For years, the term ‘Opera House’ was simply used by the denizens of Mumbai to describe a locality in South Mumbai where they needed to get to, mostly for work, courtesy the several legacy commercial establishments to be found there.
Somewhere along the way, the relevance of the iconic structure that lent its name to that neighbourhood, a stone’s throw from the shore of the Arabian Sea, was lost. The reason: Changing tastes with changing times, closure, decay and dilapidation.
The Royal Opera House, once the preferred destination for recreation among the city’s colonial elite, was inaugurated by King George V in 1911. It was conceived by Anglo-American actor and theatre manager Maurice Bandmann and Jehangir Framji Karaka, an influential Parsi businessman of that time. When completed in 1912, the building—fashioned in the baroque style of architecture with infusions of Indian and European themes—was the cultural hub for operas and plays, attended by well-heeled English and Indian gentry.
By the end of the First World War, the charm of operas had given way to the talkies and by the 1930s, the Opera House drew audiences to the novel concept of motion pictures with sound, as opposed to the preceding silent films.
Meanwhile, ownership of the brick-and-mortar symbol of the British Raj in India changed hands and passed on to the royal family of Gondal (in present-day Gujarat), when Maharaja Bhojrajsinh acquired it in 1952. Subsequent years saw performances by noted Indian artists including Bal Gandharv, Prithviraj Kapoor and Lata Mangeshkar mesmerising audiences at the Opera House.
But with the passage of time and emergence of several other single-screen film theatres across the city, the charm of the Opera House waned and by 1993 the red carpet was rolled up and the charming building was shut down.
But retro is back and so is the Opera House. In 2008, the Maharashtra government decided to restore the icon of Mumbai’s heritage to its original grandeur—an initiative supported by Maharaja Bhojrajsinh’s descendants and current owners.
But the process of restoring the Opera House’s grand facade, regal foyer and majestic interiors in all its glory was anything but a walk in the park. The project was entrusted to and helmed by conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah; an army of external and internal architects and consultants had to be deployed to address every minute detail from structural stability to optical transcendence.
Eight years later, the Opera House has rolled the red carpet out once again for the inaugural ceremony of the Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai International Film Festival on October 20, 2016. Illuminated in the warm glow of strategically placed halogens, the Opera House looked resplendent once again; with the freshly renovated motif of the three cherubins crowning the gable. The crimson tapestry contrasted beautifully with the walls of the grand entrance lobby, coloured in shades of pastel green and white, lit by crystal-glass chandeliers.
The English gentry was replaced with their modern-day Indian counterparts and included cine stars Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan; India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani and wife Nita Ambani; film director Vidhu Vinod Chopra; industrialist Gautam Singhania, and members of the royal family of Gondal in attendance. The colonial nobility did make their presence felt through the artist’s impressions of, what one can assume are, English lords painted on the inside of the cupola above the entrance hall.
The inside of the actual theatre serves to transport its audience in time. Themes of red, white and gold in the refurbished theatre lend to it a feel of opulence. Gilded engravings please the eye, in whichever direction one looks and is omnipresent on the walls, ceilings and pillars. The first and second floor balconies offer a panoramic view of the action on stage and instill the audience with a sense of royalty.
The hallmark of a good opera house is the quality of acoustics, which should be competent enough to carry crystal clear sound to every corner of the gallery. There could have been no better way to demonstrate the auricular prowess of the Opera House on the night of its re-opening than having Bachchan say a few words in his signature, baritone voice. And he didn’t disappoint. You know you are sitting in a revered place when the legendary Bachchan informs that the Opera House was the first theatre in which he caught a film after coming to Mumbai in the 50s.
The Mumbai International Film Festival will see 175 films from 54 countries screened in new-age, single-screen theatres and multiplexes across the city; and it promises to be a treat for cinema lovers. But if you want to relive history, do drop in for a musical at the Opera House next time you pass by ‘Opera House’.