27, 39 and 67 Pedder Road's tryst with 20th-century Bombay

Sep 23, 2018, 09:02 IST | Meher Marfatia

Maharashtrian pioneers on this street contributed to medicine, music, industry and sport in 20th-century Bombay

27, 39 and 67 Pedder Road's tryst with 20th-century Bombay
Madhav Apte and wife Sheela at Woodlands, where the veteran cricketer grew up in the bungalow by the same name

Meher MarfatiaA pithy address: 39 Pedder Road. Home to a great city father — doctor and social reformer extraordinaire, who introduced three radical women's rights laws, was the force behind KEM Hospital, founder of the Indian Medical Association and Bombay's first mayor after Independence. Dr Gopalrao Deshmukh has his illustrious name assigned to Pedder Road which originally honoured 1879 municipal commissioner WG Pedder.

"We've seen wonderful times here," says Deshmukh's granddaughter Nisha Joshi of their former two-storey house. A circling path led to 15 marble steps crowned by an immense foyer. I chat with the family at Kalpataru building which replaced Plot 39. The good doctor bought the bungalow on Mahashivratri day in 1929 from Dr Homi Bhabha whose guesthouse it used to be. Bhabha's next-door birthplace, Kenilworth, is now the Department of Atomic Energy quarters.

On the wall behind hang rare memorabilia including a limited edition lithograph of WG Grace and signed photograph of Sir Don Bradman. Pic/Bipin Kokate
On the wall behind hang rare memorabilia including a limited edition lithograph of WG Grace and signed photograph of Sir Don Bradman. Pic/Bipin Kokate

"We were spoiled princesses," laughs Mangala Nath, another granddaughter. "If I bunked school, Papuji took me to Willingdon where he golfed so regularly, I thought he owned the club." Nisha's sister, Dr Anandi Sawant, recalls, "Our entrance extended till today's road divider. For Queen Elizabeth's visit, he switched the gate lights on full beam and pulled a sofa outside for us to properly view her!"

In preceding years of freedom fervour, Deshmukh was Tilak's doctor and close ally. He dispensed a donation in 1947 for Lokmanya Tilak (Sion) Hospital, whose maternity ward came to be named after Deshmukh's wife Annapurna. President of the Municipal Corporation for 1928-29, Deshmukh formed the Indian Medical Association with Dr Jivraj Mehta from Bombay, and Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy and Dr Nilratan Sircar of Calcutta.

The Apte family in their earlier Woodlands home, the old Woodlands residence at 67 Pedder Road, redesigned by architects Master Sathe and Bhuta in 1939
The Apte family in their earlier Woodlands home, the old Woodlands residence at 67 Pedder Road, redesigned by architects Master Sathe and Bhuta in 1939

"He was physician to Gandhiji, Motilal, Jawaharlal and Kamala Nehru, Jinnah, Rajendra Prasad, MM Malaviya and SP Mukherjee," says grandson Ravi Pandit. "Exciting secret hideouts beneath the bungalow sheltered patriots like Achyut and Raosaheb Patwardhan."

From a Vidarbha agricultural family, 1883-born Deshmukh moved to Nagpur for better education opportunities. Meeting a Bombay friend at Grant Medical College, he was awed by the institution's imposing porch archway and decided to qualify for a degree. He enjoyed the city's theatre scene enough to watch 100 shows of Guna Sundari at Pila House.

Woodlands

In London for his MD-FRCS, he travelled to Birmingham to observe pancreatic specialist Jordan Lloyd, who threatened to resign if Deshmukh was not appointed his house surgeon — prejudice then prevented a non-Englishman from being appointed to the post. Returning to pursue both a practice and politics, he operated from King Edward Memorial Hospital, Parel. At his urging Seth Gordhandas Sunderdas for support, GS Medical College opened in 1926, its motto "Non sibi, sed omnibus (Not for self, but for all)" seeming to echo Deshmukh's philosophy.

