A public welcome to King George V and Queen Mary in 1911 at Apollo Bunder, in the Taj’s shadow
The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, which most Mumbaikars refer to as simply, "the Taj", could easily be one of the most defining landmarks of our city. Overlooking the Arabian Sea, with the Gateway of India right opposite, the two structures have been privy to varied sights and sounds. The parent heritage building, The Taj Mahal Palace, commissioned by Jamsetji Tata in 1903, was also one of the many nerve centres of the Indian independence movement.
From being requisitioned by the Indian Army as a military hospital in 1916 to being used as dormitories for army personnel during World War II, and hosting early India leaders who held meetings with the maharajas of India*s Princely States, the palatial building has witnessed it all. We spoke to General Manager Ritesh Sharma, who stitched together an intriguing portrait of India*s foremost luxury hotel*s tryst with freedom.
Of the many great men and women of India*s freedom movement who crossed the threshold of the Taj, none were more closely associated with the hotel than Sarojini Naidu, for whom it became virtually a second home for the for the better part of three decades. She was a person of rare quality and a great liberal, devoted to the twin causes of Hindu-Muslim unity and political freedom for her country. A suite of rooms at the Taj was kept more or less permanently at her disposal.
Her rooms at the hotel were always crowded with visitors, from princes to paupers, and she played hostess in the most princely way. All were welcomed and all were treated to drinks and food whenever they came. Even before you sat down, her first question would be: "What will you have?"
An invitation to dinner by "Akka", as she was affectionately called by all, was always a social event, for you met many interesting personalities at her table, hobnobbed with the big and small, ate and drank merrily in her genial company. For any important visitor to Bombay, a pilgrimage to Mrs Naidu*s suite at the Taj was always a must.
The hotel threw open its doors on the eve of Independence - August 14, 1947 - to usher in a new beginning with music, dancing, speeches and merry-making. It hosted a special dinner with the city*s well-heeled in attendance. There are no records of the names of the guests that night, but the food consisted mostly of Indo-French dishes. A special Independence Day menu priced at R1,947, included an array of dishes celebrating independence such as the Consomme a L*indienne, Vacherin de peches liberation and Poularde SoufflÃ© Independence.
The special dinner was accompanied by a cabaret performance. Legendary musician Micky Correa was on stage, along with famous trumpeter Chic Chocolate. The evening also saw a performance by classical dancer sisters, Khurshid and Shirin Vajifdar.
As midnight struck, the cabaret launched into a jaunty version of Jana Gana Mana. As recounted by fashion designer Catherine Courtney, also known as Madame Pompadour who had a boutique at the Taj, "Everyone was very happy and gay. At midnight, the lights went out and DF Karaka, who then owned the Current Weekly, got up and made a little speech. Outside the Taj, the streets were absolutely packed with people. I remember rushing out to powder my nose in the ladies room and seeing hundreds of people coming up the stairs - crowds who wanted to join in the fun. They were all happy and gay and I said, Jai Hind [Long live India] and they said, Jai Hind."
In 1916, the then President of the All-India Muslim League, the Nawab of Mahmudabad, happened to be occupying a suite of rooms, and the convention of the league was reconvened at the hotel. That historic moment, in a quiet backroom, resulted in the members of the Muslim League settling their differences with the Hindu-dominated Congress and, in a step towards national unity, agreeing to adopt a common goal: that of self-governance for India.
The Taj Mahal Palace was host to early India leaders who held meetings with the maharajas and maharanis of India*s Princely States in the Princes Room before agreeing to give up their seats of power and embrace democracy. And, finally, Lord Mountbatten announced India*s independence from the steps of The Taj Mahal Palace.