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The Tata Founder contributed much to the development of India’s commercial capital, from setting up key industrial ventures in the city to supporting forums that nourished intellectual debate
Perhaps the grandest and most recognised of Jamsetji Tata’s tributes to his beloved city of Bombay (now Mumbai) remains the Taj Mahal Hotel. Standing tall and proud, overlooking the majestic Gateway of India, the hotel set up by the Founder of the Tata group has been more than just a witness to the life and times of this bustling city for some 110 years, its own existence often intertwined with the story and transformation of the metropolis itself.
When the hotel opened its opulent doors in 1903, it was a landmark on the Mumbai harbor (the Gateway of India became its neighbour 21 years later). With its awe-inspiring exteriors and luxurious interiors, including electric fans, elevators, Turkish baths and more, the Taj was every bit the dream that Jamsetji had set out to achieve: a hotel that Bombay would be proud of and which would attract tourists from across the world, a place where Indians would be welcome, in stark contrast to Watson’s Hotel, the city’s only five-star hotel before the Taj opened, which had an exclusive European clientele. Legend even has it that Jamsetji’s decision to start a hotel as grand as the Taj was on account of being denied entry to Watson’s Hotel.
While the Taj remains, to this day, unarguably the most well-known edifice associated with Jamsetji, what is lesser known is his contribution to several other important projects and initiatives, among them the reclamation of land from the sea, the establishment of some of the city’s most famous clubs and setting up key industrial ventures. These had a far-reaching impact on the social, political and economic development of Bombay.
The Founder also patronised a couple of other nonpolitical clubs, including the Excelsior and the Elphinstone, important addresses in the social life of contemporary Bombay, and a precursor to the club culture that would become such an integral part of the city’s unique social fabric. Here he would spend many an evening playing a game of chowpator, engaging in lively discussions with other members.
Reclamation of Land
Though not all his efforts were successful, there was much thought and commitment behind everything Jamsetji set out to do for the city that he adopted as his home after moving from Navsari, his place of birth.
Much before the Taj turned into reality, Jamsetji had been associated with a venture to reclaim land from the stretch of sea between the present-day Colaba and Malabar Hill. The Back Bay Reclamation Company was formed in 1863 with the grand idea of reclaiming around 1,500 acres of land; the driving force behind the plan was Premchand Roychand, a partner of Jamsetji and his father, Nusserwanji Tata.
After the initial excitement, the company collapsed due to a mix of factors, including the end of the American Civil War, the resurgence of the cotton industry in that country and, importantly, the lack of a sound financial plan to back the venture. The failed effort left a lasting impression on the young Jamsetji.
Frank Harris describes the episode in Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata: A Chronicle of His Life: “It was a landmark in his life. He saw how unsound finance could stifle a promising project; but his thoughts were turned to the advantage of reclaiming the swamps which fringed Bombay, and his son, Dorabji, can remember, as a boy, walking with his father round the abandoned works. In later life Mr Tata interested himself in various schemes for reclamation…”
Investing in Real Estate
Jamsetji saw huge potential in the city’s real estate. Recognising the need for suitable and affordable accommodation for Englishmen of modest means, he built a block of 16 flats, called Gymkhana Chambers, in the Fort area of Bombay. As his financial status improved, he started buying significant portions of land in the city, especially in its northern parts, which he was particularly keen on developing. He wanted to build houses that could be rented out at affordable rates, so as to reduce the congestion in the city.
However, after a prolonged battle with the prevailing administration over unreasonable building fines in the area, Jamsetji abandoned the plan and concentrated, instead, on the task of reclaiming vast tracts of land from the Mahim Creek, between the suburbs of Bandra and Santacruz. “The chief advantage I am looking forward to is the improvement in the health of Bombay consequent on the reclamation of drowned lands, the malarial exhalations from which are at present carried to Bombay island by the north wind,” he wrote in a letter to the collector (from Frank Harris’s Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata: A Chronicle of His Life).
Yet again, a protracted battle with authorities ensued, one that carried on well beyond Jamsetji’s lifetime.
More successful than the reclamation projects were some other tasks that Jamsetji took up to enrich the political and cultural landscape of Bombay. Along with his friend Pherozeshah Mehta, he set up the Ripon Club in Bombay in 1883, to create a platform for political debate in the country. He was also closely associated with the Bombay Presidency Association, another leading political forum (this was established in 1885).
Mr Harris, in his biography, recalls Sir Pherozeshah Mehta’s 1912 tribute, where the latter sought to dispel the notion that Jamsetji was largely apolitical: “The current notion that Mr Tata took no part in public life, and did not help and assist in political movements, is a great mistake. There was no man who held stronger notions on political matters, and though he could never be induced to appear and speak on a public platform, the help, the advice and the cooperation which he gave to political movements never ceased except with his life.”
Jamsetji played a pivotal role in setting up, in 1885, the Parsee Gymkhana, which offered a space for the promotion of athletics, sports and recreational activities. With its charming, old-world aura, the Parsee Gymkhana remains a landmark of modern-day Mumbai.
Mills for a cause
The year 1887 saw Jamsetji make yet another important investment in the future of Bombay, when he acquired the sick Dharamsi Mill in the then suburb of Kurla and renamed it Svadeshi Mills, in line with his nationalist belief that to be politically independent India needed to be economically self-reliant. The solution, he was convinced, lay in the industrialisation of the country. The next few years were full of struggle as Jamsetji tried to turn the outdated mill around, working relentlessly on upgrading technology, even as an acute shortage of labour made matters difficult.
A lesser individual would probably have abandoned the venture, but Jamsetji made sure that Svadeshi Mills lived up to the promise he saw in it. Not only did he invest in new machinery and the latest technology, but he also introduced a slew of employee welfare measures that he was already offering his staff at Empress Mills. Thus, Bombay saw some of the earliest efforts at creating a better deal for its workers, including mills with improved light and ventilation, accommodation with decent sanitation, grains at cost price, medical facilities as well as pension and provident funds. Svadeshi Mills even introduced an apprenticeship programme for graduates, offering them a chance to enhance their knowledge of the cotton industry, something unique for those times.
With a motivated workforce, better production facilities and the wholehearted commitment of Jamsetji, Svadeshi Mills lost no time in becoming a profitable venture, well known for the fine quality of its cotton yarn.
Jamsetji’s pioneering spirit, along with his travels and experiences across the world, ensured that Bombay had the opportunity to see some of the latest inventions and practices of the Western world. If he brought the finest of European hospitality to the city, first at his magnificent Esplanade House home and then the Taj Mahal Hotel, he also delighted the people of Bombay when his carriages were fitted with rubber tyres (his were among the first carriages to move around the city without creating a racket).
As early as 1901, he also brought one of the first motorcars to Bombay. “He loved an ingenious device,” Mr Harris says in his book. “Though he cared little for music, he bought an electric piano for his home. When the cinematograph first appeared, he acquired one at once. His purchases were made, not so much for himself, as to let India know what was new in the great world across the seas.”
Jamsetji took immense pride in his city, constantly looking for ways to make Bombay a better place for its residents and visitors. His contribution to the city didn’t stop at just creating some of the city’s most iconic structures; it went much beyond into the many dreams he had for the city. Some of these were realised, some failed, but all of them were born of a great love for the city he called home. In the words of Mr Harris, “He died, as he lived, a citizen of Bombay...”