When we first visited the Town Hall and Asiatic Society Library, at Horniman Circle, in 2011, there was a pile of newspapers stacked on a stage-like structure at one end of the reading hall. Newspapers as old as the Bombay Chronicle (1910 to 1959) with headlines about Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were carelessly strewn about. The hall was crowded with metal shelves, with dust-covered books. The library and the reading hall were dingy, with flickering tube lights.
Cut to March 2017. The shelves have been replaced with a series of tables and cane chairs. Cast iron columns with golden scaffolding at the top demarcate the foyer. Brass chandeliers with candle-shaped bulbs hang from the ceiling. The lighting is perfect for a Jane Austen-esque ball. “Without the bookshelves, one can actually see how big the hall is. Also, the weight of the books was damaging the wooden floors, and that made restoration necessary,” says Kruti Garg, an architect who worked on the restoration.
Completed in 1833, the Town Hall was the cultural centre of the fortified city of Bombay. The stage was used for official announcements and live performances for the British officers residing here at the time. The North wing of the structure was used as a library since its completion, and is run by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai (a literary society founded in 1804), and is open only to members. The South wing is used by the State Central Library, an open-to-all library.
Neo-classical: The Asiatic Library and Town Hall are the earliest example of neo-classical architecture in Mumbai. The style is characterised by iron pillars, a triangular roof on the facade, white paint, and a false ceiling in the main foyer. The architecture style was a revival of ancient Greek and Roman structures that are known for its elegance.
Imported iron: The inside the Town Hall are made of cast iron imported from England in the late 1820s. The flooring and the bookshelves inside the Asiatic Library section were built using Burma teak shipped from Myanmar.
Statues inside: In 1856, the then governor of Bombay, Lord Elphinstone, announced that the administration and control of the Bombay presidency was being passed from the East India Company to The Crown from the steps leading to the Town Hall. This was done as a result of the 1857 revolt, considered as a failure on EIC’s part. The Crown stepped in to maintain law and order. Elphinstone’s statue overlooks the reading hall.
Ancient artefacts: The Asiatic Library houses close to 3.5lakh books. The highlights include the original manuscript of Dante’s 14th century poem, Divine Comedy, a 16th century Sanskrit manuscript of the Mahabharata, and coins issued by Shivaji. The digital versions of the manuscripts are online at asiaticsociety.org.in.
Built before electricity: Since the structure was built before electricity had come to the Indian subcontinent, the Town Hall and library were built with skylights. The structure houses three skylights, one each in the North and South wings, and one in the main foyer.