Zeenat Aman, the Baronet of Bombay, and Lady Hamilton

I walked past the Mackinnon Mackenzie building, turned left and there it was. The famous studio named after Lady Margaret Elizabeth Hamilton, opened in 1928 by the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, Sir Ellice Victor Elias Sassoon, in a Renaissance revival style building designed by George Wittet for the Baronet to live in. This was the year before Victor Sassoon built a house for himself in Shanghai, where he eventually relocated after fueling a real estate frenzy at the Bund. Lady Hamilton’s husband, Sir Daniel Hamilton had been chief of Mackinnon Mackenzie before he became a reformist, developed a close relationship with Rabindranath Tagore, and his village development project was written up by Mahadev Desai, secretary to Mahatma Gandhi in his newspaper, Harijan. George Wittet was by then the pre-eminent architect in the city, having designed the neo-classical Institute of Science, the Indo-Saracenic Museum, and the Renaissance revival Port Trust Building and many of the buildings in this place, Ballard Estate.

And the connection to Zeenat Aman, a model and a beauty queen, before she became India’s sweetheart? All in good time. First the studio had to establish itself as the fashion destination for the ladies and the lords, the maharanis and rajas, the shakers and the salt of Mumbai. Then, thirty years later, it had to pass on to Ranjit Madhavji, a young and upcoming portraitist from Dadisett Lane in Girgaum, along with the archive, which is now being digitized and archived by the British Library.

Ranjit Madhavji is now regarded as one of the great masters of portraits, “the Yousuf Karsh of Bombay” according to some. But he was still regarded as merely a fashionable society photographer when the teenaged Zeenat Aman came to have her photo taken by him. Madhavji would take his time getting acquainted with clients, chatting with them in a parlour hung with his older works. It was in such a conversation that he urged the young woman to take up a career in modeling.

I couldn’t see the parlour because I was there on a weekend, when the studio shuts its doors. The building was bought up by the National Textile Corporation, which initiated a long litigation to evict the famous tenant. I understand that the case has been settled in favour of Hamilton Studio, as long as it remains a studio. Now, as it nears its centenary as the second oldest studio in Mumbai, it still works as one.

6 o’clock at the Bund

The lights came on all along the Bund at precisely 6 in the evening. The western bank of the Huangpu turned into a bright gold colour which suits all the banks which look out on the river. The Family gasped, and I think a ripple ran through the crowd as everyone turned from looking across the river towards Pudong to behind them. The Family loves this area; ever since I’d proposed a trip to China, she had her heart set on an evening strolling along the Bund.

It’s worthwhile coming by early. We’d crossed Zhongshan East Road just before the sun set and seen the high walls of the bund covered in a vertical garden. The Bund is a flood control wall (as the Hindi word indicates) built in the 19th century at the time that Mumbai’s merchants, Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, and others, settled north of the Chinese town and poured money into developing this new city. This is a history that is slowly fading from the memories of both sides of the Himalayas, but deserves to be remembered.

The green coloured pyramidal roof that you see in the featured photo belongs to the Peace Hotel, formerly Victor Sassoon’s flagship Cathay Hotel. The domed building in that photo (at the extreme left) is the Bank of Taiwan. This stands on Jiujiang Road. Across the road (The nearest building in the photo above) is the Forex trading center, and then the large frontage of the Bank of Shanghai. A few more banks down there is an area full of nice bars with good views.

Across the river lights had slowly come on in the modern high-rises of Pudong. Unlike the Bund, these lights are not coordinated. This is a delightful sight, which The Family and I enjoy every time we see it. The 470 meter high bulb-on-a-stick of the Pearl Tower, the dark bulk of Shanghai Tower (at 632 meters, China’s tallest, and the second highest building in the world), and the bottle-opener shape of the 492 meter tall Shanghai World Financial Center dominate the view. We didn’t want to cross over to that side today. After chatting with groups of Indian tourists who needed someone to take their photos against this iconic background, we climbed down from the Bund.

We walked west along Fuzhou Road for a couple of blocks. This is an interesting part of Shanghai. Most of the buildings date from the late 19th century until the Japanese invasion. It is an urban historian’s delight, with beautiful buildings and interesting histories. Unfortunately, Shanghai’s Museum of Urban Planning does not say much about this area. I would love to walk around this part of the city with a detailed guidebook of a kind that does not yet exist. It would certainly be as interesting as walking around Manhattan south of the 59th street. At the crossing of Jiangxi middle road and Fuzhou Road we came to this interesting set of buildings openings into a circle. We took a few photos and walked north.

Two blocks northwards is East Nanjing Road, the spectacular pedestrian shopping street which is usually so crowded; the lack of crowds indicated peak dinner time. We walked away from the Bund towards the warren of streets with interesting restaurants closer to Renmin Park. Ahead of us, the double spires of Shinmao International Plaza rose almost a hundred meters from the roof of the building to touch the 333 meter mark. This would be tall anywhere else, but in Shanghai it is an also-ran.

The Baron of Bombay in Shanghai

Charmed by Guangzhou, we landed again in Shanghai. In some ways this remains our favourite Chinese city. We’d taken a hotel on Nanjing Road for the night since The Family wanted to stroll again on the Bund. Unknown to most Chinese, Shanghai bears a close connection with India, especially in the 70 years between the American Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. This was a time when Indian merchants traded extensively with India. The word bund, is of course, a Hindi word meaning a flood control wall. That’s exactly what Shanghai’s Bund was built to be. Another connection is with Mumbai, through Victor Sassoon, the 3rd Baronet of Bombay, who in the 1920s and 30s invested several millions of US dollars (of that time) in Shanghai, created a real estate boom, and is said to have owned 1800 separate properties in downtown Shanghai. The Baronet was different from other traders. His family had sunk money into the development of Bombay in previous generations. Now he put his wealth to work at the development of Shanghai.

The most famous of his properties is the one originally called the Cathay Hotel, and now the Fairmont Peace Hotel (featured photo). Sometimes called the Sassoon House, this first high rise structure in Shanghai was completed in 1929. The Art Deco building has a granite face, and a pyramidal roof on the Bund-facing side. The hotel’s guests included Charlie Chaplin, Bernard Shaw, and Noel Coward (who wrote his play Private Lives while he was here). During the Cultural Revolution the Gang of Four stayed here. When I told The Family about its once-famous Jazz Bar, she wondered whether we should go in for a drink. As we discussed this, she turned and found that we were standing in front of an obviously Art Nouveau structure. This is the southern half of the Peace Hotel, and was called the Palace hotel when it was completed in 1908.

We pushed through the revolving doors into the lobby and took a few photos as a bemused guard looked on. This hotel once had Sun Yat Sen as a guest, and was later commandeered by the occupying Japanese Army. I wondered whether the elevators here run in their original channels. This building, after all, had the first elevators in Shanghai. The mechanism would have been replaced long back, but it is unlikely that the lift shaft would have been reconstructed. We gawped, and then slipped away to the Bund.