The Royal Opera House, that Grant Road landmark shut since 1993, is all set to reopen.
On October 20 it jumps back into the city’s tiny roster of cultural venues with the inaugural ceremony of the MAMI film festival, organised by the Mumbai Academy of Moving Image.
Among those expected to attend are actor Amitabh Bachchan and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis. But for those interested in the city’s history and architecture, the star of the show is likely to be the structure itself.
The 500-seat baroque-style theatre – the only one of its kind in India – was inaugurated by Britain’s King George, during his visit in 1911. It started out hosting plays, concerts and small operas, before live performances gave way to film screenings in the 1930s.
“I remember watching V Shantaram’s Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje, Raj Kapoor’s best films and Amar Akbar Anthony here,” says Maharani Kumud Kumari of the royal family of Gondal, Gujarat.
Her husband’s grandfather, Bhojraj, bought the opera house from a local coal broker, Jehangir Framji Karaka, in 1952, and she recalls its plush carpets, Italianate balustrades, stained-glass windows and opulent interiors.
Its charms had faded by the 1990s. “We felt terrible about shutting it down,” says Maharani Kumari. “But we were always clear that we wanted to revive it as a proper opera space, with the original 26 box seats, in a city where theatre spaces are so few.”
Restoration plans were drawn up in 2009, under conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, and approved by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee three years ago. “It was possibly in the worst condition of any structure I’ve ever worked on,” Lambah says. “The steel beams were like lace.”
When Mumbaiites finally step into the restored theatre, they’ll be greeted by throwbacks to a gilded age – two restored chandeliers at the entrance that once belonged to David Sassoon, a dome of frescoes of great men of the arts, Minton floor tiles and gold accents. They’ll doubtless appreciate the modern touches too. “The opera house is finally air-conditioned, has more comfortable seats, updated lighting and acoustics,” says Maharani Kumud.
For MAMI festival director Anupama Chopra, picking the opera house for the opening was “a no-brainer”. “We know how it is tied to the city’s entertainment history,” she says. “Prithviraj Kapoor would take naps in the space above the stage; Lata Mangeshkar has performed here. We couldn’t miss the chance.”
The first public event at the revamped Opera House is slated for November 23.