Until recently, the widely influential Tata family was not known just for their business acumen or philanthropy. Cyrus Mistry’s unseemly departure as the Tata Sons chairman has drawn more ugly speculation than the company’s seen in all their years, yet this will be but another incident in the grand scheme of things. The Tata way of life, their houses, the lavish parties and preservation of their Parsi culture has been documented quite widely. The Tata Central Archives in Pune is hosting an exhibition of Tata properties in India and overseas, and this is nothing short of architectural ecstasy. They are showcasing over 100 photographs of the properties owned, leased and rented by the Tata family for landed, residential and commercial purposes, spanning over a century, from 1822 to 1965.
“An interesting fact to note is that no house, which Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (Founder of the Tata group) built or purchased, bore his name. Reay House, Waterloo Mansion, Esplanade House, and various other are either names of prominent people or have historical associations attached to them. The headquarters of Tata group in Bruce Street (Which is today known as Homi Mody Street) was named by R.D. Tata as “Bombay House” and not Tata House even though his friends urged him to do so. R.D. Tata also refused to have the name of the street changed to Tata Street,” said the archivist of the exhibition.
The archival collection at Tata Central Archives mentions that Late P. P. Mistry, a former Tata Sons employee, recollects how Jamsetji Tata would walk-in to Victoria building, every afternoon at the stroke of two, clad in his white Parsi suit with a round Parsi turban made of Chinese silk, and Dorabji would come about the same time with his long China-silk coat unbuttoned. Ratan Tata and R. D. Tata would arrive early, both dressed in crisp, white Parsi attire. For several years Elphinstone Club co-founded by Jamsetji Tata and Phirozeshah Mehta, in the 1870’s, was located on the third floor of the Victoria building.
The stories engraved in the walls of their Mumbai properties seem nothing short of historic. The Black&White documentation of Mumbai’s architecture seems unrealistic along with the spacious roads, gardens and an unhindered view of the sky. The Summer houses of ‘Poona’, their reprise from the Mumbai heat, still hosts weddings and parties for those who can rent it. Of all the properties, The Esplanade House in South Bombay is the pièce de résistance. The 130-year-old building was furnished in a European fashion, complete with columns, pilasters, ivory inlays, painted ceilings and the glass roof of the courtyard. It won the UNESCO Asia Pacific Award for cultural heritage restoration in 2014 after being under renovation for 10 years.
“Esplanade House was one of the first houses in the city to be lit with electricity, to have concealed electrical wiring and to have an electric elevator. The house was opulent with unique dining rooms that could accommodate up to 30 – 40 people with an underground tunnel to facilitate service by the staff, a library and the hub for many extended family members, friends and eminent personalities. One of the notable installations included a beautiful marble drinking water trough. This trough, which still exists today, was six feet in diameter and was used for the horses. In existence, there is a statue of a Saint Bernard which sits, poised and alert, atop the watchman’s cabin with a wooden keg around his neck. This was a memorial to one of Jamsetji’s favourite pet dogs that he kept to ward-off thugs,” said the archivist.
It is said that the idea of having Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai took birth in the Esplanade House. Of the famous parties and people hosted at Esplanade, the archivist said, “The house was used for Jamsetji’s birthday celebrations and the wedding of his sons. Jamsetji entertained a large number of distinguished guests here including the first English Cricket Team to arrive from Britain. Part of the Esplanade House was also used as offices for the various Tata concerns. It is in this house that his major projects of iron and steel, electricity, the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Institute of Science were discussed and given shape. Jamsetji’s famous letter to Swami Vivekananda dated November 23, 1898 was also written from Esplanade House. When the first Marylebone Cricket Club (M.C.C.) team under the captaincy of Gilligan visited India, they were also hosted for lunch in the spacious Moorish Room of the Esplanade.” Today, this house belongs to the turstees of R.D Sethna Scholarship Fund.
The Tata family also owned properties abroad, including the York House, Twickenham, England, which currently serves as the Town Hall of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, and Villa Paulette in France. “The most impressive is the drawing room of the Twickenham Palace purchased by Ratan Tata from the Duc d’Orleans for a whopping £16,000 back in 1906! Once in possession of the house, he had vast Italian-style lawns laid to accommodate a set of eight Italian statues called the Naked Ladies. From 1909 onward, Ratan Tata was hosting London’s high society regularly, including King George V,” reported the Quint. Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata also owned eight properties in Hardelot, France - Paulette, Les Chamilles, Indiana, Concordia, Nausary, Mascotte, Geisha and Mousmé. York House, the mansion in Twickenham served as a popular venue for weekend tennis parties and lavish parties hosted by Sir Ratan and Lady Tata.
The present state of these properties speaks quite a lot about the family’s need to do good for the society. Most of their properties either house educational institutes, research centers or hospitals and clinics.”Ratanbai Bamji donated Rs 1,00,000 for a building for the Zoroastrian Girls’ School in Tehran in the memory of her father, Nusserwanji Ratanji Tata. Sir Ratan Tata, too, made an annual financial grant of 1,400 pounds to the University of London from 1913-21 to study the causes of destitution and poverty,” reported the Quint. “Some of the examples of the contributions made by the Tata family, which were exhibited include the donations given by Jamsetji Tata to the Indian Institute of Research at Bengaluru; Sir Dorabji Tata and Sir Ratan Tata for the The JNT Research Hall, and also the financial support given by Sir Ratan Tata for the Sir Ratan Tata Iranian and Semantic Hall in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune,” said the archivist.
The Exhibition is open to public at Tata Central Archives, Tata Management Training Center, Pune from 10 a.m to 5 p.m.
All images courtesy of Tata Central Archive