A walk on Broadway is like hitching a ride in a travelling circus. A surprise lurks at every corner and whether you like it or not, you are propelled forward in a sea of people, brightly coloured baubles and warm, comforting smells. Right from the turn of the 20th century, Broadway has been this—a throbbing nerve of Ernakulam, which attracted traders and customers from all over.
It was the only shopping street in Ernakulam, which had everything from a safety pin to clothes and hardware on offer. When the British took over Cochin from the Dutch, the market moved out of Mattancherry to Ernakulam. Several businessmen shifted to Broadway, which was one of the first macadamised roads in Ernakulam, perharps the reason why it got its name, says Vasudeva Shenoy of A.N. Guna Shenoy and Brothers hardware store. He is the great grandson of A.N. Guna Shenoy, who set up his hardware shop in Broadway around 140 years ago. “In its early days, the shop sold all kinds of building materials and sanitary ware including water buckets, most of them imported from Germany,” says Vasudeva Shenoy. Now, it sells hardware alone owing to shortage of manpower and space. The fireworks unit still functions within the store.
About 40 years ago, the point where Broadway tapers to an end (where the small bridge over the canal is) was a parking station for bullock carts. Shanmugham Road and the present day Marine Drive did not exist then. “In the place where today’s Oven (bakery) stands, was a giant banyan tree. It was also a jetty for country boats. So the place was known as Aalinkadavu,” reminisces Shenoy.
Broadway was a place where business thrived. A.S. Bawa and Sons has been in Broadway ever since the road existed. “They were the oldest tobacco and textile merchants in Ernakulam. They were also the wholesale dealers of Binnys silks, too,” says V.N. Venugopal, who retired as the head of Premier Tyres, Ernakulam. Some of the businesses died out or were rendered irrelevant by time. Lewis Hall, Venugopal says, was the house of former Anglo Indian timber merchant Alfred Lewis. Built in the 1915-16, the ground floor was rented out to the Indian Coffee House and the first floor to Indian Airlines. The White Hall Silk Palace, set up in the 1920s by a Muslim trader from Palakkad, too, was a textile hotspot. Broadway also had set of coveted tailors—J. Newfield and Company, which made the best three-piece suits at the time, Koya Hassan and the Bharatha Tailoring Company, which was famous for the uniforms it made for the State chauffeurs.
Those days, a watering hole was rare and tipplers even rarer. But if one must unwind, after a tiring day of shopping, C.P. Kunjuvareed and Sons general store on Broadway had a solution. “It had a small parlour on the first floor where people used to have a drink on the sly,” recalls Venugopal.
Valavi and Company is a survivor in the true sense. Started in 1899, the shop did business in paper, tyres and liquour imported from Europe. “It was only in 1940 that the shop shifted focus to wedding cards,” says Jose Valavi, the grandson of the founder. He has been doing business in Broadway for the last 30 years and feels the crowds have begun to thin.
Over time, the street welcomed more traders. The spice trade that was concentrated in Mattanchery, moved to Broadway. Today, it is a centre for buying spices at wholesale rates.
Moving with the times is important, feels Ganesh K., partner of T.A.K. Sankaranarayana Iyer and Brothers, a textile store established in 1917 on Cloth Bazar Road. The company has opened two new stores, one about four years ago and a another one, exclusively for salwar materials, about six months ago. The family of cloth merchants from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu came to Kochi. “It is said that during the Second World War, there was a shortage of clothes in Kerala,” says Ganesh. According to him, Broadway is still a shopper’s delight, just as it was before. “It creates the same magic,” says Ganesh. Despite the lack of packing space and the chaos, the partners never once felt the need to move out of Broadway. “Despite all the handicaps, we still have a loyal customer base that goes down generations,” says Ganesh.
Today, new generation shops selling top brands rub shoulders with ancient stores. According to the Ernakulam Merchants Union, Broadway today has 250 to 300 shops. The Corporation has mooted several renovation plans for Broadway. A heritage space, a shoppers’ street, pedestrian only pathway, to begin with. But till date, Broadway remains, welcoming a hundred people with a warm hug and a spicy kiss, history existing undisturbed in its lanes.