Underneath the Sion-Dadar flyover, between Matunga’s King’s Circle and Dadar TT in the busy heart of central Mumbai, is one of the city’s newer, more unlikely, public “parks”. Or, at least, a walking path lined with patches of grass, benches and lonely exercise machines until it ends abruptly at a painted waterfall. In sharp contrast, and just a short walk away is arguably the area’s best-loved public space: Five Gardens. A cluster of five expansive open grounds with decades-old trees and no boundary walls, the gardens are used throughout the day by different people in different ways. It’s the stuff most urban Indian neighbourhoods can only dream of.
Mumbai’s first suburbs
Unlike the afterthought under the flyover, Five Gardens was part of the very skeleton of the Dadar-Matunga neighbourhood, designed more than a hundred years ago to be the first suburb of colonial Bombay, in response to the bubonic plague that hit the city in the late 19th century. A focal point of the new suburb’s development plan, the gardens were conceived as vital to the building of a clean, healthy neighbourhood that would attract residents away from the congested native towns of the inner city to the south.
Rampant from 1896, the plague had destroyed lives and livelihoods in the industrialised port city. It brought to ruin the young colonial city’s global ambitions of wealth and influence, audaciously announced in stone with the building of Gothic Bombay in the latter 19th century.
Originally sea-facing, and meant to be seen on your approach by sea, the city’s towering Gothic institutions—the High Court, University and Victoria Terminus—had, quite literally, hidden from view a teeming, working-class city of markets, mills and docks, barely able to house in tenements (chawls) and slums the majority of Bombay’s poor, migrant population. It was here, in the dense patchwork of neighbourhoods stretching north from Crawford Market to mills of Parel—each defined by a particular community or occupation, each a labyrinth of crowded streets and spaces suffering abject government neglect—that the impact of the plague was most disastrous.
In response, a newly constituted Bombay City Improvement Trust (BCIT) sought to raze, decongest and ventilate the inner city, with little success. By the 1910s, the Trust’s focus moved north— towards an indirect attack on the crisis of overcrowding and unhealthy living in Bombay. Beyond the mills of Parel lay tracts of open farmland, ripe for acquisition and development. Rather than targeting improvement in the city’s oldest, most entrenched neighbourhoods, a new, planned residential suburb was imagined.
The birth of the Mumbai commute
After WWI, a new generation of office-going migrants, streaming in to work in Bombay’s banks and insurance companies, would now need to be convinced to move away from homes in the city centre, permanently, to the Dadar-Matunga development scheme. For the first time in Bombay, planning for an educated, aspirational middle-class took centre stage. In his fascinating book titled ‘House but no Garden’, historian Nikhil Rao spotlights the suburbanisation of Dadar-Matunga as the BCIT’s most ambitious and successful, if understudied, project. To read his work in locked-down Mumbai is to be able to walk through one of the city’s most remarkable neighbourhoods.
With suburban living came the theatre of the daily commute. Dadar-Matunga’s proximity to both city railway lines was—and is—one of the locality’s prime advantages. Per Rao, the suburban man could also travel to work along the grand Eastern Avenue, a boulevard carved through the market towns and mill district to connect Matunga’s King’s Circle to the old Bombay Fort, anchoring suburb to the city centre. The Avenue was organised into distinct lanes for different types of traffic, with the central section reserved for city trams, a public means of transport and communication. Today, we know the Eastern Avenue as the arterial road covered by a series of flyovers and a constant double-decker flow of private car traffic.
Designing the ideal urban neighbourhood
To succeed, the Dadar-Matunga scheme had to offer potential residents their very best life in the city. In the book, Rao talks of how the expansive Five Gardens aided other sanitary measures, such as an effective network of sewers and drains beneath a grid of tree-lined public streets. Residents were offered the city’s first regulated, long term land leases; recognising that people lived within their castes and communities, plot clusters were leased to housing associations for up to 999 years, resulting in Dadar’s iconic Parsi and Hindu colonies. Further incentives were negotiated including special markets, places of community worship, culture, sport and leisure, alongside schools, colleges and hospitals. With its unique temples such as the Asthika Samaj, the South Indian Education Society school, provision stores and eating houses, Matunga became the centre of Bombay’s South Indian community in the 1930s. Regular shows of Tamil and Malayalam films at Aurora Talkies complimented music and dance performances at the Shanmukhananda Sabha. Food, tradition, art and language provided links both tangible and intangible to distant native places and created a new home in the city.
In Dadar-Matunga, first-generation Indian architects experimented with modern housing designs using the latest construction technologies. The result was the Bombay flat, which quickly became a defining feature of life across the city! Humble, ground plus two-storey structures, these early apartment buildings were revolutionary in their use of reinforced cement concrete, early Art Deco design elements, and new plumbing technology that allowed toilets to move inside individual flats for the first time in the city. As Rao illustrates in his book, such ‘self-contained’ apartments were the suburb’s biggest attraction amongst a new, hygiene conscious, upwardly mobile, urban upper-caste middle class. Each building was set back from its boundary wall on all sides, in compliance with a post-plague light angle regulation, ensuring that sunlight and fresh air could enter every window, even on the ground floor.
With mandated low, transparent boundary walls, the open space around buildings served as semi-private extensions of the public street, safe compounds for childrens’ play, space for local conversations and for keeping eyes on the street!
Born from the devastation of the plague, could Dadar-Matunga hold lessons for a post-COVID Mumbai a century later? In a city where we are consistently sold the absurdity that a good life awaits only high above and cut off from your immediate, messy neighbourhood, what could we learn from the Dadar-Matunga scheme’s focus on public health, culture and community? As cities everywhere reconsider their post-pandemic futures, recognising the need for vibrant, sustainable localities as people keep closer to home, let’s decide quickly before all our neighbourhoods disappear into high-rise gated redevelopment.