Tales from a clock tower across the sands
Rowed at vantage points along the Chowpatty sea face, La Kozy Mansion, Fulchand Niwas and Stone Building form a handsome trio with histories to match
The jut-out jars. Incongruity looms on the Girgaon Chowpatty strip with the gross green bulk of The Hulk, as a gym mascot, filling a carved window of La Kozy Mansion's pristine white jharokha-and-jaali facade. Built around 1891, mirroring the next-door wooden structure of Aaram Guesthouse which houses Crystal restaurant, La Kozy whispers tales from ornate crevices. Like its fine neighbours, Fulchand Niwas and Stone Building.
Before Baboolal Dalal of Khambhat, who traded in cotton futures, bought the building in 1924, an illustrious resident of 21 Chowpatty Sea Face (the simple address ahead of Baboolal Mansion and, changing hands, Lila Mansion and La Kozy), was Dr Acacio Gabriel Viegas. Discovering the 1896 bubonic plague and saving lives inoculating 18,000 citizens against that "black death", the good doctor was the BMC's first Christian president. The statue commemorating him lies near Framjee Cawasjee Institute, Dhobi Talao.
With an impeccable aesthetic sense still pervading this home of five generations, Baboolal hired Jaipur karigars to sculpt his 1924-acquired dream residence along the intricate lines of mahals and havelis. From its top floor, he dialled a three-digit number. That connected him to the New York Cotton Exchange in a lottery routine that is supposed to have lost and won back this mansion seven times—ankada satta gambling placed bets on opening and closing rates of cotton.
The recently relocated Studio Malabar on the ground floor of Stone Building (seen here are the store’s partners, Sarita Goswamy, Dimple Ahuja and Amit Ahuja), signalling the corner of Morvi Lane, had a start further south. The exclusive decor and textiles store was opened in 1962 at the Taj by Laura Hamilton, the Canadian singer who performed in the hotel for the city’s chic set before introducing this shop. Pic courtesy/ Studio Malabar; Suresh Karkera
"White horses stabled behind pulled our private ghoda gaadi," says Rajesh Dalal, former MD of Johnson & Johnson, whose father Shashikant was Baboolal's son. "The violinist VG Jog and singer Mukesh would drop in. And I've hopped into OP Nayyar's open-roof Impala with a speaker blaring his compositions as he sped down Marine Drive." Around the corner at Lila House, his Sikh grandparents' home, musicians and writers Rajinder Krishan, Nayyar, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Rajinder Singh Bedi were regulars.
"Between this and Lila House beside the Aaram building, our parents conducted quite the saamnewali khidki romance," says Rajesh's sister, educationist Soniya Lalla. "La Kozy had six families, never shutting their front doors. Imagine what wild Hide-and-Seek games 15 of us kids enjoyed crisscrossing apartments, with the poor 'denner' fully baffled." Sliding swiftly down the banisters, the young brigade would crash on the ground floor, blocked by a sentry figure painted in the blue Bombay policeman's uniform—an intriguing fixture visible from the road till recently.
Soniya and Rajesh's mother Kiran showed remarkable resourcefulness keeping the family afloat through skidding fortunes. "Our father's innovation and her hard work led to a flocking business partnered with Gold Seal Engineering [creating a velvet finish on surfaces, flocking technology is used to pack perfumes and on window rubber channels in automobiles], which Rajesh's wife Sushma took over," explains Soniya.
Among inspiring political pleas on the beach, Gandhiji advocated Swadeshi. All of eight, the Dalals' aunt piled her imported dresses to burn. High-ranking police officers present at such rallies patronised A. Vianelli's Italian cafe, in line with La Kozy.
Opposite the Dalals lived filmmaker MI Dharamsey, who directed Dilip Kumar for the black-and-white love triangle Anokha Pyar, with Nargis and Nalini Jaywant. That casting coup inadvertently brought the matinee idol to perfumer Shishir Mehta's home a floor below—"Answering the doorbell ring, my father had half a heart attack to see Dilip Kumar asking for Dharamsey. In a daze, dad took his favourite hero upstairs to the correct flat."
A constant at La Kozy Mansion is Felicita Studio, established in 1950 by pioneer photographer Bhogilal Mistry, who came from Lunawada in Gujarat's Panch Mahal district with eight annas (half a rupee) in his pocket. Felicita was earlier discreetly inside Roxy Theatre on Charni Road. Maharajas in a mood to pose shunned street-level studios. Industrial and commercial photographer Bipin Mistry, says, "My grandfather operated five studios, starting with Photo Deluxe at CP Tank in 1947-48. He gave me a Rolleiflex camera with which I started shooting college functions."