In the Central Assembly he piloted path-breaking feminist bills: the Hindu woman's right to property, right to separate residence and right to divorce under certain circumstances. Where he finally lay to rest in 1963 was also his gift to Bombay, having prevailed on the authorities to install its first electric crematorium at Chandanwadi.

Asha bungalow inhabitants, Vikas Desai, Vasant Desai and Motiramshet Desai, felicitating Ganpatrao Andalkar on winning his first title, Hind Kesari, in 1960 – the wrestler who then went on to break international records, just passed away this week. Sports lover and patron, Motiramshet kitted badminton players of the Thomas Cup teams and regularly welcomed cricket legends at his home
Asha bungalow inhabitants, Vikas Desai, Vasant Desai and Motiramshet Desai, felicitating Ganpatrao Andalkar on winning his first title, Hind Kesari, in 1960 – the wrestler who then went on to break international records, just passed away this week. Sports lover and patron, Motiramshet kitted badminton players of the Thomas Cup teams and regularly welcomed cricket legends at his home

I write this in Ganpati week, after a puja at the residence of the warmest friends ever, whose iconic hub was 27 Pedder Road. Asha, the 8,000-square foot bungalow filmmaker Vikas Desai's father Motiramshet purchased in the 1940s, was where Ganesh celebrations were traditionally monumental. From 1956, when Vikas' musician uncle Vasant Desai lived there, devotion to Bappa the Benevolent was marked by mellifluous mehfils.

At least 200 people sat on gaddis, enchanted by the consummate artistry of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Amir Khan, Salamat Ali and Nazakat Ali Khan, Vasantrao Deshpande and Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. Raju Bharatan notes in A Journey Down Melody Lane: "As someone of Bhimsen Joshi's vocal stature performed in this composer's abode, you were gripped by a terrific sense of atmosphere."

Filmmaker Vikas Desai stands outside Parag building which was once Asha, the bungalow he occupied with his parents and music composer uncle Vasant Desai. Pic/Ashish Raje
Filmmaker Vikas Desai stands outside Parag building which was once Asha, the bungalow he occupied with his parents and music composer uncle Vasant Desai. Pic/Ashish Raje

Classically committed in a chimerical industry, Vasant Desai laced lilt with soul for cinema doyens like his guru V Shantaram. The maestro set to suspenseful music, Shaque, his nephew's debut thriller. In his days at Pune's Film and Television Institute, Vikas brought home to live at Asha the entire student unit allotted to shoot his diploma film. Two years his FTII junior, Jaya Bhaduri too often stayed at this bungalow when she came to Bombay.

Vikas is the great-grandson of Anant Shivaji Desai Topiwala, whose eminent grandson Motiramshet funded Topiwala National Medical College, nobly signing a blank cheque in 1946, on which Congressman SK Patil filled "Rs 5,00,000". Anant Shivaji had left Walawal village in Sawantwadi at 11, a rupee rattling in his pocket. Single-minded slog earned him repute as Bombay's best hat maker as well as the sole agent for Raja Ravi Varma lithographs.

Portrait of Dr Gopalrao Deshmukh (seated centre) with his family in the front garden of their bungalow: left to right are his granddaughters Anandi and Jyotsna, and daughter Sushila Pandit with her son Ravi, grandson Atchut Talwalkar with his mother Kamal and sister Asha, behind whom are Deshmukh's granddaughters Nisha and Mangala. Deshmukh's sons-in-law Dr Vasantkumar Pandit and Dr Makarand Talwalkar stand flanking a relative
Portrait of Dr Gopalrao Deshmukh (seated centre) with his family in the front garden of their bungalow: left to right are his granddaughters Anandi and Jyotsna, and daughter Sushila Pandit with her son Ravi, grandson Atchut Talwalkar with his mother Kamal and sister Asha, behind whom are Deshmukh's granddaughters Nisha and Mangala. Deshmukh's sons-in-law Dr Vasantkumar Pandit and Dr Makarand Talwalkar stand flanking a relative

Motiramshet, who pioneered anodized aluminium and velvet fabric, was a passionate sports patron (badminton star Wong Peng Soon, the first Asian to win the All-England Championships, was a visitor at Asha) and contributed generously to anyone in need. The ground plus one level structure catching his graceful wife Sunita's fancy was fronted by a garden, cavernous halls leading to bedrooms and a cozy overhang space Vikas studied in, Mickey the Alsatian faithfully at his feet.

