Cha cha cha-ing in step off the Causeway
What makes some early 20th-century Allana Road addresses especially interesting in this little lane off Colaba Causeway?
The day my parents decided to get hitched, they enrolled in JJ Rodriguez's dance class. After feather-footed Joao Joaquim Rodriguez of Margao wowed the city with his school in 1951, it was de rigueur to show the object of your affection some smooth ballroom moves. Couples happily headed to Sethna House on Allana Road, practising pirouettes and gliding with grace.
Then largely populated by Anglo-Indians and Europeans, Allana Road—facing Electric House on Colaba Causeway—was Barrow Road when constructed by the Bombay Port Trust. HW Barrow, chief reporter of The Times of India, was Municipal Secretary from 1870 to 1898.
The shuttered Irani-turned-Lebanese-and-Continental restaurant, Piccadilly, leads into the lane at virtually deserted Donald House, standing since 1905, now in decrepitude. "Piccadilly opened with my father Ardeshir and partners in 1957. The BEST headquarters opposite had no canteen, so its staff came in for our brun maska-chai and kheema pao," says Parvez Burzog. "Dad manned the counter from 5 am to midnight. In the 1980s, we introduced chelo kebab, khoresht gormasabzi and khoresht gameh gravies, zabaan (tongue) and paya (trotters) soup. At a post-Independence public auction Vithoba Shanbag bought the building where he later started an Udupi called Samarambha."
A A photograph of Joao Joaquim Rodriguez and Dorothy striking a classic ballroom pose
The name makes me smile. "Samarambha" sounds a loose combine of the Cuban samba and rumba. The poised Dorothy Rodriguez, who carries forward the JJ Rodriguez Cours De Danse legacy with her daughter and son-in-law, Crystal and Damian Valladares, says, "Standards have dropped today. Few are dedicated to deportment or correctness. My husband always said, 'Our USP is individual lessons, not group. The aim is to perfectly impart an art.'"
JJ Rodriguez is credited with pioneering the authentic mambo and cha cha cha in India. Contrary to "1-2 cha cha cha", the dance really begins on the second beat, with the count 2-3-4 and 1. "Dad believed everyone has rhythm," says Crystal. "Wheelchair-bound with multiple myeloma, he told tango students, 'Next session I'm wearing my dancing shoes to partner you!'"
If Latin American tunes echoed around the Sethna House studio, across the street actors, musicians, writers and performers were to be found on each level of red-bricked Sargent House. Describing neighbours below like Leela Naidu and Dom Moraes, and Raj relic Harry Lyttler, the Kurwa family identifies Sargent House as Allana Road's culture core, with sporting representation in Test cricketer Rusi Modi.
The 1900-erected building, whose architecture mirrors Jenkins House on parallel Henry Road, is among half a dozen properties roundabout Allana Road acquired by the Indian Institute of Science. Jamsetjee Tata's intention was that the rent these fetched would contribute to the institute's development.
Retired engineer Ismail Kurwa's maternal grandfather, Nomanbhoy Abdeli, settled in Sargent House from Surat, after spice trading in Singapore. "Harry spoke of his experiences fighting in Mesopotamia during World War I," says Ismail, who learnt playing the flute from Lyttler, a former flautist with the Manchester Symphony Orchestra. Lesson done, Lyttler would produce a Scotch bottle that tutor and pupil drank on his verandah. A purist pianist, Lyttler gave tuitions to at least two generations. His home, with two grand pianos and two uprights, rang with music ranging from aspiring to accomplished. The exacting teacher rasped instructions, rectifying false notes from his bed even just before passing away in his mid-nineties.
Lyttler's British passport holder wife Shera Laljee belonged to The Elizabethans, an exclusive British expats' group. Ismail's wife Niloufer says, "From the building, Ismail's mum and occasionally I were invited to brunches she hosted for The Elizabethans, serving roast chicken, vegetables, dessert and coffee."
Niloufer and Ismail Kurwa, and son Arshad, one of Allana Road’s oldest families, in their living room at the 1900-built Sargent House
Outside the Kurwas' living room still spread the branches of a cool java olive tree. Everyone had a favourite on the road. The sway of coconut trees gone, Husena Rangwala misses the glistening green leaves of a badam tree at her York House window from the 1950s. In Sethna House, dentist Harsh Vyas recollects the pleasantest shade cover thanks to the overall verdure. Children across the lane came eagerly to climb Sargent House's sitafal tree.
A lime tree she planted and tended in the Sargent House garden, arched over by a whispering gulmohar, delighted actress Leela Naidu. Leaning from her second-storey gallery, she watched it bloom, ruing most gardeners were butchers. Jerry Pinto, profiling the luminous lady in his book, A Patchwork Life, says, "She was in tears because a storm had taken down this tree. 'All night she was calling to me,' she said. 'I prayed for her but in the morning she was gone.'"
