Meher Marfatia: Three's company on Marine Drive
Built in the 1930s, Zaver Mahal, Kapur Mahal and Keval Mahal signify the wisdom and wealth of the Mehtas, one of the heritage promenade's first families
Some thoughts don't leave easily. One stuck in my mind started with a line I wrote in this column on Opera House: "Roxy Cinema was bought in 1932 by the brothers Kapurchand, Zaverchand and Kevalchand Mehta who lent their names to Kapur Mahal, Zaver Mahal and Keval Mahal on Marine Drive." This is the baaki picture of that teaser trailer, its plot resembling one of those golden jubilee hits the theatre announced on neon-lit billboards. Sparkling like The Queen's Necklace's triple-jewelled pendant, these buildings were its early pride. Between 1937 and 1939 when they were erected, few facades of their kind flanked Kennedy Sea Face, the arc imperially saluting Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kavanagh Kennedy.
Kennedy passed away years before this western shore Backbay Reclamation began. Inscribed in stone outside the Mafatlal Baths, 1915 dates the foundation of this grand sweep of street. The 1930s Art Deco skyline developed in tandem with RCC gaining popularity as construction material. By the 1950s a plainer cluster accommodated immigrants from Karachi waterline homes nostalgic to sight another promenade.
Educationist Kanan Nair at her ancestral apartment in Kapur Mahal. Her grandfather Kapurchand, eldest of the three brothers, was very much the patriarch. Behind her are typical Art Deco features preserved for the last 80 years - the pillar, the wall light fitting, French bubble glass window and teak panelled doorway
The romantic journey of Nemchand K Mehta's eldest son Kapurchand from Vadal village in Saurashtra to the City of Dreams, is threaded together by Nalini Mehta (Zaverchand's daughter) and Vasant Bhansali (Kevalchand's daughter), as well as Uma Mehra and Kanan Nair (Kapurchand's granddaughters) and Radhika Mehta (Kevalchand's granddaughter). Nemchand struggled with meagre earnings from a grocery to provide for 11 children. The heroes of our story were born two years apart: Kapurchand in 1900, Zaverchand in 1902, Kevalchand in 1904.
A little under 12, Kapurchand set off walking long distances before hopping onto a buffalo buggy and finally a steam train. Uma recalls an account narrated by her father Vrajlal, Kapurchand's son. "Tired and hungry, Kapurchand met a woman who gave him one of two rotlas she carried." Eating most of it, he saved a scrap — which, incredibly, Uma has preserved in a casket. Kanan explains, "Anything from the hands of a kumarika, an unmarried virgin, was shagun, an auspicious offering."
Radhika Mehta in front of the building her grandfather Kevalchand's branch of the family occupied. Keval Mahal continues to be a home full of memories for Kevalchand's nonagenarian daughter Vasant Bhansali, the oldest surviving descendant
At Bombay Central he was spotted by a Marwari seth and employed in his cloth shop. Octogenarian Nalini Ben adds a fairytale flourish. Buying a lottery ticket, Kapurchand was dazed to win a jingling cascade of coins. "Back to work," Nemchand urged his son returning to Vadal with the surprise treasure. So he headed to 1920s Bangalore. Opening Kapurchand & Co, the Lal Imli Mill's (of Kanpur) blankets store in Chickpet, he asked Zaverchand and Kevalchand to join him and the brothers struck work.
But, Bombay soon beckoned and the trio settled to prosper in the Prarthna Samaj area. Kapurchand's was the Midas touch, the keenest eye. Native intelligence and sharp math honed entrepreneurial acumen in him. "Bapuji simply glanced at a floor to calculate the number of tiny, triangular mosaic chip tiles for it," says Kanan. He shouldered overall responsibility of their ventures, focusing on finance. Zaverchand managed the Chira Bazaar shop (they had the Lal Imli Woollen Mill's agency for South India) and midtown family estates. Kevalchand took charge of the film exhibition operation. Screen history was rewritten at Roxy in 1943 with Kismet totting an unmatched 192 weeks. Incidentally, the Ambanis' first Vimal shop was inside Roxy. Dhirubhai bought yarn from Zaverchand's son Jyotindra and his wife Kokilaben sat at the counter.
Three generations of the Mehta family in a photograph from November 1939, with patriarch Nemchand K Mehta in the centre row wearing a paghdi on his head. Seated left-to-right are his sons Zaverchand (in white coat) and Kapurchand (in black coat), with Kevalchand on extreme right. Ladies of the house standing in the rear row left-to-right are Shanta (Zaverchand’s wife, second from left), Nandgauri (Kapurchand’s wife, holding baby), Ladkibai (Nemchand’s wife behind him in black sari) and Kamala (Kevalchand’s wife, second from right). Pic courtesy/Nalini Mehta
Then, the brothers wanted a beautiful building each. They commissioned PC Dastoor to create these, layering superior cement with green and yellow paint. The architect's original concrete jaali (filigree) roundels on right-angled balconies continue to adorn Kapur Mahal and Keval Mahal. Changing landlords, Zaver Mahal lost these unique medallions to a dewy white exterior which also bucks the buildings' traditional colour trend.
