The Tale of the Itinerant Canopy

A postcard collector with a hankering for local history traces the journey of a marble canopy across Bombay

Words by Pronoti Datta

7 Sep 2018

Photo courtesy Pronoti Datta

The first time I saw it was as a kid in the early nineties. The filigreed marble canopy sat incongruously on the roof of the Raymond showroom at Breach Candy. Every time I walked past, I’d look up at the oddly perched sculpture. Then one day it was gone and I felt I’d lost a talisman.

Years later, I found my childhood affinity on a postcard. By then I was an adult with a yen for local history and an incipient collection of old Bombay postcards. I knew that a statue of Queen Victoria had been shaded by the canopy. The statue had been disfigured during a wave of nationalist vandalism in the 1960s and dumped outside the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum (formerly the Victoria and Albert Museum) in Byculla along with other maimed colonial figures. The Singhanias, who own Raymond, had bought the canopy and installed it on the showroom terrace for some years before whisking it away to their Juhu home.

It was at an antiquarian exhibition that I found the postcard of Victoria in her marble harbour at her original spot near Oval Maidan. A trawl through eBay not long after the purchase yielded another Victoria postcard. This one shows a gathering of Indians before the statue celebrating the golden jubilee of Victoria’s rule in 1887. My precious subset of two postcards is one among several themes that have emerged in my collection ― Parsis of Bombay, occupations, the plague of 1896, King George V and Queen Mary’s visit in 1911.

For a Bombayphile, these postcards present fascinating then-and-now scenes, trivia on what used to be where and which elegant edifice has been replaced by an eyesore. Victoria and her stone den once sat on the spot now occupied by the Tata Communications building. Wodehouse Road is one of the rare streets in the city that would, if you removed parked cars, look like it did a hundred years ago. Colaba had a vast area called Cotton Green where bales of cotton were stored.

Last year, the Singhanias returned the canopy to Breach Candy, this time outside the Raymond shop, a shiny building that replaced the old one. A marble statue of a seated man, a Singhania patriarch, I was told, sits in its shade. The modern figure under the baroque canopy is as odd a juxtaposition as Victoria among her handicapped compatriots. It’s only in my picture postcards that she occupies her rightful habitat.

Pronoti Datta lives in Bombay, edits stuff at an e-commerce firm, and spends a chunk of her salary on old, city postcards. She tweets @prettynous.

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