Among Vogue's 10 most beautiful women in the world, Leela was born to nuclear physicist Dr Ramaiah Naidu who worked under Nobel Prize winning scientist Madame Curie, and Marthe Mange, an Irish Indologist of Swiss-French origin. Crowned Miss India 1954, she became surrealist Salvador Dali's muse, filmmaker Jean Renoir's protege, Ingrid Bergman's shopping partner in Paris and the would-be star of Dr Zhivago (nearly essaying Geraldine Chaplin's role, had her flight to Madrid for David Lean's audition not been badly delayed). "Leela was so stunning, I'd stare rudely," says Rita Tralshawala, whose grandfather Meghji Shah was Dr Naidu's good friend.
Actress Leela Naidu, voted one of the world’s 10 most beautiful women by Vogue, was among the street’s more famous residents
Enduring melancholic, alcoholic end years, Leela survived broken marriages to hotelier Tikki Oberoi and poet Dom Moraes, and the death of one of her twin daughters. At Sargent House she entertained Salman Rushdie and Bianca Jagger in style. Giving her company finally were trusted aide Selvam and Quartpatch, the white cat with four black splotches.
Lovely, lonely Leela grew up surrounded by exquisite antiques her mother handpicked instead of the building girl gang romping around. "The rest of us, including Ismail's sister Razia, hop-skipped from one spot to another," says Naomi Muchwala. Tearing about with them was another resident, Jalabala (Jili) Vaidya, who became the first Indian woman on Broadway. The theatre actress had interesting mixed blood too—English-Italian concert singer Marjorie Frank-Keyes and freedom fighter journalist Suresh Vaidya.
The "A" wing of Sargent House tells a hair-raising tale. Sculpting hairpieces for actors, cancer patients and rapidly balding "super-stressed young people", Rajan and Ashok Bhawnani of Monarch Wigs ensure clients leave their premises with springy confidence. Arriving from 1949 Karachi, the brothers decided to deal with thinning gents' pates 20 years after, soon also supplying unisex extensions. Trying on a beard, Rajan explains, "Using tonsured hair from auctioned gunny bags of Tirupati temple's Kalyana Katta hall, we shampoo and sterilise it."
Parsi theatre star Dinshah Daji (second from right) in Adi Marzban’s 1960 musical, Hasa Has, showcasing Bombay in the new state of Maharashtra. Pic courtesy/ Meher Marfatia/ Laughter in the house: 20th Century Parsi Theatre
Across the landing from the Bhawnanis lived Alex Correa, drummer for his swing king brother Mickey's ensemble, which struck up tunes for the Taj elite, a stone's throw away. Mickey was the hotel's resident bandleader from 1939 to 1960, an unbroken run rivalled only by year-ahead Carroll Gibbons of The Savoy, London. Above them, Russian emigre Madame G Primakoff sewed outfits for the fashionable.
This was the address as well of Dinshah Daji, riotous singing star of Adi Marzban plays. Waving a wickedly eloquent forefinger to emphasise a point, he had audiences convulse with laughter. Co-actor Bomi Dotiwala often sipped evening tea at Daji's home—the consummate comedian was employed nearby as a BEST grain shop officer. "Dinshah was fond of Chinese food from Frederick's behind Regal Cinema," Dotiwala recalls. "Revue songs he immortalised were 'Tehmina tu paachhi aav (Tehmina, come back)' and the crazy-funny 'Hu maroj mamaavo thaau (I am my own grandfather)'."
What of Allana House on the road renamed for frozen products giant JA Allana? Once better maintained as Dantra House, its landlord was Rustom Colah, RWITC Chairman and income tax lawyer. "Those plaster of Paris ceilings were prettily embedded with flowers and other accents," says Colah's niece Daisy Mehta, nee Lilaoowala. Downstairs from them, at Sheroo Cooper's Tailoring Academy a promising pupil was in attendance: James Ferreira before he went on to design for popular-with-socialites Purple Pussycat boutique in the 1970s, followed by a coveted stint with Zandra Rhodes. An expert tailor in the next building is Javed Ashraf, rushed busy cutting elegant saree cholis this ongoing wedding season.
Lane residents aced the knack of sleeping through the familiar clang of 4 am Stearns and Kittredge trams revving up for the day along the Causeway. After all, there were more melodious claps of music and dance worth waking up to… when resident artistes did lend Allana Road what a salon here claims in name—Touch of Joy.
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org/www.mehermarfatia.com
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