"From the age of five, I'd sit in meetings my Kaka had at our house with leading poets, lyricists, writers and directors," Vikas says. His concert duty was to stand welcoming guests at the gate up to 1.30 am and he remembers serving Bismillah Khan's troupe water and tea as the Ustad rehearsed for Goonj Uthi Shehnai in one of Asha's massive halls.

Gopalrao's grandchildren Ravi Pandit, Mangala Nath, Anandi Sawant and Sharmila Sunny. Pic/Ashish Raje
Gopalrao's grandchildren Ravi Pandit, Mangala Nath, Anandi Sawant and Sharmila Sunny. Pic/Ashish Raje

The ambience of the bungalow was enhanced quite differently by Vasant Desai, avers badminton legend Nandu Natekar — "Asha was my second home. When I arrived late for a performance, tabla player Vasant Achrekar seated me right beside him — such kind interest in everyone attending."

An octogenarian at street end, No. 67, just before the Kemps Corner flyover humps up, proffers a dramatic parallel between music and sport. Twinkle-eyed Madhav Apte quips, "In a few years T20s may squeeze out ODIs. Test cricket is like khayal gayaki, while this is pop music." In his penthouse atop Woodlands, the veteran cricketer rewinds to early years in the bungalow the Aptes occupied on this site from 1939.

The vast 11,300 square yards' premises were replete with a cricket pitch, tennis and badminton courts fringing the mansion. Scenes far removed from noisy Khatryachi chawl at Sandhurst Road where Madhav's grandfather, Vaman Shridhar Apte, of Rajapur near Ratnagiri, settled in 1900. "There you heard the trundling sound of trams and the tok-tok of horse-drawn Victorias led by men wearing red tassled fez caps. Families took joyrides to the Chowpatty sands, a sunset spot Girgaonkars gathered at. Mad about mangoes, we'd buy 120 of them called 'pucca shekda', perfect 100 (like a baker's dozen), for a single rupee."

From a job in Mulji Jetha, Asia's largest wholesale cloth market, Vaman Shridhar grew to hold sole agency for the Kohinoor Mills. VS Apte & Son introduced Madhav's father Laxman and this remained with them over half a century. When Dadasaheb Phalke reached out to VS Apte to become his financier, Phalke Films became Hindustan Films Company in 1918.

In 1938 the barrister, Sir NV Mandlik, residing in Hermitage at the Pedder-Altamont Road corner, offered the Aptes a choice between Woodlands, Cottage and Ashmore, properties belonging to him on this stretch. They moved into the gable-roofed first, thickly wooded with cashew, tamarind, jackfruit, neem and champa trees.

Winning Shield tournaments at Wilson High School, Madhav went on to score a century in his first Ranji Trophy match. He and his brother Arvind were soon among six or seven sibling pairs playing the game for India. Mysteriously dropped from the national team despite totting impressive figures in a West Indies series, the cricketer reveals in his autobiography, As Luck Would Have It, how chief selector Lala Amarnath had approached his father for the Delhi franchise of the family's mills. Laxmanrao politely declined. Never again picked to represent the country, Madhav immersed himself in the ancestral business.

"Our mills, Kohinoor and Laxmi Vishnu, and Phaltan Sugar factory, helped me connect widely with farmers and trade unionists. And cricket, a wonderful leveller, inculcated a sense of fair dealing with employees." What is an outstanding image from life in Woodlands? Looking out to Gowalia Tank maidan, on August 8, 1942, the Aptes heard stirring assertions of freedom stalwarts at the historic AICC session — "Even families not directly involved with that struggle were completely sympathetic to it. We were privileged living through the most inspiring times."

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes monthly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com/www.mehermarfatia.com

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