Regally yours

Regally yours

Regally yours

In the year 1908, Maurice Bandmann, a famous entertainer from Kolkata, and Jehangir Framji Karaka, who headed a coal brokers' firm, came up with an idea for a space for opera. They envisioned a place where artistes could perform to the best of their capacity as their patrons enjoyed their performance. It took three years since that date for this Baroque edifice to be inaugurated at the hands of King George V, and yet another five to be finally completed. But it did and thus was born the Royal Opera House Mumbai. Back then, it incorporated a blend of European and Indian detailing in its design. Twenty-six rows of boxes behind the stalls were put up for the best view of the stage. Such was the architecture of those times that the ceiling was constructed to enable even those in the gallery to hear every word uttered by the performers.

Throughout the initial years, the voices and performances of the best of the best, Bal Gandharva, Krishna Master, Bapu Pendharkar, Master Dinanath, Jyotsna Bhole, Londhe, Patwardhan Buwa, and Prithviraj Kapoor, echoed through its hallways. But by 1917, the change in choices started to become increasingly stark. The Royal Opera House, like many other theatres, partly became a cinema, and by 1925, ceased to be a dramatic theatre completely when cinematic news pioneer British Pathe rented it for screening their films. But a renovation was in order for the venue.

Lost glory

Within 10  years, the newly founded Mumbai-based Ideal Pictures Ltd. acquired the theatre and completely renovated it. With new flooring, tiles, doors, window frames and coloured cement, the Royal Opera House had a completely new look. But the downturn was palpable. By 1980, video films rushed into the market and such was the popularity of the in-home device that even public cinemas saw a downturn. The 1990s was a bad phase for theatres, with innumerable of them shutting shop. It was curtains down even for the Royal Opera House, the place that had once been the hub of cultural activity in the city.

However, none of the remnants of that past are present today as you walk into this grand structure located in the heart of the city. In fact, you may be excused for thinking that you've stepped into a bygone era. The charm and grandeur are in complete contrast to the frenzied reality that lies outside its doors in the hustle bustle of Mumbai. A 574-seater with designated seating - royal stalls, dress circle and grand balcony, the proscenium stage, the royal boxes and the magnificent regal chandeliers - recreate the unparalleled beauty of the opera houses of yore.

In October 2016, exactly 100 years after the first performance was staged here, the Royal Opera House Mumbai threw open its doors to patrons again. The structure was brought back to life with the sustained efforts of conservation architect, Abha Narain Lambah, and the present Maharaja of Gondal, Shri Jyotendrasinhji, whose royal family owns it. While restoration plans were being made, the mandate was clear - to spare no effort, creative, physical or financial, in the process. And the fruits are for everyone to see. Just within a year of its opening, Mumbai's only surviving opera house has regained its status as the jewel in Mumbai city's cultural crown.

While it retains all of its old-world charm, the Royal Opera House also boasts of all the state-of-the-art sound and light facilities, centralised air conditioning, and recently, even a jazz bar. It takes a 50-member strong in-house team to handle the daily functioning  and to make sure everything functions without a hiccup.

Asad Lalljee, curator of the Royal Opera House, Mumbai, says, "I reckon about 500-700 people walk in and out of the structure every day. The wear and tear,  in this case, is enormous. Also, handing the technology along with the old design is no easy task."

He also clarifies that the purpose of reopening the Royal Opera House and restoring it to its former glory  was not to just make it look grand and daunting. "You can't really just make something and expect to make the most of it by keeping everyone out. We make sure we get as many people as we can into the opera house. The Royal Opera House is an experience. The feel of this place is unique. We do not intend it to become an upper-class inaccessible place. That's why we invite regional and international operatic performers, solo artistes, dance troops, music ensembles, musicians, literary figures, theatre troops, symphonies and more!"

A stellar comeback

And the efforts are certainly paying off. A year after it opened, the Royal Opera House has become the most sought-after venue for events. Asad says he wanted to inaugurate the opera house with an opera singer. So, one evening in October 2016,  a  tribute was paid here to its operatic legacy, with  the celebrated India-based soprano  Patricia Rozario,  accompanied by Mark Troop.

"This marked the return of opera to stage and the newly opened opera house  stamped itself in the minds of people as a space where international-quality performances can be expected," points out Asad. Almost immediately, it came to be identified as a cultural venue and  a prime example of restored and renewed city heritage.

Back in 2012, while plans were still underway for its renovation, the Royal Opera House Mumbai was included in the 2012 World Monuments Watch to raise awareness about its history and significance, and support preservation efforts. But the special recognition came last October. A year after being inaugurated post-restoration, the historic venue was recognised with an award of merit in the 2017 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The jury lauded the Opera House calling it one of the "finest theatres in the East," and pointing out the passion in regaining the lost glory as well as the fine workmanship that has gone into the restoration.

Recently, author Julia Donaldson perked up the premises with her children's books, bringing in her wake lots of tiny people. Right now, Asad is working along with artists in creating cloud-based installations and works. He is keen to host Mumbai Gallery Weekends, which will give a larger platform to various art galleries from the Mumbai art scene. Recently, Bittu Sahgal's Sanctuary magazine held its photography exhibition here. Asad says he plans to bring in more variety in the programmes held at the Royal Opera House, including workshops by NGOs and heritage walks and children's events.

The grandiose doors are open.

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