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The story of Taj

Shyamal Majumdar  |  Mumbai 

It has hosted royalty, celluloid stars, sporting greats, business tycoons, and also common men and women just looking to have a good time. More than a hundred years old now, Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is a unique institution. Shyamal Majumdar has a first look at a new book that chronicles its chequered history.

Adjectives have never been in short supply to describe India’s premier hotel, but the one it would have loved to do without came from its Founder’s sisters.

When Jamshetji Nusserwanji Tata decided to build the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on a 10,000 square yard land he had taken on a 99-year lease from the Bombay Port Trust in 1893, the first to object to the proposal were his sisters. The reason: how could their illustrious brother even think of opening a “bhatarkhana” (eating house)?

But Jamshetji went ahead with his plan. You would find countless such anecdotes in the first history of the iconic hotel, titled The Taj at Apollo Bunder, which was unveiled by Ratan Tata on Friday evening. Written by historians Charles Allen and Sharda Dwivedi, the 335-page book tells the fascinating story of a unique institution that first opened its doors on December 16, 1903.

Did you know, for instance, that the Taj opened with the central dome still incomplete, with only the first of the two floors of one wing ready and with electricity and lifts not in working order? The reason was simple: that was what the family astrologer advised.

The astrologer may have been totally off the mark — at least that’s what the initial experience suggested. To begin with, Jamshetji wanted to sell the hotel as he had no intention of running the place for long. But he couldn’t do so because of a strange reason. The peculiarity of having a kitchen on the top floor — a mistake rectified only in the 1930s — discouraged prospective hoteliers. The half-completed hotel thus found no buyers, and Jamshetji decided to press on with its construction as he had already put in Rs 20 lakh — a princely sum those days.

He couldn’t sell it probably also because he didn’t live long enough: Jamshetji died in Europe just when the first electric lights in the hotel were to be switched on.

Jamshetji’s successor had a tough time — records suggest finances were in deep trouble. Though Indian princes loved the hotel because it allowed them to do many “informal” things — guzzling beer being just one of them — Taj was soon proving to be a white elephant for Indian Hotels. Since desperate times call for desperate measures, portions of the hotel were rented as a petrol distribution centre, sales room for motor cars and garage for taxi service.

The princes, however, loved the hotel so much that one of them generously offered a debenture loan of Rs 2 lakh at a time when the fund-starved Indian Hotels was considering purchase offers from Ritz, J Lyons, etc.

When J R D Tata took over as chairman (he had joined the board in 1926), he thought the management was running the hotel “stupidly” and initially thought it should be sold. But for reasons unknown, JRD persisted. Result:in November, 1933, India had its first AC restaurant-cum-ballroom and its most famous watering hole — the Harbor Bar.

Then there were what was known as “Dumb Friends” nights — essentially animal shows which were a big draw. There is this interesting story about an equestrian extravaganza performed by Ataturk, a dancing horse owned by the showman Jummy Bharucha. It was probably the only time that a horse climbed the steps of Taj’s grand central floating staircase and performed the waltz and the tango.

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Business picked up sharply, but in 1939, Taj slipped into the red after the government dictated prohibition and it was felt that the hotel would have no option but to close down. But the war saved the day with army men making sure the rooms were packed once again. Prohibition was partially lifted in 1940 and Taj’s profits soared to Rs 5 lakh — equaling the all time high reached in 1918.

There was another twist in the tale after that. Taj’s post-war decline started by the summer of 1947. JRD’s comments about “stupid” running of the hotel comes alive in this account of a travel agent of Air India who was on a deluxe tour of India with 16 Swiss tourists, led by one Monsieur Gimpert. Here is his account: “Gimpert put his fist with emphasis on the wooden armrest of the sofa, which fell apart in the middle of the main lounge of India’s premier hotel. Gimpert then flopped down on his bed, which disintegrated. The foot of the bed fell onwards and the two sides fell inwards, with the spring mattress being thrown at 45 degrees with Gimpert lying flat on the floor.”

But if there was any particular moment when the Taj’s terminal decline can be said to have been halted and the painful business of reversing the decline initiated — it took place in June 1962 when Colonel Leslie Sawheny, Dorabji Tata’s brother-in-law, took charge. Among his trusted lieutenants was Ajit Kerkar, a professional hotelier recruited in London.

The Taj at Apollo Bunder chronicles how the young brigade turned conventional logic upside down — for example, a lift was installed without the board’s permission; new rooms were built by saving from the huge maintenance and repair costs; the hotel’s purchasing system was overhauled, etc.

The young team’s enthusiasm had a rub-off effect and the directors approved what was then an astonishing assault on the old Taj’s interiors; short of actually knocking it down. The hotel remained occupied all the time but between one pillar and the next it was stripped totally, right from the bottom of the building to the top until it was a gaping hole. The drastic filleting and reconstruction of a heritage building was the first such exercise of its kind in the country. To cap it all, the old driveway, which had formerly been the entrance to the hotel, was closed off so that what had for long been the front of the hotel now became the back.

It now cost a whopping Rs 90 for a single room without breakfast, a far cry from the balmy pre-World War 1 days of Rs 12 with five meals included. The turnover for 1969-70 jumped to Rs 2.4 crore, compared to Rs 4 lakh in 1941. To fund its expansion plans, Indian Hotels went public soon after.

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The Taj at Apollo Bunder has an equally riveting parallel story about Greens Mansion, a restaurant-cum-lodging house next door — a spot now occupied by the Tower block. Owned by an English grocer, the place was bought by the Tatas for Rs 3.65 lakh in November 1904.

Compared to Taj’s travails, Greens had a fairly good run. A F S Talyarkhan, a leading socialite better known as a sports commentator that time, describes one of the reasons for Greens’ success: “Beer was on tap; at the far corner was the famous Silver Grill. After dark, the little tables would find gorgeous females seated one to each table, waiting in solitary splendour for a male gallant to ask politely — may I join you?”

The book has tales about how one of these imported beauties from Europe performed a show called “The Dance of the Seven Veils”. By the time the seventh veil was about to be lifted, guests were in seventh heaven.

The book gives another reason for Greens’ relative prosperity. In September 1941, one of the guests wrote this gem in a piece titled “Overheard at Greens”:

“Do you love me darling?”

“You know I do, Harry.”

“Harry? My name is George.”

“How silly of me. I keep thinking today’s Monday.”

But the time came when Greens Mansion had to be rebuilt, partially prompted by the advent of serious competition in the form of the Oberoi Sheraton. The public highway between the Taj and Green’s had by then been acquired from the Bombay Municipality, and a new 23-floor building came up, now known as the Tower block of the Taj. Many of the uncompromisingly modern treasures in the Tower block were found in Bombay’s flea market — Chor Bazaar.

The Tower block opened in 1973, the same year when Oberoi Towers came up, and the Taj came up with advertisements saying “Taj welcomes its friend to share the fortunes of this great city”.

The Taj at Apollo Bunder has many other colourful stories about its history and its guests. It also chronicles in detail the massive renovation that the hotel undertook under R K Krishna Kumar and Raymond Bickson, and of course how the hotel turned around after 26/11 when tragedy struck. But that’s another story.

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First Published: Sat, December 17 2011. 00:56 IST