal Past in Indian Art Criticism,” 8.
  12. Lee and James-Chakraborty, “Marg Magazine: A Tryst with Architectural Modernity,” 5.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Walter Langhammer,” National Portrait Gallery, Web, 09 Apr. 2017.
  15. Lee and James-Chakraborty, “Marg Magazine: A Tryst with Architectural Modernity,” 5.
  16. “Walter Langhammer,” National Portrait Gallery, Web, 09 Apr. 2017.
  17. “F. N. Souza,” Saffron Art, Web. 09 Apr. 2017.
  18. Kishore Singh, India Modern: Narratives from 20th Century Indian Art, New Delhi: Delhi Art Gallery, 2015, Print, 60.
  19. Singh, “Approaching the Mughal Past in Indian Art Criticism,” 167-203.
  20. Rachel Lee, “Constructing a Shared Vision: Otto Koenigsberger and Tata & Sons,” ABE Journal 2 (2012), 1.
  21. Ibid, 4.
  22. Ibid, 15.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid, 17.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Mary N. Woods, Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi, London: Routledge, 2017, Print, 21
  27. Michael Windover, Art Deco: A Mode of Mobility, Québec: Presses De L’U Du Québec, 2012, Print, 176.