The silence of gas lamps: Mumbai's pride yearns to burn

The silence of gas lamps: Mumbai's pride yearns to burn

Mumbai's surviving gas lamps wait for restoration, protection

The gas lamps of Mumbai. (DH Photo)

Two legendary films, Awaara starring Raj Kapoor and Nargis, and Taxi Driver starring Dev Anand and Kalpana Kartik, have gas lamps as opening shots. Released in 1948 and 1954 respectively, the films revolve around Mumbai or the then Bombay. 

If one visits the Gateway of India, one cannot miss the restored gas lamps of the British era. In fact, the gas lamps are a witness to Mumbai's history and the city's transformation from Bombay to Mumbai.

In all, there used to be 2,415 lamps in Mumbai of which 31 are still surviving, according to Riddhi Joshi and Yogini Aatreya, two heritage enthusiasts, who have prepared a paper -- 'Bombay: The City of Lights' -- that they presented in the 'CHAEN Conference 2020' recently.

"Though the city has technologically advanced, the traces of yesteryears still survive in its fabric," the paper states.

The idea of shifting the control of illuminating the city spaces from private to public sparked in 1834. However, it officially began with the formation of the Bombay Gas Company in 1862. These gas lamps were a sight of attraction for the locals and visitors. Being an important marker of those days, they had their perks as well as drawbacks. Even after the coming of electricity in 1882, they still remained in fashion till the 1960s.

It was in 1882 that the electric lamps begin to appear. In 1960, the Bombay Gas Co halted operations and in 1981, its licence was cancelled.

Only very few have survived the test of time and stand as a reminiscence of the good old days

"For us,  the project was a thrilling experience," says Riddhi. "As a young kid, I have seen these gas lamps operational. There are stories around these lamps. Employees of British Gas Co use to come in the evening to light these lamps and in the morning to put it off...these remaining iron structures take me to Charlie Chaplin movies," says Quaid Najmi, a Mumbaikar and storyteller.

These gas lamps used to dot the South Mumbai area. The Bombay Gas Co was located in Lalbaug area and a lane is still called Gas Company Lane.
In fact, the company had laid several kilometers of pipelines to distribute gas to these lamps.

Speaking on the research, Riddhi said, "We had got to know that the Bombay Gas Co was in Lalbaug. So, with one of my father's friends who lives in Lalbaug, we located a lane called the Gas Company Lane. We asked the senior citizens there and some of them told us that there used to be a company but now a tower stands there and that you will not find anything. But we had referred material, which said that there is a basalt plaque in the lane. We searched the lane but could not find it. When we searched in the next lane, we saw a building and in the corner of its outer wall between the roots of a peepal tree, we located a basalt slab with the inscription -- B.G. Co. LTD. B. 1912."

Yogini added that these structures can be recreated by installing electric bulbs in them like the ones at the Gateway. "Public-Private partnership will be very effective because the gas lamps at Gateway of India have been restored with the help of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel," she said adding that the surviving 30-odd iron structures and gas lamps need to be protected and could be lit up during festivals, Republic Day, Independence Day and special occasions.

Asked whether these could be shifted to museums, Riddhi and Yogini said, "Shifting to museums can be done but it will be difficult to shift the long ones as they are about 17 feet or more in height and made of cast iron. One or two smaller ones can be shifted provided they are kept with proper information plaques and lighted either with electricity or something else which is possible.''

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