Acclaimed as Mumbai’s Cultural Crown Jewel, the Royal Opera House is reminiscent of the city’s past glory as a cultural hub. Constructed during the British Raj, it is the only surviving opera house in the country and has been awarded a certificate of merit in the 2017 UNESCO Asia-Pacific awards in Cultural heritage preservation.
The beginning of the 20th century marked the peak of the artistic, social and cultural spirit of the city of Bombay. The inauguration of the Royal Opera House in 1911 by King George V, manifested this change in the cultural dynamics as the area surrounding the Opera House bloomed with music schools, residences of vocalists and musicians, Baroque settings and cobbled street; portraying a different city altogether, indubitably known as ‘Bombay the Beautiful’.
A Baroque Beauty
The idea of a performance theatre was originally envisaged in 1908 by Maurice Bandmann, a Calcutta-based entertainer and Jahangir Framji Karaka, a Parsi businessman and philanthropist. Constructed in Baroque style, the Royal Opera House was indeed an architectural splendour with Italian balustrades, Corinthian columns, marble statues, ornamented gold ceilings, Minton tiled flooring and crystal chandeliers.
The design intent of the Opera House was to reflect the visual characteristics of buildings in the Fort area which were in contrast to the congested and densely packed vernacular buildings lined along the inner streets of the surrounding area. Thus, the Royal Opera house was built using an amalgamation of European architectural style bestowed with Indian features.
When it opened in 1916, The opera house served as a stage for operas and plays performed by British and American companies that could be enjoyed by only a privileged few, elite Indians and British officials. It later opened its doors to Indian theatre as well and continued as a platform for live performances like operas, plays, musical acts for decades.
Legends like Prithviraj Kapoor, Bal Gandharva, Bapu Pendharkar, Master Dinanath have performed there. As the popularity of cinema grew in the 1930s, the Opera house was turned into a cinema hall in addition to being used as a set for films.
It continued as a movie theatre for many years until it was finally shut down in the 1990s since it had become economically unviable.
The Royal Opera House that gave identity to an entire area was on the verge of falling into disrepair, disuse and was also listed in the World Monuments Fund list of endangered buildings. The owners of the building, the royal family of Gondal decided to restore it rather than letting it relegate it to history.
The restoration work was commissioned to Abha Narain Lambah, a conservation architect. The process took over six long years aiming to regain the structural stability, refurbish the original structure and retain the ornate interiors with modern interventions to meet current standards of safety and comfort.
Not only were the original features restored like the side balconies, baroque plaster ceilings but an extra effort and attention was put to reopen the venue as a state-of-the-art performance theatre. Sound design, acoustics, air conditioning, fire-fighting systems, electric work, stagecraft and mechanics were upgraded while retaining the spatial integrity of the interiors.
Reminiscing its past glory
The idea was to recreate the original Baroque design of the opera house which had been re-plastered, re-painted and renovated over the years, changing the original style and colours. In certain cases, the latter layers of renovation and plasterwork were removed to unfold the original detailing while in other cases, parts were recreated as the original after referring to old records.
The restored building features a 575-seater, three levelled auditorium with an orchestra pit, revamped to its past grandeur. The interiors are gilded in an ivory, white and gold colour palette with red carpets archetypal to a grand opera house. The ceiling has been restored to its original baroque style with intricate detailing, foliage patterns and magnificent crystal chandeliers.
The royal boxes and side balconies have also been refitted. A tribute to performing arts, its resplendent past can be seen all around, in the ornate facades, lavish colours and opulent interiors.
Revival of cultural spirit
Ever since its completion in 2016, The Royal Opera house has regained its title as the ‘theatre-de-luxe of the East’ and has outshined itself to embrace an all-new generation of patrons, with a variety of concerts, talk shows, stand up comedies, theatre and art in addition to music, food and drinks.
Walking through The Opera House is like walking back in time, reliving the old city of Bombay, rich in culture and art. The horse-ridden carriages and cobbled streets have been replaced by cars and paved streets but the people inside the Royal Opera house are bound to be teleported to a different era. Thus, the Royal Opera house has once again flourished as a cultural hub, a piece of heritage that was gifted back to the city. It has not only impacted the urban landscape but has also revived the lost charm and buzz of the surroundings by bringing new life to it.