George Wittet, who left beautiful fingerprints across Mumbai

The restored and refurbished Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) will open this month as the building enters its centenary. Previous restorations have focused on parts of the museum; the current project, the largest since the museum opened in 1922, will cover the whole of its enclosure.

The magnificent Category 1 Heritage Building in Mumbai was designed by George Wittet (1878-1926), who was a consultant architect to the Bombay government at the turn of the 20th century.

Prince of Wales Museum.

Besides the Prince of Wales Museum of West India, the name by which CSMVS was originally known, Wittet also designed the Gateway to India, both fine examples of Indo-Saracen architecture and among the most identifiable monuments of Mumbai.

Wittet and his work

George Wittet was born in Blair Atholl, Scotland. He studied architecture in Perth, Scotland, and worked in Edinburgh and York before arriving in India in 1904.

In India, he became assistant to John Begg, consultant architect to the Bombay government. Together they pioneered the Indo-Buckwheat style, using it in several government and public buildings in Bombay.

About a decade later, Wittet himself became a consultant architect and was also elected the first president of the Indian Institute of Architects.

He also worked as an architect for the Tata company and designed its iconic headquarters, Bombay House.

Indo-buckwheat style

The Indo-Saracen style was promoted by British architects from the end of the 19th century. It is exemplified by the use of elements seen in architecture across India, from Mughal structures to Hindu temples.

The style was dominated by Indo-Islamic elements, but sometimes combined with Gothic and Neoclassical elements popular in Britain at this time. Indo-Buckwheat was seen as the Raj’s efforts to promote “Indian” culture, so that their colonial subjects viewed them more favorably, especially after the revolt of 1857.

At the same time, by its invocation of Mughal architecture, Indo-Buckwheat sought to symbolically place the British Raj in the lineage of the great empires of the Indian subcontinent. Notable features of the style include domes and domes, chhattris, minarets, and open pavilions.

Examples from other parts of India include the magnificent Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, Amba Vilas Palace (Mysore Palace) in Mysore, the Senate House (on the Madras University campus) in Chennai and the Secretariat building (Central Secretariat) in New Delhi.

Bombay architecture

The main Indo-Saracenic buildings in Mumbai, besides the CSMVS and Gateway to India, are the King Edward Memorial Hospital and the General Post Office.

Wittet designed the Small Causes Court, Bombay House, Wadia Maternity, Grand Hotel and KEM Hospital. He is said to have completed 95 projects for the Bombay government, including the design and planning of the Ballard Estate, as well as several other projects for the Tatas.

Parts of the whole

The Gateway to India mixes Islamic and Gujarati architectural styles, with intricate lattice work.

The CSMVS dome is based on Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of King Mohammed Adil Shah of Bijapur. Wittet had visited the historic buildings of Bijapur, which were the key to his Indo-Saracen designs.

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The flagship of the CSMVS is based on that of the Taj Mahal. However, even though he won the competition for the museum’s design, it was not his design that was ultimately executed. The committee forced him to build the museum in the style of the General Post Office, designed by his mentor Begg, and to retain an Indian character.

Wittet did not always design in the Indo-Buckwheat style, although he quite often defended it. He designed the Institute of Science in the style of the European Renaissance, for example, because “he considered a college of rational investigation to be a distinctly anti-Indian phenomenon” (David Collins in ‘Mumbai’, 1999 ).

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