The year was 1952. It was five years after India became an independent nation and Bombay was buzzing with optimism. People were getting used to not seeing uniformed British officers patrolling the streets. The Taj Mahal Hotel, a landmark hotel in Colaba and an architectural marvel built by Jamsetji Tata in 1903, was putting out advertisements in newspapers, announcing that there were telephones in each of its 300 rooms.
The city was a heady tableau of confident Victorian-Gothic architecture, Indo-Saracenic design and the occasional Baroque structures, with cast-iron balustrades and chandeliers thrown in for good measure. Buildings of note which then called for attention, and still do, were the imposing Victoria Terminus with its stained-glass window panels, the domed structures of the General Post Office, the grand entrance to the country – the Gateway of India, and the striking Rajabai Clock Tower.
Commerce in the city thrived in the general area of Fort, with university and court complexes, government offices and the Bombay Stock Exchange operating in and around it. Art Deco architecture too had already left its mark on the city’s then-not-so-high skyline – in cinema houses and apartment buildings on the wide sea-facing boulevard of Marine Drive and around Oval Maidan. People rode beautiful, wood-panelled elevators to go up and down these buildings. And if you try, you can almost picture the people in them, checking their analogue watches and exchanging sideway glances and awkward silences.
In a time before the Indian states were reorganised linguistically, the State of Bombay included large parts of present-day Maharashtra along with parts of modern-day Gujarat and Karnataka. There were several important people, all of whom had different ideas about Bombay’s future on the map of India. While some wanted it to remain a separate city-state, others wanted Bombay to be the capital of a Marathi-speaking state. These growing differences would come to a head a few years later. After a brief, compromising stint as a bilingual state and after much bloody strife and struggle, Bombay would become the capital of Maharashtra only eight years later, in 1960.
In 1952, trams and double-decker buses that looked like little Art Deco buildings in motion weaved through streets peppered with the occasional Cadillacs, Jeeps, Fords, Premier Dodges, bicycles, haath gaadis and horse-drawn carriages, popularly called Victorias. Officers of the police force of Bombay, including constables, wore tasteful navy-blue uniforms and roamed the streets, while the force in surrounding areas wore khaki instead. Most steam-engine trains had already been replaced with electric ones and they ferried millions of people even then. Black-and-yellow taxi cabs in different sizes could be hailed on the streets to go places.
People sent telegrams and wrote long, detailed letters to one another. At the time, the city’s population was roughly 33 lakh (for scale, the number currently stands at 2.04 crore). When it first rained on Thursday, 29th May, the whole city collectively squinted up at the sky and scattered to find cover. Freedom from colonialism bred culture, and enterprises sprang up everywhere.
That same year, India had its first brush with what it meant to be a democracy and announced the results of its first General Elections held in 1951-52. Instead of reserving the right to vote for men of property and crawling towards democracy like most newly independent countries, in a robust act of faith, India under the guidance of Jawaharlal Nehru, rushed head-first into the democratic process, even though 85 per cent of the electorate did not know how to read or write at the time.
Despite the dazzling diversity of opposition parties including the popular Socialist Party and the Hindu-inclined Jana Sangh, the Congress won a comfortable majority of votes to secure its place as the ruling party, and Nehru continued his term as Prime Minister. The first Lok Sabha was convened and presented with the first Five Year Plan for the development of the country.
It wasn’t all good, though. In 1952, the country was still reeling from the effects of Partition. Bombay, too, had felt a change in landscape with the arrival of millions of refugees, primarily from Sindh, Punjab and the North-Western Frontier. Although the city had set up refugee camps to facilitate this mass migration, given that these were people who were previously used to having large tracts of profitable land, the conditions at these camps left much to be desired. Thousands slept on pavements and in hastily built shanties. Interestingly, though, adversity for some led to innovation. Kailash Parbat, for instance, the vegetarian chain of restaurants that has been a household name for decades, was conceptualised in a Sindhi refugee camp in Chembur – in 1952.
Meanwhile, Morarji Desai took over as Chief Minister of Bombay State in the same year. With his puritanical ways came stricter prohibition laws and Bombay was barred from selling and consuming alcohol without a liquor permit. Permits could be acquired only with great difficulty and even then, only for medical reasons. The prevailing wisecrack of the time noted that the government had taken the ‘pub’ out of the republic, leaving only a ‘relic’.
Naturally, people found ways around this forced disruption and the black market began to flourish. ‘Aunty bars’ sprang up in the living rooms of Goan Catholic ‘aunties’ all across the city, to fill the void with illicit hooch. As always, the economic principle of ‘where there is demand, there is supply’ reigned supreme.
Business at the time was booming. Bombay saw an increase in production of and employment in industries including pharmaceuticals, electronics, automobiles, typewriters, oil refineries, pesticides and dyestuffs. Textile mills with smoking chimneys in the centrally located skyline of Parel and Worli produced the best and cheapest cotton in the world, and generally added to the din of the city.
In the same year – 1952 – doctors in Bombay discovered a rare blood type in an effort to help a patient whose body refused to accept any of the standard blood types. Finally, a Bombay woman’s blood was found to be the right match. Technically called ‘hh’, it is more commonly called the ‘Bombay blood type’. Once again, a Bombay aunty came to the rescue, albeit in a different way. Even now, donors of this blood type continue to be sought after in view of its rarity.