While Dilip Kumar wowed La Kozy, Dev Anand fans watched Funtoosh and Kala Pani shot against Fulchand Niwas, majestic in Art Deco. Erected in 1934 by Hirachand F Jhaveri, grandfather of the current generation, who christened it Fulchand Niwas after Hirachand's father Fulchand, this rose on land belonging to the Maharaja of Morvi, naming the adjacent Morvi Lane. Being auspiciously "Gaumukhi", shaped like a cow's head, the plot is considered lucky.
Fulchand Niwas' English fittings and tiling by Bharat Tiles were admired by British soldiers patrolling the promenade. The English clock on its tower ticked till the hands irreparably froze in the 1980s. Crown upon crown, atop the tower for ten years from 1957 rotated Mercedes Benz's silver star: three-pointed to symbolise universal motorisation with its engines dominating land, sea and air.
Fulchand Niwas, strikingly Art Deco in style and constructed in 1934, is distinctive for its clock-tower, atop which once revolved the Mercedes Benz star. Pic/Suresh Karkera
"A rotating neon Thums Up sign followed the Mercedes emblem," recollects Pravin Gandhi. The septuagenarian Fulchand Niwas resident who spent Sundays with a cricket bat on the beach, adds, "My fondest memories are of flying kites during Uttaran and people asking to watch Ganpati visarjan from this vantage point." The elephant god has even smiled benignly, under his trunk, at bullocks pulling the cart he was hoisted on.
Three Fulchand Niwas food hubs—two restaurants and a dry fruits giant—have catapulted to cult status. Cream Centre, Cafe Ideal and Ramanlal Vithaldas. "My father told us, 'The heavens won't fall, no matter what happens'," says Sanjiv Chona, of the fortitude with which Ramesh Chona of Karachi set up Cream Centre in 1958. His "properly Punjabi" ancestry respected the Jain landlord's vegetarian-only stipulation, birthing the bestseller chana bhatura.
As a girl visiting her grandmother's apartment of corridors in bustling Chowpatty from quiet '60s Juhu, Binny Correa recalls, "At the Irani joint we binged on brun-maska and Cadbury chocolates. It felt like our very own candy shop." Going strong since 1935, tavern-like Cafe Ideal's jukebox has boomed with wide tune selections, Bolly to Beatles. Requests repeated to exhaustion include Wish You Were Here, which played at the 1996 ceremony of its English band's induction into the US Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If Pink Floyd rang out from Fulchand Niwas, in Stone Building to its left Studio Malabar holds echoes of more vintage music and culture. Silkily singing classics like Summertime, the blue-eyed Canadian, Laura Hamilton, proved to Bombay's Taj what Coco Chanel was to the Ritz Paris. Arriving with World War II, the Indophile friend of DRD and JRD Tata introduced the Malabar boutique at the hotel in 1962. Purveyor of customised clothing, traditional textiles and beautiful furniture, the elegant store continues being tended by Sarita Goswamy and Dimple Ahuja, familiar faces at Malabar from the Taj. Every decoration on their Christmas tree, displayed for decades of Decembers now, was handpicked by Hamilton.
A rotating neon sign advertising Thums Up. Pic/Jhaveri Family
Stone Building, once Poonamchand Ghashiram Building, alluding to the pearl merchant Rajasthani clan owning it, presents delicate balcony grilles and impeccable Italian marble interiors. "Old Chowpatty was Koli territory. We played with their children," shares Shailesh Sheth, sitting with his brothers in their maternal grandparents' flat, from where they waved to downtown-bound royals and dignitaries, popes and moonwalkers.
Originally from Jamnagar, the Sheths understate an exciting cinema legacy. Their maternal grandfather, Dayaram Shah, was the elder brother of Chandulal Shah of Ranjit Movietone, the greatest institution of the studio era with Bombay Talkies, New Theatres and Prabhat Films. Dayaram, who brought Chandulal to films, was the publicity manager of Ardeshir Irani's Majestic Theatre and later scenarist at Ranjit. Producing silent sagas from 1929, Ranjit Film Company bannered 40 social melodramas laced with mythology by 1932 when, with the advent of sound, it converted to Ranjit Movietone, which remained active till the 1960s.
Chandulal Shah's offerings featured Glorious Gohar, the Lahore-born heroine Gohar Mamajiwala he was also personally involved with. She was successful from her debut, the family-oriented Fortune and the Fools, risked in the age of action flicks. Chandulal organised celebrations for the 1939 silver and 1963 golden jubilee of the film industry. President of the Film Federation of India formed in 1951, he then headed a delegation to Hollywood.
Not unlike some other tycoons associated with these grand buildings, the movie mogul passed away penniless. Sad to think his studio boasted the legends Gohar, Motilal, Madhuri, Khurshid and KL Saigal on its payroll and of whom it was declared, "There are more stars in Ranjit than in the heavens."
When a rotating neon Thums Up sign sat atop Fulchand Niwas
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