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Hip, hep, and HUNDRED

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel too can claim to be the Gateway of India, having preceded the latter monument by two decades.

The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel too can claim to be the Gateway of India, having preceded the latter monument by two decades.  

WHAT SIGHT first captivated foreign visitors sailing into Bombay harbour in late 1903? It was the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which predated the Gateway to India by over 20 years. That's a centenary of superfine hospitality that Bangalore's glitterati gathered to celebrate at the Taj West End on September 18 with champagne and martini-laced nostalgia.

Built at a cost of �5,00,000 by the visionary Jamsetji N. Tata after he was snubbed by a British hotel on our soil, it welcomed its first 17 guests on December 16, 1903. Today, having metamorphosed into India's largest global hotel company, it boasts of 52 hotels at 34 cross-country locations, besides 12 international properties.

Refurbished and renovated to mark the anniversary, the grand dame of Indian hotels was originally conceptualised by two Indian architects, Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya and D.N. Mirza, and executed by a radical English engineer and architect, W.A. Chambers. By 1973, a 23-storey Tower Wing by American architect, Melton Bekker, sprung up alongside the original hotel, melding with its ornate style. Within its imposing edifice, amalgamating Moorish domes and Florentine styles, Oriental and Rajput influences, came a succession of hotel firsts.

Hip, hep, and HUNDRED

These included its initial 30 private suite-apartments and four electric passenger lifts, the renamed Mumbai's first licensed bar, India's first 24-hour restaurant, and its first international discotheque. Imagine a more hip, hep, and happening destination over the past 100 years! Truly, as the press release outlines, the hotel has "a story to tell behind every pillar, a tale to narrate past every corridor, a celebration under every awning." For instance, the hotel doubled as a 600-bed hospital during World War I!

Its memorabilia spans hosting literary legends such as George Bernard Shaw, Irving Stone, Somerset Maugham, and Barbara Cartland. And music icons such as Yehudi Menuhin, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Mick Jagger. And a political who's who from abroad, including Margaret Thatcher, Prince Charles, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Bill Clinton.

But they might prove just a footnote to the luminaries of the Indian Freedom Movement. Both Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Sarojini Naidu held court in Taj suites, while Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were frequent visitors. It's anybody's guess who proved more dazzling — the political luminaries or the visiting Indian royals from princely states. These legends came alive for us through Zafar Hai's gently reminiscent, wit-laced, 50-minute film, The Taj of Apollo Bunder, scripted by historian Sharada Dwivedi, voiced impeccably by Roshan Seth as the distinctive Taj persona.

Jamshedji Tata, who spiritedly built the hotel after he was refused admission in a British hotel.

Jamshedji Tata, who spiritedly built the hotel after he was refused admission in a British hotel.  

We learnt of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's closed doors interlude, and how a bed had to be elongated to accommodate the lanky Gregory Peck. Hungry for more? The Mountbattens would arrive at the hotel incognito for ham and eggs. A 10-course banquet for the Maharaja of Bikaner included over 200 of the Indian royal fraternity as invitees. These titbits were garnished with lore of spies, sultry sirens, suicides, and how the hotel's front and rear were eventually interchanged.

Bangalore was the last leg of the centenary celebrations, hosted earlier with equal fanfare at Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkata, and Chennai. The meticulous detailing proved the icing on the cake. Such as London-based sitarist Ustad Nishat Khan's brief but memorable rendering of Raag Yaman Bilawal, with its haunting, lyrical strains (though marred by the ubiquitous cellphone!). And the row of vintage cars in the driveway that marked the passage of time. And a photographic walk down memory lane in the lobby that captured Lord Mountbatten's speech at the Taj two days after Indian independence, the film posters that fronted the early reception desk, and the wonders of the magnificent Crystal Room. That's besides the magnificent spread laid out with cocktails — oysters on the shell, lobster and prawns done to perfection, a sushi bar, momos and dimsum, a tongue-boggling array of kebabs, and desserts to die for. There was even a mysterious take-home gift in a silvery bag that seemed destined only for businessmen in grey suits (the presiding beauties studiously ignored unaccompanied single women!).

As the Taj staff, past and present, grew misty-eyed with nostalgia, the legend grew before our very eyes. Some stoked their fires on regalia from their Udaipur property. Others like Naozar Daruwala, who later founded the Crimson Art Gallery, shared their pride by association with the annals of history. Their fellow celebrants included filmmakers and advertising gurus, corporate honchos and banking professionals, entrepreneurs and IT achievers. All in a heady mood from wine and exotic cheeses, trading Taj tales from childhood and comparing notes on stocks and trends.

The sumptuous interiors of the hotel. The Mountbattens would arrive incognito for ham and eggs.

The sumptuous interiors of the hotel. The Mountbattens would arrive incognito for ham and eggs.  

Throughout the memorable evening, Pep Kumar, General Manager, Taj West End, resplendent in a grey Paithani sari, constantly enquired if individual guests were enjoying the do. Her graciousness was perfectly attuned to Jamshedji's philosophy, now the chain's underlying principle — that every guest is god.

If the Taj group can keep its philosophy in focus, a bicentennial celebration with our descendents will not seem a mere pipe dream. Because, to Mumbaikars and Indians at large, the Taj Mahal Palace is more than a mere pioneering hotel. It stands testimony to our heritage. And witness to an era.

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