The seaside location clearly impacted their decorative accents. Atul Kumar of Art Deco Mumbai points out nautical elements like porthole windows as a feature marking Marine Drive homes and not those opposite Oval Maidan. Vast terraces crowned with viewing galleries were inlaid with ornamental tiles. Zaver Mahal's mosaic chips formed Swastika and Om emblems, a lovely lotus and map of the world. The families sprawled atop on every fifth floor. Teakwood-cased Stigler lifts glided softly into their hallway corridors — rather exclusive for the 1930s. The trio of structures, costing R10 lakh totally, glowed with a symmetry which confused Zaverchand's toddler granddaughter. Visiting mirror-image Kapur Mahal and Keval Mahal, to wish those cousins for Diwali, she exclaimed, "Aapru ghar undhu kem thay gayu (How did our house turn topsy-turvy)?"
Doll maker Nalini Mehta, Zaverchand's daughter, with some of her Kathakali creations in Zaver Mahal
Kapurchand had seven children, Zaverchand four and Kevalchand eight. "A merry bunch of Mehta cousins went to New Era School in our Buick," Vasant Ben recollects. Their gardens and terraces blinked a blaze of pretty lights celebrating the families' marriages and movie successes. Old-timer tenant Chetan Kothary shares how his father, cancer surgeon, Dr Pramod M Kothary, travelled to his wedding at NSCI Club in Zaverchand's chauffeur-steered Cadillac. "Diamond- buttoned Zaverchand was an elegant, generous gentleman," says Chetan.
In-house publicity helped the Mehtas advertise for tenants in slides flashed at Roxy. Hard to imagine there was a dearth of takers for the palatial 2,500-square feet homes at rents low as R100. Prominent "To Let" signs flapped in the salty breeze as landlords flaunted freebies with flats. "We threw in Crompton Greaves fans, Eastern Watch clocks and big bathtubs," says Kevalchand's 91-year-old daughter Vasant Ben. Not forgetting the ubiquitous Gujarati bench swing called ichko. Unlike his brothers, Kapurchand was reluctant renting to non-vegetarians. He waived a three-month amount for the Kutchi Bhatia cotton merchant Jamnadas Ruttonsey who paid three years' advance.
The Kathakali dolls which won her the National Award for Handicraft in 1973; each figure's headgear alone is embedded with over 1,650 minute pieces
Despite the apartments extending every amenity and accoutrement, the War did dampen their welcome. Nalini Ben recalls the demand drop because of the lurking "topmaro no dar", a feared bomb attack from the sea, on Japan entering the fray in 1941. The British Military Intelligence secret service office in Keval Mahal appointed Lieutenant Colonel CW Robinson to censor Bombay's incoming and outgoing mail. Ironically, Zaver Mahal had Usha Mehta oversee an underground HAM radio station.
Movie magic trailed the cinema czars into their properties. Zaver Mahal had actor-producer AR Kardar from Lahore, who introduced Chand Usmani, Naushad and Majrooh Sultanpuri, and gave Mohamed Rafi his first hit, 'Suhaani raat dhal chuki'. Even SD Burman and son RD flitted briefly through Zaver Mahal before shifting to Sea Green Hotel till their Bandra bungalow got ready. A Burman buff gives me an interesting angle on the lilting tune, 'Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le', from Navketan's 1951 thriller Baazi. Tapping the ghazal-turned-jazz beat in this very home, an excited SD Burman asked Guru Dutt — supposed to have fallen for singer Geeta Roy while she recorded this song — to come across and hear his arrangement. Its second line, 'Apne pe bharosa hain toh ek daav laga deh (If you believe in yourself, take a chance)', with which guitar-strumming Geeta Bali tempts a shy Dev Anand, seems to echo the Mehtas' plucky spirit.
Other Zaver Mahal notables included Naval Tata's family above that of Asia's first orthodontist, the eminent Dr Prem Prakash. Katy Bam's excellent ground floor kindergarten is a popular memory. Papers like The Free Press Bulletin and Bombay Sentinel announced The Rose School of Dancing here too. Till Kevalchand took over the film business, Kapur Mahal's terrace had two rooms kept for meetings with the film world and entertaining cocktail parties. This was strictly male domain, the conservative family allowing no ladies upstairs. Kevalchand's granddaughter Radhika says, "From behind curtains we'd watch directors like Raj Kapoor come to talk business. Kapurchand Bhai commanded great respect from his brothers."
Keval Mahal's music talent was Madan Mohan. Round the corner at Chateau Marine the singer Jaddanbai, Nargis' mother, hosted acclaimed soirees. Unknown to his father, Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli, young Madan Mohan slipped away to these evenings, sneaking back into Keval Mahal by dawn before he was missed.
Today, just two buildings of the trio retain their pretty Italian-style rear gardens and only Keval Mahal belongs to the family. Yet, they stand tall. Shabby in part, still quite the structural marvels they were intended to be, outlasting the slap of surf and spray, gale and gust. Ashok Gupta, the present owner of Zaver Mahal, tells me the renovation revealed 80-year-old salia bars "which shone like silver" — indicating the brilliant quality of their nickel-iron alloy. Will its UNESCO heritage tag ensure the drive shines all the way with such vintage wonders?
Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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