Mumbai University's 85-metre-tall Rajabai Clock Tower and its adjacent library have been undergoing major restoration since 2013, a project that has finally drawn to a conclusion this month.
The Porbandar stone structure that merges Victorian, Gothic and Islamic architecture will once again dominate the city skyline and glimmer like a lighthouse, thanks to a $1.2 million project funded by Tata Consultancy Services, the Indian Heritage Society and Mumbai University.
The structure sits at the centre of the Unesco World Heritage-listed ensemble of buildings in the Victorian Gothic and Art Deco Marine Drive, the Oval and Fort areas of Mumbai, and is a citadel that stands as a testament to the city's cosmopolitan past.
The foundation stone for the project was laid on March 1, 1869. By November 1878 the building was completed, at the cost of 547,703 rupees ($7,536), an astronomical sum at the time.
Premchand Roychand, a wealthy broker who founded the Bombay Stock Exchange, commissioned the structure in honour of his mother, Rajabai, and funded its construction. Rajabai was going blind at the time, and urban legend has it that the tower was built so she could figure out what time of day it was based on the hourly chimes that would ring out from the tower and fill the city.
On February 27, 1880, the building was officially inaugurated by Governor Sir Richard Temple, who also functioned as the chancellor of the university. Designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, an English architect famous for his Gothic revival work, it was modelled on Big Ben in London.
Scott sent his designs to India without actually visiting the country. His brief was “to design an ornament for the city and have bells of joy within it”.
Given Scott's absence from the actual site, it was Rao Bahadur Muckoond Ramchandar, an Indian civil engineer, who supervised the construction of the building. With the help of John Lockwood Kipling and his students at Sir J J School of Arts, Mumbai's oldest and premier art school, the extraordinary Porbandar stone carving works were carried out. Thus, despite being built at the peak of British rule in India, the Rajabai Tower was essentially built with Indian money and manpower.
"Premchand Roychand, my great-grandfather, was a great believer in education, especially for girls," Sushil Premchand, a businessman and philanthropist who lives in Zurich, and the great-great-grandson of Rajabai, tells The National.
"But his most prominent acknowledgement of the importance of women in society was the request that his gift of the clock tower, to the University of Mumbai, be named after his mother, Rajabai. This is so poignant in today's world, where we need to better understand, acknowledge and respect the huge contribution of women to Mumbai and India. The Rajabai Clock Tower, which will now be so wonderfully illuminated, should be seen as a beacon for the importance of women in society."
Brinda Somaya, an award-winning Indian architect and urban conservationist, was commissioned to lead the restoration project. Her team worked over the years to recreate the magic of the Rajabai Clock Tower while avoiding some of the pitfalls of "conservation projects" in recent times.
"A restoration requires research and understanding of the structure's past and sensitive interventions to restore and upgrade using innovative solutions to resurrect a building and its beauty, while making it function efficiently even for today," Somaya says.
To this end, the team contracted heritage lighting expert Kanchan Puri to lend the Rajabai Clock Tower the chiaroscuro it demanded. Her job entailed months of climbing the tower's narrow spiral staircase – merely half a metre wide – in an attempt to map the structure's hidden nooks and Gothic crevices. The effort has paid off: the lighting design now represents a tasteful merger of tinsel and aesthetics.
By choosing a lighting design that is non-intrusive and eco-friendly, the restoration project will also save the lives of flying insects that are so often the victims of ultraviolet light.
"The all-LED design should generate significant savings in energy and maintenance compared to the previous tungsten-halogen, metal-halide and fluorescent scheme," Puri says. "It will also reduce the emission of UV light, helping to preserve the sensitive building material. The lighting design goal was to restore the original architectural splendour while increasing the light levels to meet the library's modern needs. The theme was to conceal and yet reveal."
Puri's team created a large two-ringed pendant with many lamps for the main reading halls at the upper level of the university's library. It is a modern interpretation of gas-lit candles and complements the warmth of the timber-coffered arched ceiling. It also improves the conditions for reading while creating a soft sparkle, reminiscent of a flame.
Now that the tower is restored to its former glory, the stakeholders of this project, which won a Unesco Asia-Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2018, and the people of Mumbai can expect their home-made "Big Ben" to beam and ring out yet again, hopefully heralding a new, enlightened era for the city.