Suburban legend | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Suburban legend

A new book traces the history of Dadar-Matunga, the first planned suburbs in Mumbai - areas where random development is now erasing a distinct urban character. Aarefa Johari reports.

mumbai Updated: Jan 20, 2013 00:48 IST
Aarefa Johari

The old signboard of Mansur Unwala's Famous Book Stall is barely visible amidst the chaos of the bigger, newer, louder brand names splattered along the main road at Dadar's TT circle.

Nearby, traffic roars onto and below the four-lane Nana Shankarseth flyover. On the pavements, hawkers call out to shoppers as they peddle low-cost garments.

"Even as a tram terminus [after which TT Circle gets its name], Dadar was a quieter, less populous neighbourhood - with striking architecture," says Unwala, 60, a lifelong Dadar resident. "There were few shops, and many Irani cafés. And beyond King's Circle at Matunga, very little development."

In the 1920s, Dadar and Matunga were, in fact, the first suburbs to be planned in Mumbai (See: House, But No Garden...). Created on acres of forested land beyond Parel - then the northern limit of Bombay - these suburbs were organised in systematic, grid-like patterns, with the intention of housing the growing middle-class.

Ninety years on, the megalopolis has stretched northward all the way to Dahisar, with fringe suburbs extending well into the next district and the local railway line soon to be expanded all the way to the border with Gujarat.

Dadar and Matunga, as a result, have become coveted, upper-middle class destinations in what is now south-central Mumbai. Every year, for the past five years, the buildings have grown taller and the shops, fancier.

For the older residents, the change is not so much of a surprise as the fact that it is so poorly planned, and with such little regard for the distinct character of the original suburb.

Four identical buildings, for instance, stand at each corner of the crossroads around Dadar TT. With arched, scalloped windows and concave façades, they were once grand landmarks, and have names to match - Imperial, Empress, Empire and Harganga Mahal.

Today, the symmetry and character of the carefully planned buildings are obscured by billboards, unplanned construction and the flyover.

"All along Ambedkar Road, there are buildings whose forms and façades have responded very sensibly to their urban surroundings. These little interventions make a city what it is," says architect Neera Adarkar. "But now, flyovers cutting through junctions have ruptured the relationship between the buildings on either side."

Down Ambedkar Road, similar changes are on the cards at King's Circle in Matunga. Many of the old three- and four-storey buildings here have been redeveloped.

Next to go will be the building housing the iconic Rama Nayak Udupi restaurant, with an 18-storey tower set to take its place. Rama Nayak will return, but owner Satish Rama Nayak wonders what else will have changed by then. "Concrete is slowly taking over our green spaces, and the noise and traffic are becoming unbearable," says Satish, 57.

Expansion, redevelopment and gentrification are part of any city's growth, adds Sanjay Panday, 43, an advertising professional and Matunga boy. "But the ethos and history of an area can be preserved if there are norms for architecture. "Unfortunately, we don't seem to have any such norms."