Flora of the flock

Bhanuj Kappal | Updated on March 10, 2018

Choked: Bureaucratic hurdles, a tepid response to tenders floated by the BMC, as well as late rains last year have delayed the project. Photo: Prashant Nakwe   -  The Hindu

After many hurdles, the work to restore Mumbai’s historic Flora Fountain nears completion

South Mumbai’s iconic Flora Fountain has stood watch over Hutatma Chowk (Martyr’s Square) for over 150 years. Dedicated to the Roman goddess Flora, the exquisitely sculptured ornamental heritage structure — designed by Richard Norman Shaw and carved out of Portland limestone by James Forsythe in 1864 — is an instantly recognisable part of the city’s landscape. But time, weather and pollution have not been kind to it.

In recent years it has been in a dilapidated condition, with water no longer gushing out of its fish-shaped spouts. But very soon, visitors to Hutatma Chowk will be able to view the fountain restored to its former glory, as part of a Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)-funded effort to conserve and beautify some of the island city’s heritage landmarks.

“We’re finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” says conservation architect Vikas Dilawari, who has been overseeing the project along with consultants from Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach). The idea to give the fountain a facelift was floated eight years ago.

The bureaucratic red tape followed — for a year and a half in between, the BMC didn’t even have a functioning heritage committee — till the project was finally approved last year. Work officially began on September 9, 2016, but late rains played spoilsport.

“The work could get into full swing only by the first week of January, and we’ve been working on the fountain since then,” says Dilawari.

The revamp has been divided into two phases. The first involves efforts to restore the fountain and its trough, and get its water engineering system functional. “For over a month, my team and I investigated the waterworks, we even had to do an endoscopy to detect where the leakage was happening,” continues Dilawari.

In the process, the team stumbled upon a hidden chamber inside the fountain, accessible through a concrete cover that had been sealed during earlier restoration efforts a few decades ago. Inside, they found damaged valves as well as glass bottles, bottle openers, iron rods and cloth dating back to the early 1960s. “We had to ensure that the water flows and also that we could regulate the water, so we installed big sluice walls in the chamber,” says Dilawari.

Once that was done, the team shifted their efforts to fixing the trough as well as cleaning and restoring the four statues at the corners of the fountain. First, the trough’s plaster cement was replaced with Italian marble, which took a month and a half. Next, conservationists moved in to clean the grime and multiple layers of paint on the statues.

“They felt that the use of high-density steam was the best and least-invasive technique,” says Dilawari. “We never anticipated that there would be so many layers of paint. Once you start cleaning and come to the original surfaces, you realise how many previous plastic surgeries have happened. The ones that were done well we left alone, but a lot of it we had to undo and redo properly. I like to say it’s like a root canal, it’s not going to happen too fast.”

There were also other signs of previous interventions such as fractures in the stone fixed with cement plaster, as well as certain areas that had been painted with a red pigment, which proved hard to remove. These discoveries, along with work stoppage during the monsoons, are why the first phase missed its June 2017 deadline. Dilawari says that nearly 70 per cent of the work is done; the rest should be completed by the end of the year.

Phase 2 deals with the beautification of the area surrounding the fountain. The garden around the fountain will be removed to give people access to the fountain, and the area refurbished with smooth basalt slabs. There are also plans to instal lights and seating, turning the area into a semi-plaza. But this phase too has had its share of delays and problems. “The last few times we put out a tender, nobody bid or only one party did,” says BMC senior heritage conservation engineer Sanjay Sawant. “We’ve put out a revised tender and hope to start work soon.”

The initial estimate for phase 2 was ₹2.37 crore, but because both the bids received are for 50 per cent more, the BMC revised the cost, taking into account current market value and the goods and service tax. With phase 1 costing an estimated ₹1.51 crore, the numbers start adding up.

But when we’re talking about the city’s most important bits of cultural heritage, it’s a small price to pay.

“The sad part is that a city like Mumbai has only two World Heritage Sites (Elephanta Caves, a ferry ride from Gateway of India, and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), because of the condition other buildings are in,” says Gargi Mashruwala, project director at Intach Mumbai, adding that in any other city the whole DN Road stretch — packed with historic buildings — would be a Heritage Site.

“Unfortunately, we walk past these buildings without even noticing their beauty. I think it’s very important for a city to be proud of its cultural heritage, and to preserve and learn to respect it.”

Published on November 03, 2017

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