Master Builder Murzban
Master builder Murzban
The grand legacy of Muncherji Murzban’s contribution to Bombay’s landmark buildings has stood the test of time
Appointed to the position of executive engineer of the municipal corporation in 1892, Murzban defeated his nearest rival, an Englishman, by 40 votes to 25 for the post. “This sent out a strong signal about the capability of Indians… He successfully steered the corporation’s ship till 1903 when he retired,” noted Prof Aban Sethna while delivering the Gulestan and Rustom Billimoria Memorial Lecture titled “Khan Bahadur Muncherji C. Murzban Unsung ‘Native’ Architect of Bombay, 1839-1917” at The K. R. Cama Oriental Institute (KRCOI) on May 10, 2023. Sethna started her teaching career in 1962 at the Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (J. J.) School of Architecture.
Among the buildings Murzban both designed and superintended was the Indo British Institute, now the School of Commercial Art, within the Sir J. J. School of Art complex, the Alexandra Native Girls’ English Institution (the word “Native” has since been dropped) and The Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsi Charitable Institution (BJPCI), the last of his public buildings, which won the 1993 Urban Heritage Award. Murzban was superintendent for the construction of the Sir Cowasji Jehangir Building of the Elphinstone College, the Rev John Wilson College and the Scottish Orphanage (today’s Bombay Scottish School).
The detailing in his design of the gates, railings and cantilevered staircases of the Pestanji Hormasji Cama Hosptial for Women and Children, the Bomonji Eduljee Allbless Obstetric Hospital and the intricate jali work at Parsi Lying-In Hospital (PLIH) bring out his aesthetic nature, noted Sethna. “You need to see these up close,” she stated. For the Petit Gymnasium at Khetwadi, Murzban “abandoned his preferred Gothic style and gave it a vernacular touch.” The wooden ceiling and the shaped trusses in the Dabul Church in Girgaon dedicated to St Francis Xavier were his design statements, noted Sethna. Murzban is also credited with the construction of All Saints’ Church in Malabar Hill and the Holy Trinity Church that stood next to another building he supervised, today’s Anjuman-e-Islam School. An annex to the School occupies that spot today.
When he brought to the attention of the British superiors that the columns of the then General Post Office (GPO) that we know today as the defunct Central Telegraph Office next to Flora Fountain, were too weak to support the two-storied structure, his warning was not heeded. Then a column developed a fracture. Despite there being no official sanction to replace it, Murzban corrected the fault. He was reprimanded by his superior, and summoned before governor Sir William Vesey-FitzGerald. Later all eight columns of the structure were replaced, without any damage to the building. The contractor stood vindicated.
This incident features in his biography Leaves from the Life of Khan Bahadur Muncherji Cowasji Murzban penned by his son Murzban, notes historian Preeti Chopra of the departments of art history and history of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in her book A joint enterprise: Indian Elites and the Making of British Bombay. “While remaining loyal to the colonial government, it appears that the tutelage of the British was not necessary, for Muncherji at least… (He) wanted to be seen as a good engineer and all the evidence points us in that direction.”
The deft engineer was entrusted with arranging the lifting to the top of the Rajabai Tower the bells for the chimes in the clock. The largest bell weighed three tons. This involved maneuvering the bells up a 175 ft spiral staircase and arranging their installation. A government resolution of 1883 appreciates Muncherji’s work.
“Cheap Parsi Residential Quarters” (Murzban Colony) Photo: Prof Aban Sethna
Murzban’s residence: “built to be close to the buildings he was supervising” Photo: Preeti Chopra
Sethna referenced the plaques displaying costs of construction in some buildings built or designed by Muncherji to demonstrate his “integrity, honesty and loyalty.” The cost of the Gokuldas Tejpal Native General Hospital (“Native” was later dropped from the name) was Rs 29 lower than the estimate, while one building of the Sir J. J. Hospital came in at Rs 14,023 lower than estimated. “And these are only two examples,” she noted.
Sethna flagged the PLIH and Alexandra as her personal favorites. “They are asymmetrically built, yet show a great sense of balance.
“Now let us see one work of Muncherji that did not see the light of day,” teased Sethna, displaying an image of a wooden model of the public hall near the Bombay Municipal Building that was to have been built with funds provided by the Petit family. Plans were reportedly abandoned.
Muncherji was involved in the cultural life of Bombay, albeit with his engineering prowess. Sethna stated that he was responsible for the layout and structuring of the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition of 1904-05 at the Oval Maidan. A 40 ft high “electric fountain” that worked on steam was an attraction which drew many.
