The Royal Opera House in Mumbai has been included in the 2012 World Monuments Watch, becoming the second building in the city after the Watson's Hotel, to figure in the list of endangered architectural sites.
"The non-profit World Monuments Fund (WMF) included the building in its 2012 list earlier this month. The list has 67 architectural sites that are under risk of being lost," historian Sharada Dwiwedi said. The building is now owned by the former royal family of Gondal, who have plans to restore it. Dwivedi, who met the Gondals while writing a book on the Indian royal families, said that the Maharaja would like to prevent the building from getting lost. "The Royal Opera House has played a major role in the context of the city's fascinating history of theatre and cinema," she said. The Royal Opera House has given its name to the locality in south Mumbai. "The list puts the building on the international map and will help get the attention of corporate houses that may want to help the restoration," she said. The Royal Opera House was built in 1915 in Baroque style popular in Central Europe, by Maurice Bandmann, an entertainer from Kolkata and Jehangir Framji Karaka, a coal broker. It hosted operas and drama, including performances by Bal Gandharva and Prithviraj Kapoor. In 1935, it was converted into a movie hall. However, as single-theatre cinemas fell into bad days with the coming of multiplexes, the Royal Opera House closed down two decades ago.
The Gondals have appointed conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah to restore the building. Lambah said that the restoration work began eight months ago. "By the end of the year, the structure will be stable. It was on the verge of dilapidation. But a building like this needs more than structural repairs. The challenge will be to get funds for its restoration and make it usable," Lambah said. Until the restructuring of the Fort area in the 1860s, after the demolition of the fort and ramparts, there were hardly any theatres worthy of their name in the city, Dwiwedi said. "Most early theatres were forced to close down, primarily due to financial constraints," she said. By the end of the 19th century, the list of theatres in the city included the Grant Road theatre, one built on the present site of the Police Headquarters opposite Crawford Market, the Elphinstone, Original, Bombay, Victoria and Ripon near Grant Road, the National in Gulalwadi and the Gaiety, Novelty and Alfred near Victoria Terminus. Early in the 1900s, the Grand and Appu's theatres were also opened near Grant Road. "The foundation stone of the Opera House was laid in July 1909 and construction progressed at a leisurely pace. Several features were incorporated for the convenience of patrons, including exhaust fans for better ventilation and a long frontage, where carriages could drive up to the entrance, a boon, particularly on rainy days," she said. During King George's visit to India, sanction was obtained to prefix the word 'Royal' to the theatre, Dwiwedi said.
Listed as a Grade II A heritage building under the Heritage Regulations of 1995, the Baroque-style Royal Opera House in Bombay is a prime example of a structure that should be restored by the owners, the municipal authorities and Maharashtra Government together with conservation experts, Dwiwedi said. "It could possibly house a theatre-cum-museum, displaying memorabilia of the rich history of the city's traditions in the performing arts, and in particular, Marathi, Gujarati, Parsee and English drama and folk theatre.
Such an effort would not only preserve an architecturally beautiful and historically important cultural institution, but would also help the owners to perceive the structure as a worthwhile investment rather than a heritage white elephant," she said. To make the restoration financially viable, the owner could be offered Transfer of Development Rights (TDR).
If the building were downgraded to II-B, the owner could construct a new building within the vast area, which would be consonant with the architecture of the Opera House, she said. "A Museum of Theatre, with an entry fee, could be established in the Opera House, displaying a variety of photographs, costumes, handbills and other memorabilia complemented by suitable text panels. Plans for such a museum would need to be formulated after discussions with the owner and experts in the field," she said.