Oddities, Eccentricities, etc.



Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata


n his visit to the United States in September 1902, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata excited the insatiable curiosity of American newspaper reporters, wrote Frank Harris in the first (published in 1925) and thoroughly researched biography of the great industrialist. Jamsetji also fired the imagination of these journalists, for quite often they made him out to be other than he was. "A jolly good fellow," one Cleveland writer is quoted as saying, "the J.P. Morgan of the East Indies," whose partner was "the Nizam of Hyderabad"… "So rich that he has little idea

of his own wealth, his possessions even exceeding those of the late Li Hung Chang, who was reckoned the richest man in the world"… The Birmingham Ledger is quoted as stating that "he enjoys the distinction of having refused to be knighted by Queen Victoria at the sacrifice of his religion" and asserted that "he wore a large diamond in his shirt"… The Birmingham News was much more sedate and on the whole more accurate also, but insisted on christening him "John N. Tata".

Frank Harris maintains, however, that some sketches were admirably done and did justice to the great Indian industrialist. The Washington Post, for example, described him as "a merchant prince, manufacturer and importer and likewise philanthropist, scholar and philosopher". On the other hand, in New York, an interviewer one day followed him into a shop where he was buying some boots. Jamsetji refused to be interviewed by him. But the next day a New York newspaper gravely announced that "the Pierpont Morgan of the East was trying to acquire a monopoly of the American boot trade"!

Among the many achievements to Jamsetji's credit, the most widely known and appreciated is the Taj Mahal Hotel, opened in 1903, which has come to be ranked over the years as one of the world's finest hotels in the five-star company of Shepherds in Cairo, Raffles in Singapore and the Peninsula in Hong Kong (see box below).

It was in Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, however, that Jamsetji found precisely the advice and help he had been seeking to fulfil his long-cherished dream of establishing a steel industry in India. Writes Harris: "Pittsburgh ranks first among the cities of the U.S.A. in the manufacture of iron and steel products, of which it sends forth more than 50 per cent of the output of the whole country. It stands in the midst of productive coal-fields, and absorbs a large proportion of the iron ore produced in the Lake Superior region. Its neighbourhood contains the chief plants of the immense United States Steel Corporation. It is the home of the Westinghouse Company, the famous organisation which manufactures electrical apparatus, air brakes, railway signals, and other devices." Impressed by the Indian visitor, Mr. Westinghouse entertained him privately at his residence, Solitude.

Above all, it was at Pittsburgh that Jamsetji encountered the man he had been seeking — Julian Kennedy, of the firm of Julian Kennedy, Sahlin and Co. Ltd., Engineers, one of the foremost metallurgical engineers in the world. It was his life's most fruitful encounter. "He told Mr. Tata that he must first institute a far more thorough and scientific investigation of the local conditions, the raw materials, and the markets of India, than he had hitherto done." Kennedy also recommended Charles Page Perin and his associate C.M. Weld to undertake the geological work. Jamsetji employed both the experts. Weld, in fact, started for Bombay immediately.

On his return to India, the aging Jamsetji entrusted the responsibility of concentrating upon the steel scheme to his son Dorabji who was one day to bring it to successful fruition. As Sir Stanley Reed, then Editor of The Times of India, wrote in his Introduction to Harris's biography, "It was Jamsetji's cherished belief that no country could become industrially great, which did not manufacture iron and steel, had no provision for first-class Science education and for hydro-electric schemes to provide cheap, clean power." Jamsetji died, however, before any of these three projects — the Iron and Steel Works at Jamshedpur, the Tata Hydro-electric Scheme and the Indian Institute at Bangalore — were established: "By the time Mr. Tata's own life was spent, the foundation work had been so well and truly accomplished, his sons and lieutenants were so firmly imbued with his own ideals, that the momentum he had given to these great ideas drove them irresistibly forward … Others reaped, but he sowed; the harvest is as assuredly his as if he had actually garnered the fruits of his careful, courageous, and imaginative


Courtesy: Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata: A Chronicle of His Life by Frank Harris. Published by Blackie & Son (India) Limited.

The taj of the Tatas

hen Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata's grand creation, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, opened in Bombay on 16 December, 1903, it stood in solitary splendour — on the all-quiet eastern waterfront. Each dawn, starbursts of the golden orb of day touched its magnificent onion-shaped cupolas, cusped arches and carved cornices; the moon over the midnight blue waters of the Arabian Sea sent in its silver through the 125.5 ft central cupola which stood vastly taller than the surrounding structures.

Its famous next-door neighbour — the honey-coloured basalt arch of the Gateway of India — did not exist. It was built on land reclaimed from the sea and inaugurated 21 years later! The Indian Electricity Act was still being framed by the British colonial masters, there was no telephone. The plebeians travelled by ox-drawn carts or in trams drawn by horses clip-clopping through the streets; the gentry used the horse-drawn victorias (carriages) or elegant gigs and landaus.

"Ahead of its time since 1903," states the Taj's motto. When the first 17 guests checked in, the Hotel was well ahead of its time! Scouring the cities of the world — London, Paris, Berlin, Dusseldorf — Tata imported for his luxurious hotel "the latest arrangements and contrivances". While the Hotel was being constructed, he had visited an exhibition in Dusseldorf and contracted with a German firm to electrify the Hotel at a cost of two annas per unit! The Taj was the first commercial establishment in Bombay to be electrified ("…and then the lights came on," by Goolam E. Vahanvati, advocate general of Maharashtra, published in The Taj, Volume 32, No. 1, Centenary Issue 2003). It had electric lights, fans, bells and clocks and four electric passenger lifts! Its laundry had electrically heated irons, the kitchens, cellars and services were of the latest type. The sanitation was modern; exotic Turkish baths enveloped guests in a cocoon of relaxed luxury. "A 15-ton carbon dioxide ice-making plant provided refrigeration and cooled suites of rooms, and the mechanical marvels of the Hotel were nicely rounded off by a soda water factory, an electroplating plant, machines for washing plates and burnishing silver…"

Photo courtesy: Fatima Zakaria, Editor, Taj Magazine.

Built at the then phenomenal cost of £500,000, World War I saw the Hotel being partly converted into a 600-bed hospital; it felt the reverberations of World War II and its economic aftermath. When India "awoke to life and freedom", the Taj took a while to find a fresh avatar in independent India. The elegant soirées, the live orchestras, the beat of the British regimental bands had made their passage out of India from the Gateway. In place of royal privy purses came the deep plastic of corporate clients; the lilt of the waltz and the swirling skirts were replaced by the dulcet notes of the shehnai, the red and gold of brocade and zardozi as welling guests swished their way up the staircase to the Crystal Room shimmering in the crystalline clarity of the enormous Belgian chandeliers.

History and the Hotel are intertwined. The rites of passage will go on with cosy conferences, international conventions, wedding nights spent in suites, golden anniversaries celebrated. The small picture changes, the large palette stands. One hundred years on, the Taj remains one of the most precious jewels in the Tata crown.

Extracts from "The taj of the Tatas" by Hilla P. Guzder published in Parsiana, October 2003, edited by Jehangir Patel.