Historian and vice principal, Sophia College for Women, Dr Rashna Poncha’s doctoral thesis A Study of Frere Town Bombay 1862-1947 “brought her close to Muncherji’s work.” She stated in an email to Parsiana that “from his letters I came to see him as a calm and gentle man who loved his work. From government letters, it is easy to see that he was looked up to and much appreciated… He designed Alexandra, the Fort Gratuitous Dispensary (FGD) and the PLIH free of cost. All these buildings were charming neo-Gothic structures (the original building of Alexandra was demolished). My favorite is the building of the PLIH. Faced in grey basalt and with white limestone decorative elements, it stands rather silently amidst the dense growth of foliage around it. It has more ornamental features than his other buildings — the most prominent being the three stonework jalis at the front. The entire structure is very pleasing to the eye and does not jar the senses in any way. It invokes a sense of serenity — much, I think, like the man himself.”
We asked award winning conservation architect Vikas Dilawari who has worked on restoring/renovating some of the master builder’s creations to nominate his favorite buildings. We received his eulogy on most of Muncherji’s buildings! “The FGD is personally my favorite… it has remained unaltered for more than a century with some great details of that era which allowed breeze and kept rain away… Located on a corner site with a large rain tree in front, it’s a picture postcard of surviving Victorian Bombay.”
Of Muncherji’s institutions, Dilawari stated Sir J. J. School of Applied Art and Wilson College are the best “as they respond to the site context very well, one in a lush green canopy and one facing the beach standing majestically… Both have very good architecture language and their uniqueness is the honeycomb masonry which was difficult to execute and has lasted very well… The verandahs for climate consideration and the play of tiled roofs with lofty ceilings, interesting trusses and overhangs kept the building cool… Executed with best workmanship and details, these have survived more than 100 years without much repairs. The command of architectural style, detailing and functionality was as good if not better as that of any leading local British architect.”
The conservation architect notes that Murzban’s Bombay Presidency Magistrate’s Court and Elphinstone College stand out as equivalent to the 14 grand Victorian buildings that Governor Sir Henry Bartle Frere had planned to improve the city’s legibility functionally and aesthetically, like the PWD building, the High Court, municipal building etc.”
All three of Murzban’s churches are “superb specimens… beautifully detailed exteriors, well lit interiors, again with play of honeycomb masonry and interesting roofs with overhangs resting on interesting timber brackets and trusses… These are on par with the churches in England.”
“Having worked on some of his buildings like the BJPCI for the past 33 years I can say that construction, detailing and architectural style and choice of material was amazing… There is not a single structural crack in its masonry.”
Bringing down the walls
A grandson of Furdoonji Murzban who founded the now 201-year-old Bombay Samachar Gujarati daily, Muncherji was an alumnus of the Engineering College, Poona. Sethna noted that he “creditably” passed the Public Works Department examination in 1855 and was appointed assistant probationary officer in 1858. Among his first tasks were the laying of roads and bridges in the Deccan city. A protégé of governor Bartle Frere, who envisaged the grand vistas of what was called New Town and Frere Town for a while, Muncherji was called to Bombay and appointed as assistant to the Ramparts Removal Committee engaged in the bringing down of the walls of the erstwhile Fort. Among his first assignments in Bombay was the reclamation of the stretch of land between today’s Radio Club and the Gateway of India and the laying of the Eastern Boulevard (today’s P. D’Mello Road).
“Facilitator of philanthropy”
“Murzban emerges as a visionary in his non official capacity,” notes Chopra, referring to his role as a “facilitator of philanthropy leading to the construction of institutions and housing colonies for the exclusive use of Parsis.” The Garib Zarthostiona Rehethan Fund (GZRF) today memorializes Muncherji. Their trust deed, shared by Fund advisor Dr Nawaz Mody with Parsiana, notes that the first trustees were Muncherji, Bomanji Petit, Merwanji Cama, Dr Temulji Nariman and Behramji Gamadia. Dialogs for the proposed housing colony and construction had begun in the 1880s with Framji Petit laying the foundation stone in 1889 (see “Affordable housing, 1899,” Events and Personalities, Parsiana, August 7-20, 2020).
Pursuant to appeals for donation, further land was granted by Framji Petit in 1891 and Sir Dinshaw Petit, first baronet in 1897 and 1898, and other worthies. Further lands were purchased or leased. While the rest of the city was in the grip of the epidemic, “no case of plague was reported from any of the new buildings,” noted Sethna, a tribute to the sanitation and hygiene insisted on by Muncherji.
