Only the facade remains of the edifice
that was formerly the auditorium known as the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall.
The interior with its elegant horse - shoe shaped balconies now exhibits a different
look as the hollow interior exhibits a central stairway with semicircular galleries
at different levels. Sir C. J. Hall, as it was popularly known, has become
transformed into the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai.
On opening night, as the cognoscenti gaze at masterpieces
of the past half-century at an exhibition on the Progressive
Artists' Group, which served as a nucleus for the contemporary
art movement in the country. Old timers might recall concerts
where coiffeured ladies listened to recitals by Yehudi Menuhin,
Paul Robeson, and the Bombay Symphony Orchestra conducted by
Mehli Mehta (father of Zubin Mehta); freedom rallies ringing
to the voices of Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel, Jawahar Lal Nehru,
Mohammed Ali Jinnah; annual exhibitions of the Bombay Art Society
or meetings of the Parsi Panchayat, for which a special provision
was made by the donor, Sir Cowasji Jehangir. For the next generation,
however, the renovated structure represents a stride into contemporary
times with glimpses into the best of Indian Art today. C. J. Hall was
donated to the city of Mumbai in 1911 by Sir Cowasji Jehangir, whose
family has gifted the city, no less than four magnificent public buildings.
The complex of the Cowasji Jehangir Hall and the Institute of Science
was built by the british architect Wittet at a cost of 19 lakhs, with the
balance of 11 lakhs being contributed by Sir Currimbhoy Ibrahim and Sir
Jacob Sassoon. The only other public hall being Town Hall, the new hall
filled a vacuum in the city’s social life. At the inauguration of the complex,
Lord Sydenham said: "Bombay is fortunate in the possession of so many good
citizens who, recognizing that great wealth carries obligations, have come
forward to assist in meeting the various growing needs of the city".
Till the fifties, C. J. Hall was the city’s premier location for concerts,
political meetings and art activities but fell into disuse after the
construction of Jehangir Art Gallery and air conditioned auditoriums
like Tejpal, Birla and Patkar Halls which had better acoustics and lighting.
Neglect led to deterioration and in the sixties and seventies it would be
hired out for boxing matches, trade union meetings, wedding receptions,
and discount sales of leather goods and readymade garments.
The artist community, led by the eminent sculptor, Piloo Pochkhanawala
and the doyen of art, Kekoo Gandhy protested against the deterioration from
culture to bazaar resulted in the decision to convert the hall into a museum
for contemporary art. Introducing floor space into the cavernous high-domed
interior of a hall designed along the lines of London's fame Royal Albert Hall
proved to be an architectural challenge. Not only could the outer shell not be
touched according to heritage laws, but the foundation was also found to be weak
being on a sandy base. Delhi-based architecture Romy Khosla's design involved
constructing a structure within a structure to encase a five-exhibition galleries,
one leading to another via a teak and chromium stairway, a lecture auditorium, a
library, cafeteria, office and storage space for a permanent collection as well as
traveling shows. The renovation has taken 12 years and cost 3.5 crores but at the
end of it all Mumbai has an exhibition space which meets international standards
for lighting, humidity and temperature control. The new art gallery will cater to a new
generation examining paintings and sculptures in awe as they are informed about artists and art.
Smt. Anita Rupavataram
National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai
Sir Cowasji Jehangir Public Hall
M.G. Road, Mumbai - 400 032
Tel: 022 - 22881969/70
Telefax: 022 - 22852457