Architect Abha Narain Lambah talks about the challenges of restoring a section of Mumbai’s Crawford Market in one of the most chaotic parts of the city, in a fully functioning market. reports
Abha Narain Lambah smiles as she recalls an encounter at a recent public event. The architect who specialises in conservation of heritage buildings had not even been speaking particularly about her ongoing project with Mumbai’s Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market, the city’s erstwhile central market. But the 82-year-old man who came up to her had the market, better known by its old name of Crawford Market, in mind. “He told me he had lived in one of those old buildings opposite the market all his life and he had never seen it looking better!” says Lambah. Broken windows have been repaired, wooden balconies restored and the clock tower is now lit up at night giving out an image of renewed health.
And this was only the first phase of the project dealing with the structure’s central portion where the two main wings meet. Lambah estimates that it will be at least two years more before her project, which covers the two wings as well, will be done.
Yet even what little has been achieved is surprising and delighting Mumbaikars who had given up hopes for saving the market, which had first opened in 1869. Another compliment came from the city’s Police Commissioner whose office is in another heritage building opposite. Lambah says Javed Ahmed, the then Commissioner, joked that they would have to renovate their own building now to keep up with the Market. close by. In that case an association of businesses that worked there appointed Lambah to improve the appearance of the road’s mostly heritage buildings. This involved much time spent with the traders along the road, talking and listening and getting them to support the project, but in the end Lambah pulled it off.
Here too listening has helped. “We had thought it would make sense to group all stores of a kind, like dried fruits together, but the traders were clear they didn’t want to move from where they were, and we accepted that,” says Lambah. Some traders have installed air-conditioners for their tiny shops and while this wasn’t exactly in keeping with the Market’s atmosphere, the team agreed to allow this. But each trader has now been given their own electrical lines and meters.
The bane of covered markets has always been fire. Stalls are crammed with combustible materials and floors tend to be covered with the dry straw used to pack fruits just waiting for the spark from a faulty electrical connection. And this is not to take into account possibly deliberate attempts like the inferno that conveniently carried off Chennai’s Moore Market at just the time when Tamil Nadu’s government was casting its eyes at the land it occupied.
Crawford Market itself saw a major fire not long after it opened in 1869. “It seems to have happened in the decade just after, perhaps started by someone smoking a beedi,” says Lambah. The restoration after the fire started a process of tinkering with the market that never seems to have stopped. “We never seem able to plan ahead, but just keep making incremental changes – a loft here, some exposed wiring there – all the time,” laments Lambah.
In the process the Market’s original design, which had an open central garden built around a fountain decorated with statues of river goddesses, was entirely overrun. The fountain still exists – as does another inside the Market – but surrounded by sheds selling fruit and with its top removed to accommodate roofing sheets. “The goddesses have had green blouses painted on them to make them ‘modest’ – and there is even a note from the painter proudly claiming credit for this!” says Lambah.
Across the world old wholesale markets like Covent Garden in London or Grand Central Market in Los Angeles have been restored in ways that open up their use without entirely gentrifying them out of existence. Cleaning up Crawford Market is bound to raise hopes that something similar could happen there. Even in its current cluttered state, with too many stalls packed with cheap products from China and foods with labels in unreadable languages, it still gets both customers doing their weekly shopping and tourists looking for that busy market buzz.
Judicious reorganisation that replaces the more pointless shops with those more likely to become destination stores, relocation of the sheds and, above all, the closing of the deeply depressing and borderline illegal live animals and pets section, could bring the Market closer to the higher visitor levels and spending ofthoserenewedwholesalemarketsaroundtheworld.
Lambah’s restoration will provide the setting, but it will be up to the municipality and the Markets traders to fill it with the retail space that this 154 year old structure – and Mumbai – deserves.
First floor offices in the clock tower housed the Municipality’s Markets offices. Like all government offices they had been painted over, filled with files and ad hoc wiring and structures. The renovation cleaned up the offices, restored the original wood, opened them up for more natural light along with appropriately designed light fittings