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From birth to rebirth: The journey of the Royal Opera House

The iconic structure, after wallowing in neglect for a quarter of a century, is once again a proud part of Mumbai's cultural scene.

The renovated Royal Opera House in Mumbai. Photographs: Shutterbugs Images

Keyur Seta

For those who grew up in the 1990s and after, Opera House was just the name of a locality in South Mumbai. The Royal Opera House was a derelict, disused building. Not many gave the old Gothic structure a second glance. Fewer still knew of the artistic buzz in the corridors of the grand building in its heyday.

The Royal Opera House came into being in 1916, but it was conceived in 1908 by Maurice Bandmann, an entertainer from Calcutta, and Jehangir Karaka. It started off as an opera theatre but became an iconic space for cinema after a while. 

This was how it looked a few years ago when the venue had fallen into disuse

“It was inaugurated in 1911 by King George V," said Asad Lalljee, who, through his agency, looks after the Royal Opera House following its rebirth last year. "The building was completed in 1916. It was started, obviously, as an opera house, a performing arts space.”

The British built the hall for their own entertainment. But, later, legends from Indian theatre also got a stage here. "There was a lot of theatre with Prithviraj Kapoor that happened here," Lalljee recounted. "His play Deewar was done here. But this was much later.”

Dadasaheb Phalke started the film business in the country through India’s first feature film Raja Harishchandra (1913). The talkie came to India in 1931 when Ardeshir Irani made Alam Ara. This brought the movies to the Royal Opera House. “It ran successfully as a movie theatre for many years until it shut down in the 1990s [1993],” said Lalljee.

A corridor in the Royal Opera House in the old days
The corridor when the venue was shut
The refurbished and restored corridor today

The Royal Opera House finally reopened after 23 long years in 2016. The opening ceremony of the MAMI (Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image) festival in October that year marked the venue's comeback. The dark, abandoned, forgotten building had become a bright landmark once more. And reclaimed its name. Opera House was no longer just a locality.

“A lot of care was taken to preserve the architectural legacy," said Lalljee. "It is also a heritage building. There was basic maintenance that was required. They did it in stages over seven years.”

The job of restoration was assigned to renowned conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah. As the structure had remained unused after 1993, it was quite a task for her team.

"The property had become derelict," Lambah explained. "The maintenance was poor and this led to various issues such as the linear balconies verging on collapse, sections of the flooring caving in, steel girders corroding to the extent of becoming unsafe, jack arches showing signs of distress and severe roof leakages. In the process of conservation, all of these were tackled.”

The view from the balcony when the theatre was shut
And how it looks now

The first challenge the team faced was in research, as this building is the only opera house in India. “Being the only surviving historic opera house, study of similar conservation work in India was hard to come by," Lambah said. "It required the team to do research using international case studies and adapt them in the local context. The challenge in executing the conservation plan involved an innovative amalgamation of 21st century technology in an early 20th century building.”

Being a performing arts space, aspects like sound had to be given utmost importance. “The clarity of sound was the primary feature of historic theatres, which was one of the main desired goals of this project," Lambah said. "To enable its use as a performance theatre, the stage mechanics were upgraded, firefighting systems were introduced, state-of-the-art acoustics, sound systems, stagecraft, as well as a service upgrade for electrical, stage lighting, HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] and public health engineering were introduced. All this while ensuring that the spatial integrity of the interiors was not compromised.”

The view of the auditorium from the stage

Lambah procured materials from outside the city to rebuild the structures. “Porbunder limestone and lime mortar were sourced from Gujarat," she said. "Skilled craftsmen worked on the Dutchman repair [replacement of missing detail in a carved stone of the same match] and repointing [filling in joints of stone or brick masonry with lime mortar].

"We used specialized conservation techniques and non-abrasive methods to restore the historic facade, lime stucco, cast iron and wrought-iron balconies, stained glass windows and historic pedimented frieze to the levels required for a listed heritage building.”

The old balcony
The new balcony

Although the Royal Opera House flourished as a movie theatre until the early 1980s, this is not quite the owners' aim now. Lalljee said, “The present maharaja Jyotendrasinhji of Gondal decided to restore this opera house and give it back to the city. It has been restored not as a movie theatre but as an opera house. They went right back to its origin. It’s their gift to the city. It’s a multi-use performing arts space with an orchestra pit, which is very rare.”

A bird's eye view of the interior today, with the orchestra pit

Elaborating on the reason for not making it a hub for cinema, he said, “The easiest thing to do would have been to make it a movie theatre. But the wish of the royal family was to take it back to its original form, which was a multi-use performing arts space. There are lots of movie theatres. You don’t need any more, to be honest. People can even watch movies on computers now. To support the performing arts is the goal.”

The restored theatre now hosts between 10 and 20 performances every month, Lalljee said.

Be that as it may, the Royal Opera House will always find pride of place in any discussion on the golden era of Indian cinema.

The reopening of the venue has also delighted the Royal Opera House's neighbours. Adil Mehta, who has been heading an ad agency with its office opposite the theatre for 20 years, always used to wonder why it was shut. “It used to be the subject of conversation with my father almost every day," Mehta told Cinestaan.com. "When we used to drive through the place, he used to tell me that in his time, 50-60 years ago, this used to be a prominent place. It used to look good even then [when it was shut]. We knew it had heritage value. But there was a mystery surrounding it.”

Naturally, Mehta is happy with the transformation now. “Firstly, there is happiness that our area has got a facelift. The property which is so beautiful and has been around for so many years has started functioning again. There is a buzz and lots of activities, so a lot of celebrities come visiting. The place has suddenly come alive again," he said.

"And the lighting has made it a beautiful site!" he continued. "You always feel good when you realize that a place which was shut and was dark at night is so beautiful in reality. You have people clicking pictures of it.”

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Iconic theatres