A chandelier too French for Bombay

The world's largest chandelier is 15 feet high, contains 8,086 pieces of crystal, and weighs 1.5 tons. Some 230 lamps kick out a blaze that could light Wimbledon's Centre Court. Yet in the economic dynamo of Bombay, India's liveliest city, the French-made lamp is generating more heat than light.

Intended to celebrate renewal of the city's icon, the famous "Gateway of India," the Baccarat creation instead has a Save Bombay group claiming its heritage is being "hijacked" by foreigners. Corporate leaders say the light symbolizes Bombay's global reach.

The small but intense dispute is the kind of battle characterizing social discourse throughout South Asia.

Eclipsed only by the Taj Mahal as a symbol of India, the Gateway is to Bombay what the Brandenburg Gate is to Berlin, the Arc de Triomphe to Paris, or the Golden Gate to San Francisco. The question on Bombay streets is: Should a "foreign chandelier" be placed in the Gateway during an ancient "festival of lights"?

After a month-long minidrama of protests, accusations, editorials, meetings, and official inquiries, the answer is, "No."

"It's a talking point at every dinner party in Bombay," says Ravi Dubey, a vice president of the Taj Group, whose historic flagship hotel abuts the Gateway and whose company is part of a "Partnership in Conservation" of multinational corporate sponsors that raised $200,000 to clean and seal the arch.

Built on a jetty overlooking the Arabian Sea, the arch commemorates the spot where the first reigning British monarch to visit India, King George V, disembarked in 1911. The last regiment of British regulars marched out through the Gateway in 1948. Elite schools in Bombay still teach a song with the line, "Gateway to the East with its face to the West."

In recent decades, like many of the proud buildings of Bombay's past, the Gateway has fallen into disrepair. Chunks of the locally quarried yellow basalt regularly fall off the facade. It has been encircled by an iron safety gate to keep out the public. Cracks in the floor and walls opened by the salt air need to be filled, the yellow color of the stone restored, and old wrought iron patterns duplicated.

For civic leaders and sponsors, including Air France and Air India, the chandelier's temporary installation was to inaugurate Phase I of a $2 million preservation program. It would be lit during Diwali, an autumn Hindu festival, and showcase the cosmopolitan energy of Bombay. A new Gateway would put the old symbol of colonial India, and of an inward-looking city in decline, to rest, they say. The chandelier would "illuminate" India as an open door to the world - with a resurgent Bombay, its stock market, its overflowing night clubs, and its huge film and high-tech industry - as India's most outward-looking center.

What the global planners of enlightenment ignored is that Diwali is an Indian tradition. Moreover, local street sentiment and anticolonial suspicions were roused by news sprung overnight of a Gateway restored with multi-national money from abroad. Only five years ago this city changed its name from the English "Bombay," to the Marathi dialect "Mumbai." Last week under cover of darkness, squads of local Shiv Sainiks, a Bombay-based Hindu revival party, spread black paint over the English-language signs and billboards of corporations like Citibank and Hong Kong Bank. They say the signs should be bilingual.

Feelings about the Gateway are similar. "How can we celebrate our festival of lights with a foreign chandelier?" asks Pritish Nandy, a Shiv Sainik member of the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house. Mr. Nandy wants the Gateway preservation plan put on hold so local citizens can raise the money to restore it. He offered $25,000 in discretionary funds to start the effort.

"French chandelier, Go Back," read one of many signs carried by protesters circling the gate.

Oddly, several leaders of the "Save Bombay" group are from the Mumbai Youth Congress - a wing of the Congress Party led in New Delhi by Sonia Gandhi, which has been traditionally unwilling to align itself with local identity issues.

For much of Bombay's civic community, the debate has been a nightmare of chauvinist tub-thumping. "Gateway of Stupidity," wrote columnist Anil Dharker. He argues that anti-chandelier activists were happy for years to let the Gateway crumble, that the official Urban Heritage Committee approved the restoration plans, and that most of the architects and planners are themselves Indians.

"All the other side can do is oppose this, they don't have their own plan. They don't raise money," argues Sharada Dwivedi, author of a coffee-table book on Bombay's built history. "We ought to be tolerant enough to allow a French object of art during our light festival. What harm is that poor chandelier doing to anyone?"

Among India's cities, Bombay has the most active preservation program. The 30- square-mile city, like New York, is built on a set of islands. Bombay rapidly eclipsed the former capital, Calcutta, when the Suez Canal was opened in the mid-19th century. That cut travel time from Britain to India in half. The city contains a mlange of 19th-century Gothic and rococo buildings, and Art Deco structures from the 1920s that give parts of its sweeping palm-lined ocean front Marine Drive a "Miami Beach look."

In 1995, the Maharashtra state government selected 630 buildings that had architectural or historic value as candidates for preservation. Funding is a problem in a community where more than half the citizens are below the poverty line. Yet an elite stratum of preservationists is emerging. The Bombay court house, a neo-Gothic structure built in 1880, is currently under scaffolding; layers of salt and sulphate have been removed from its rooftop statues of "Justice" and "Mercy." (Also restored: an elaborate set of tiny sculptures - one, a monkey judge with only one eye blindfolded, holding a set of uneven scales, was slipped in by a subcontractor who lost a legal case in the 1870s.)

But the Gateway, an Indian world heritage site, is more controversial, and scrutinized.

"The symbolic nature of the Gateway is enormous," says Shekhar Krishnan, an American-Indian scholar living in Bombay. "Even people in the suburbs talk about 'Who owns the monument?' and 'Who controls the rights?' Bombay is in the midst of privatization right now. When people criticize the method of fixing a crumbling symbol, what they are really criticizing is, 'Why are our streets and drains not cleaned on time?' "

A review of the restoration contract to the Partnership in Conservation is under way. One set of architectural firms claims that too much of the work goes to one or two bidders that aren't operating fully in the sunshine. The other side says after six months of painstaking reviews, studies, and reports, it now finds itself the victim of a "symbol manipulation" campaign by those who want the contract for themselves. "We were innocent and honest investors in a heritage property, and we wanted to add value to the city," says Mr. Dubey of the Taj Group. "Obviously, we are disappointed."

In late June, the chandelier idea was withdrawn to appease opponents. French bank BNP Paribas officials say they will fund the project without the Baccarat light fixture. But for now, the Gateway restoration is on hold. That, too, is symbolic, one planner says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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