Regal Cinema and Mumbai’s Art Deco

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By Mohamed Elshahed

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Photo: Mohammed Elshahed

One of the features of modern Mumbai is the city’s expansive Art Deco heritage. During the traveling seminar’s visit to the city we stopped at the Regal Cinema completed in 1933 and designed by Charles Stevens. The architect’s father, Frederick William Stevens, designed the city’s iconic Victoria Terminus (currently Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus).

I would argue that the work of both father and son and the aesthetic choices made for their buildings in Mumbai reflect a synthesis of simultaneous local and global tendencies in design practice.

The Victorian-era assemblage of design elements referencing Hindu, Islamic, and British architecture manifested in the Victoria Terminus and the 1930s Deco Regal Cinema are both at once local (they are the outcomes of local histories which produced these buildings) and global (they belong to an international milieu whether eclectic historicism or the coming of new technologies such as cinema as part of a global urban experience). This view destabilizes the conventional perspective of reading a building such as the Regal Cinema as a “Western” import thus rendering Charles Stevens as the active creator and the city of Mumbai as the passive recipient of his design.

Photo: Mohammed Elshahed

Photo: Mohammed Elshahed

The building’s façade is minimal in contrast with the auditorium space adorned by sunrays in pale orange and jade green and extensive mirror work designed by Czech Karl Schara. The cinema is located on a prime corner in Colaba overlooking Mukherjee Chowk, a circular square/traffic junction with mostly Victorian and turn of the century buildings within sight such as the current National Gallery of Modern Art and the Prince of Wales Museum (currently Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya). In this particular local the Regal Cinema stands out architecturally as it contrasts with surrounding buildings. However the cinema should be seen as part of another set of buildings erected in Mumbai by various financiers and patrons roughly during the same time and all in the Mumbai Deco style.

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Photo: Mohamed Elshahed

Near by and across from the Victorian High Court and University buildings is a strip of Deco residential buildings forming a dialectic relation between these two heritages of the city. Also Marine Drive, along the coast, is a parade of deco residential buildings, which again contrast with the monumental Victorian buildings of the previous generation. In this sense Regal Cinema should be seen within this local context as part of a new generation of buildings, cinemas and apartments, in the service of a growing urban bourgeoisie with accumulated wealth to build new spaces of dwelling, entertaining and consuming. These buildings contrast with the previous generation’s architectural patronage which utilized a Victorian rendition of Indian architecture to house monumental and often official institutions such as the university and the court and which were associated with a wealthy minority of statesmen and merchants.

Mohamed Elshahed has completed his PhD in Middle East Studies at New York University (NYU) in 2013 and is current Fellow of the EUME program 2013/2014.

This text was produced in the context of the Travelling Seminar in India in January 2014 organized by the research program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices.

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Citation: Mohamed Elshahed, Regal Cinema and Mumbai’s Art Deco, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22.04.2014 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/824.


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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