The Kamala Nehru Park, in the Hanging Garden complex at Malabar Hill, was inaugurated and hailed by the Times of India newspaper in 1952 as “a fairyland with a waterfall that culminates in a pond from which fountains play, a bird house, a built-in fish tank and a bridge spanning the cliffs overlooking the city’s south-west coastline”.
In the world of sports, 1952 turned out to be one of the more eventful years in Indian history. K D Jadhav, a Maharashtrian boy from Kolhapur, won India’s first-ever individual Olympic medal – a bronze in freestyle bantamweight wrestling at the Helsinki Games. The Helsinki Olympics also had two Indian women participating for the first time – Nilima Ghose and Mary D’Souza – and the country won its fifth hockey gold medal, with Balbir Singh Sr as its brightest star. That same year, Rita Davar finished as runner-up at the junior Wimbledon and Gool Nasikwala won the women’s singles and doubles titles at the inaugural Asian Table Tennis Championships in Singapore.
Cricket’s most passionate rivalry too began in 1952, with India hosting Pakistan’s first Test tour.
Of the five matches that were played in the series, Bombay’s Brabourne Stadium hosted the third. India ended up winning the series 2-1.
The cultural evolution of the city is just as important. Although Bombay had always been a confluence of cultures in a swirling state of flux, during this time, the city was busily building its heritage. While the Taraporewala Aquarium was opened in 1951, just a year later, Jehangir Art Gallery was established by The Bombay Art Society, on the grounds of the Prince of Wales Museum. It quickly became a landmark art institution in the country, showcasing works ranging from prolific artists such as M F Hussain, Akbar Padamsee and S H Raza to local artists and students. With this, Kala Ghoda sealed its reputation as the art district of the city.
‘Bombay’ became synonymous with Hindi films as Lahore became a part of Pakistan and Calcutta transitioned to Bengali cinema. Films starring Dilip Kumar, Madhubala, Dev Anand, Meena Kumari and Raj Kapoor dominated the Hindi film industry and the city happily went to the talkies to watch.
Curiously, it was also in this year that All India Radio stopped broadcasting Hindi film music. The Information & Broadcasting Minister was of the view that they were vulgar, and Indian classical music should be given more importance. Again, a vacuum was created and almost immediately filled in beautifully by Radio Ceylon’s Binaca Geetmala, a Wednesday broadcast dedicated entirely to Hindi film music and trivia. Ultimately, Bombay got what it wanted on Sri Lankan radio instead.
Parallelly, in an effort to open India’s doors to the world at large, the first Indian International Film Festival was held in the city – with attendees from all over the world.
The affluent in the city, with mansions at Malabar Hill, were going to elite clubs like Bombay Gymkhana, Willingdon Club, Breach Candy Club, Cricket Club of India and the WIAA Club, to fritter away their evenings, gamble and chance upon friends.
Jazz was the world’s pop music then and excited the city’s elite. Bombay jazz greats like Chic Chocolate and Rudy Cotton performed at the Taj Mahal Hotel, at dinner parties and even composed music for Hindi films. In the evenings, well-dressed men and women with bouffants and flowers in their hair went out to dance to their tunes, in an era of easy cosmopolitan sophistication. Everyone smoked cigarettes all the time.
Late in 1952, a wad of 12 pages held together by staple pins made its way to jazz fans in Bombay and thereafter to a few major cities across the country. This sheaf of loose leaves and wild ambition was Blue Rhythm, the first jazz magazine of the country. It was a labour of love of a few Bombay boys, fresh out of college, who had grown up listening to jazz.
Their ranks included Niranjan Jhaveri – a prominent promoter, writer and lover of jazz till the very end; Jehangir Dalal, Coover Gazdar, Yusuf Curmally, whose family owned the iconic record store Rhythm House; and the future lawyer, Soli Sorabjee. Unfortunately, the magazine only managed to remain in publication for a year because the boys moved on with their own lives and the city with its own.
All these events continued to happen, not one after another but all in the same year, in the same place, and the music never stopped. The people of Bombay continued to thrive, laugh, argue, deteriorate and decay in the ordinary course of business. People sat in their balconies, sipped tea, planned weddings, built things, came home from work and gravely examined their finances. They got sick when the monsoon arrived, ate sweets on festivals, and fought each other at home, on the roads and in the courts.
Through its centuries-long lifespan, Bombay has seen conquests, riots, recession, pollution, crumbling governments and people coming in, year after year, after year. This, then, was only one year, seen horizontally to reiterate the importance of context.
So much has changed now. Bombay is no longer a state. The key players in most of these stories have passed away. Jazz was soon replaced with rock and roll, then disco and later electronic music, to echo the spirit of the city. The mills shut down and the wooden elevators are now all but gone. Trams, double-decker buses and elegant cars of the past are labelled ‘vintage’. The police took to wearing khaki and it’s hard to remember a time when the good people of Bombay could not drink by law. That era has passed.
But the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Despite its perpetual skirmish between the old and the new, Bombay (now Mumbai) continues to be known for the things it was known for even in 1952 – the Gateway of India, the Victoria Terminus station (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), Hindi films (now Bollywood), the Taj Mahal Hotel (although there are now several Taj hotels in the city), black-and-yellow taxis, its local trains and the people they ferry.
Like all great cities, Bombay has managed to hold steady even while changing with easy fluidity.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Isha Maniar is a lawyer turned writer, based out of Bombay, the city she writes in and about.
An effort like this needs your support. No contribution is too small and it will only take a minute. We thank you for pitching in.