The Fund today owns and manages 39 buildings of which 24 are at Murzban Colony, Gilder Lane, five at Murzban Colony, Lal Chimney, nine at Tardeo and one at Dadar. Several families reside in the 300 or so flats, notes Mody. A dispensary and the 125-year-old Bai Ruttonbai F. D. Panday School for Girls functions within the Gilder Lane Colony under the GZRF.
Gilder Lane’s Cama Building received an Award of Merit in the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation announced in September 2016 (see “UNESCO award,” Events and Personalities, Parsiana, October 7, 2016). In 2013, one of the buildings at Lal Chimney Compound was among the winners of the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The previous year, when the Sethna Buildings on Wadia Street were restored, they earned the 2012 award. Dilawari was the conservation architect for all three projects.
As notes historian Dr Simin Patel in her doctoral thesis Cultural Intermediaries in a Colonial City: The Parsis of Bombay c1860-1921, “In Murzban’s view it was the educational, medical and recreational provisions available on the plots that made the sites self-contained.”
Patel notes that it is unlikely that the colonies were named after Muncherji during his lifetime. “In his biography, published in 1915, the housing is referred to as Cheap Parsi Residential Quarters.” A marble bust was unveiled in 1936 by which time the name Murzban Colony had taken root. The inscription on the pedestal describes him as “the originator of the idea of colonization amongst Parsis and Indians.”
Chopra notes that around the same time as he founded the buildings that became Murzban Colony, the visionary bought land in Andheri to develop a new township that came to be known as Murzbanabad. A jashan ceremony took place in 1898. Muncherji is credited with providing the township with water from Tansa Lake and establishing a dispensary there. Sethna rued that no trace of the township remains. The Seth Pherozeshah Ardeshir Patel Dar-e-meher in Andheri does have two plaques dating to 1908 that reference the name Murzbanabad, and one notes that Muncherji was a trustee of the fire temple. It is logical to assume that his utopian township stood in the vicinity of the fire temple.
In 1881 Muncherji petitioned the government for a piece of land in the Esplanade area to construct his home so that he could be close to the buildings which were coming up there under this supervision, notes Chopra. Called Gulestan, the home was a short distance away from the Public Works Department buildings that would have been his office. Today’s Murzban Road marks the stretch between Gulestan and the PWD. Very close to the Parsiana office, walking on that road at twilight, when most offices are shut, if one closes one’s eyes one could perhaps visualize the man behind some great buildings in the area clipitty-clopping to and fro in a horse-drawn carriage. His residence may stand no more, but the building that came up in its place in 1922, now owned by the Life Insurance Corporation, still bears the name of the master builder’s wife.
Dr Meher Mistry, head, department of history at Ramniranjan Jhunjhunwala College, who presided over Sethna’s talk, said she first read her work in the Taj magazine. That made her fall in love with Bombay, she said. She revealed that Sethna believes that “architecture is too technical a subject…it needs to be rounded off by a study of humanities.” Dr Nawaz Mody, trustee of KRCOI welcomed the audience and introduced Sethna and Mistry.
Sethna ended her talk with a quote from Chopra, who states that in her estimation “there was no architect or engineer in the second half of the 19th century who could rival the length, depth and diversity of Murzban’s almost half century of involvement in the construction of colonial Bombay’s public buildings and infrastructure.” As stated Sethna, “It is time we acknowledge Murzban’s contribution in shaping Bombay’s architecture.”
List of buildings constructed by Muncherji Murzban under control of the government of Bombay, listed in his biography, with those designed by him marked with *
General Post Office (today’s Central Telegraph Office); Gokuldas Tejpal Native General Hospital; three buildings for the Telegraph Department (including two designed by him*); Sir Jamsetjee Jejeebhoy (JJ) School of Art; Scottish Orphanage, Mahim; The Alexandra Native Girls’ English Institution*; The John Connon High School; Pestanji Hormasji Cama Hospital*; The Indo-British Institution* (today’s School of Commercial Art in Sir J. J. School Complex); Bombay Presidency Magistrate’s Court; Elphinstone College; Wilson College; Bomonji Eduljee Allbless Hospital*; Fort Gratuitous Dispensary*; five buildings within Sir J. J. Hospital complex (including two designed by him*); Anjuman-e-Islam; Women’s Ward of St George’s Hospital; Cathedral Boys High School; Holy Trinity Church, Esplanade; St Mary’s Church, Parel; All Saints Church, Malabar Hill
Partial list of buildings designed by Murzban and constructed in his non official capacity:
Chateau Petit*; Roman Catholic Church, Dabul*; Parsi Lying-In Hospital*; The Byramjee Jeejeebhoy Parsee Charitable Institution*
Courtesy : Parsiana – July 7 – July 20, 2023