Celebrating Taj

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

The story of the century-old Taj hotel, which forms an integral part of Mumbai's ethos.

IT took Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi close to 30 years to bring out The Taj at Apollo Bunder, but it is worth the wait. A classic coffee table publication as far as its size is concerned but with little of the froth associated with that genre, the book is a documentation of the Taj hotel and everything associated with it which includes the history of the Tata Group and the city of Bombay/Mumbai.

In fact, the book is such an eclectic mix of information that it is initially puzzling. It is all about Bombay, the diverse communities in the city, the great divide between the Indians and the British, the bustle and bounty of commerce as seen in its architecture, infrastructure and lifestyle everything except the Taj itself until realisation strikes that this is about the Taj. The Taj is not a stand-alone structure, it is an integral part of the then Bombay and the Mumbai of now. So closely intertwined is the Taj with Mumbai that the authors perforce have to dwell on the ethos and social and economic history of the city. Without this it would be difficult to see the Taj in its true context.

In his foreword, Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Sons, explains the bond between the Taj and the city. The Taj opened in 1903 and, rare for a mere luxury hotel, soon became identified as one of the city's signature monuments. The emotional chords rekindled by the tragic events of what has come to be known as 26/11' showed how deeply the Taj remains a very sentimental part of the city's ebb and flow. It is this fond association between Bombay and the Taj that forms the leitmotif of this elegantly written book.

Its services as a hotel aside, the Taj in its 100 years has slowly come to stand for many more things. It has been witness to historical events over the eras, and its owners ensured that it played some role in them. Thus it became a symbol of freedom, independence, economic sovereignty and, after 26/11, resilience.

The chapters reflect all this. They range from The Taj and Maharajas to The Taj and Swaraj to one titled Their Finest Hour, this being a sizable section devoted to the siege of the Taj during the terror attack on Mumbai in 2008.

Of the 336 pages of the book, 65 are devoted to the nightmare of those three days. For those who see the Taj as just another building or a symbol of elitism, this may seem like overkill, but that would be missing the subtle point of the Taj being attacked because it is one of the iconic symbols of the city. The section on the siege does not just concentrate on the Taj alone.

All five locations that were attacked in Mumbai are dealt with in this chapter so as to put the Taj in context as a part of this city. Stories that were recounted in the press are retold and they evoke in the reader the same sense of disbelief and sadness that were experienced three years ago. But the overall feeling is one of overcoming the tragedy as encapsulated by Ratan Tata at the reopening of the Taj in December 2008 when he said, She has stood for a hundred years and will stand for a hundred more.

The Taj did not always occupy the position of pre-eminence that it does now. It struggled for patronage in its initial days to the extent that a decision was taken by the hotel's directors to invite doctors and pursers of P&O steamers to dine free of charge.

Early British travellers preferred European-owned hotels, and those who did stay at the Taj wrote unkindly of its lack of comforts, its floors made up of fragments of broken china which was all very well for ornamental purposes but when one has to tread upon it bare-footed one's admiration is apt to ooze out of the soles of one's feet. Yet another traveller felt claustrophobic under mosquito nets. And another described the hotel as this flagrantly Eastern and uncomfortable caravan-serai.

What kept Indian customers away was their self-imposed taboos of food and etiquette. But for one segment of society, says the book, the Taj was custom-built. This was the Indian aristocracy.

The first royal to patronise the hotel, in 1904, was the Maharaja of Bikaner. He gave it the thumbs up. Others followed and soon the princely trickle became a flood. The hotel's rates at the time were Rs.10 a day with full board for a single room and Rs.3 more if conveniences like fans and attached bathrooms were desired. By 1905, the Taj's fortunes looked up slightly. Later, in 1911, it received a bit of a boost with the arrival of the Prince of Wales and Queen Mary for whom was erected the Gateway of India (located in front of the Taj). A guest at the hotel wrote, In every direction vistas of uniform, ladies' dresses, maharajas, rajas, turbans and jewels, the marble pillars and the arches of blue night over the bay for background.

With all its glory and splendour it would have been easy for the Taj to have remained a luxury hotel cut off from reality, but the truth is that it did its bit during the freedom movement from hosting meetings of Indian leaders to brushing aside the tab for many of them who stayed there frequently. Apart from being caught up in the spirit of the times, Taj's involvement happened because of R.D. Tata's strong political convictions. Like Jamsetji Tata, he too believed in the ultimate freedom of India.

An interesting anecdote from 1916 reveals that in a quiet backroom of the Taj, the members of the Muslim League settled their differences with the Hindu-dominated Congress and, in a highly significant step towards national unity, agreed to adopt a common goal: that of self-government for India.

Gradually, the hotel began to live up to another role propounded by its founder that of a meeting ground for all races and creeds. It became one of the few places where Europeans and Indians could meet on an equal footing and hence many political meetings were held there.

Sarojini Naidu kept a suite of rooms there and a stream of visitors sympathetic to the Indian independence movement visited her there. They included John Barrymore, Somerset Maugham and Aldous Huxley.

The book is a mine of anecdotes and archival images. Old tariff cards from 1903 that offered all latest comforts at moderate charges from Rs.6 upwards, architectural drawings of the building, historical photographs of celebrities and political leaders, letters written by leaders of the freedom movement and, of course, pictures documenting the assault of 26/11.

One of the reasons the book holds together so well is because it is brought out by a team that has worked well together on previous publications. The authors, Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi, had earlier co-authored Lives of the Indian Princes. Allen was born in India in the last years of British rule. Five generations of his family had lived and served the Raj and so, in a manner of speaking, he easily bridges the eras that the book covers.

Sharada Dwivedi needs little introduction, especially to those interested in Mumbai and its history. She was a natural choice as author when the Tata group decided on a book to commemorate the Taj's centenary.

Noshir Gobhai, the photographer, has an impressive body of work, particularly on architectural subjects. It is not common to include printers in book reviews, but the consistently meticulous productions, including that of this one, by Jak Printers definitely merits special mention.

In conclusion, the book defines the Taj as integral to the city in bygone, present and yet to come eras. It has certainly come a long way from the initial belief that it was going to be Jamsetji Tata's white elephant an old man's hideously expensive folly.

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