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.