The second life of Opera House
In Stones Of Empire: The Buildings Of The Raj, Jan Morris writes that of all the performance venues the British built in Calcutta, Simla, Madras and Bombay, the only one with “proper theatrical flair” was the Royal Opera House in Mumbai. “This late-Victorian building was unmistakably the real thing,” she declares, before rhapsodizing about its “indispensable” first-floor veranda, chandeliers, Corinthian columns, arcade (“for flower-sellers, of course”) and gas-lit court, “all of which…seemed to await the arrival of Signor Puccini”. “Instead,” she writes, “the movies came.
The Royal Opera House—the only surviving opera house in India—has always been associated with cinema, long before it became a single-screen theatre. It was built by a Parsi merchant, Jehangir Framji Karaka, and Maurice E. Bandmann, an American who had worked as an actor in late 19th century England before setting up a theatrical empire. Known as the Bandmann Circuit, it stretched from the Mediterranean to the Far East, and brought productions ranging from musical comedy to ragtime and opera to the British colonies. He also took to interspersing his theatrical productions with films. When the Royal Opera House opened in 1915 (the building was inaugurated by King George V in 1911), the programme included a vaudeville act featuring an English dancer called Roshanara, and three films.
After a gap of more than two decades, a restored and refurbished Opera House will now be opening its doors to the public again. Though it won’t be used as a screening venue any more, the first public event here will nevertheless be connected to the movies. The opening ceremony of the 18th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival will be held there on 20 October. Since prior access to the Opera House has been denied, we cannot confirm whether the new interiors retain the elongated pilasters, Italianate balustrades, Minton tile flooring, marble statues, crystal chandelier and gold ceiling of the original (according to the World Monuments Fund, which put the building on its at-risk list for 2012).
In its early years, the Opera House hosted concerts, the occasional opera, theatrical performances, lectures (Mahatma Gandhi addressed a conference there in 1934) and film screenings. In 1952, it was bought by the maharaja of Gondal, Vikram Sinhji; since then, it has been with the royal family. As a plush-looking single-screen theatre, it was a popular venue for film premieres. V. Shantaram not only opened Dahej here on 19 May 1950, he also placed a cut-out of the star Jayashree, complete with a mechanically powered veil, by the road outside. Yet, by the 1980s, business had slowed. In 1993, the owners decided to close the theatre. The following decade and a half saw the building fall into disrepair.
In 2009, the process of restoring the Opera House began. Conservationist and architect Abha Narain Lambah was put in charge of the project. The damage to the building in the years it had remained closed meant that the structure had to be secured before the refurbishing could begin. “There were severe structural threats to this building,” Lambah told The Times Of India in 2015. “There were peepal trees growing out of it… The steel (girders) had corroded to the extent of becoming like lace. The jack arches had to be supported, balconies tied back, side verandas reconstructed and roof repaired.”
Once the structure was secure, work began on the interior. One of the challenges before Lambah was trying to get an idea of what the Opera House looked like in its heyday. “Various sources of information have been pieced together, from old photographs to documents, oral histories and investigative diagnostics,” she said over email. “Sharada Dwivedi initially helped with the historical information and then we found an old publication from 1917 with photographs of the theatre. We used oral histories as well, and Hindi films from the 1940s-1970s had clips of the Opera House, which helped piece its history, materials and colours together,” says Lambah. One of these clips was presumably the famous scene from Aag (1948) in which Raj Kapoor wanders on to a stage in a seemingly empty theatre and is “discovered”. It’s fitting that Kapoor featured the Opera House in his directorial debut—his family used it as a regular venue for their plays.
In August, Asad Lalljee, chief executive officer of Avid Learning, was brought on board to help plan a new cultural slate for the Opera House. “We are going to handle the social media, the PR and the programming,” he says. After the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival opening, they’re planning a soft launch with an opera piece by soprano Patricia Rozario, after which they’ll work out the kinks and open for business by mid-November. Lalljee says they will initially offer it as a performance space for theatre, dance, music and opera, and later start curating original programmes. “It doesn’t have to be traditional arts,” he says. “I love the idea of a traditional space juxtaposed with something cutting-edge. I’d love to do a TED (ideas) talk here.”
Even as it looks to define itself for a new century, one thing seems certain for now: The Royal Opera House will no longer be a movie theatre. “We don’t want any more movie hall,” Maharanisaheb Kumud Kumari, daughter-in-law of Vikram Sinhji, says over the phone. “They’re not successful at all. I mean, everyone is going to Inox now.”
With inputs from Sidharth Bhatia.