Byline : Nisha JamVwal
Besides being a luxury brand consultant, columnist, writer, interior architect and social activist, Nisha JamVwal is also a hardcore and proud Mumbaikar. Here, she reminisces about the Taj Mahal Palace, nothing short of a landmark in Mumbai. In a column laced with emotional nostalgia, she talks about the inimitable splendour, the ultimate luxury and the undying spirit of the indomitable hotel.
It is cited in the same breath as the Eiffel Tower, the Place de Versailles and the Buckingham Palace – The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. For Mumbai folks and even internationally, ‘The Taj’ is nearly as big a point of reference as the Gateway of India; she is the ‘grand dame’ that represents our city.
Reminiscing to 26/11, I watched helplessly while she was in flames, gradually, then in spurts – and imagined myself killing the terrorists, tearing them limb by limb for violating my city, violating our space, for attempting to decapitate our beloved Taj. But ironically, The Taj only grew in stature post the tragedy. Like a beautifully classic tragedy queen, stunningly poignant in her extravagant re-enlivening. An iconic epoch of history and happenings in an equally dramatic city of contrasts.
The Taj was never merely a hotel, it is an institution inextricably linked to our lives and to our city’s history, an institution we are so proud of, and that we all feel we own a part of.
The Indian restaurant Tanjore was the destination for every Sunday lunch. I have been there in a pram, a stroller and then in a lace party frock. When I was three, I went onto the circular stage in the centre of the restaurant Tanjore, and broke into the steps of the Indian classical dancer in her ‘ghungroos’, much to the pride of my doting parents and the indulgent amusement of the other guests at the restaurant. My father loved the Thali and the classical dance at this iconic restaurant, so we were supposed to as well. I remember the waiter who served us then, and was still serving at the hotel until yesterday – just older and I guess, wiser – and yet treating me with the same indulgence that he did back then.
Just ten years ago, The Taj had come under siege, it had been a battleground for marauding fascists for a few nightmarish days, and the beloved structure and its people under attack, our city was at risk of losing a space as close to a living museum that this city possesses. A museum with a 24 foot Husain painting in its pristine white lobby, with Mughal architectural details of intricate motifs, gold inlay work, and niches from Shahjahanabad, the erstwhile mogul capital. Its intricate lobby, domes and panels that complement the calm marble fountain streams, no more that calm. Until it resurrected, to a more magnificent version of itself, its walls telling stories of great presidents, prime ministers, actors Hollywood and Bollywood, but now also stories of treacherous terrorists and great heroes who came together to save the hotel to its final victory. Some, who lost their lives in doing so.
The atmosphere of the hotel, its restaurants, the fragrance of The Taj, has endured and developed through the years – the ornate pillars, the gleaming marble floors, vaulted alabaster ceilings, onyx columns, graceful decorative archways – the facets and character which have only grown more charming in their exquisite magnificence over the years.
It all comes back to me today as I watch the Moorish, Oriental and Florentine style décor in my mind while writing this. I have lived here, on and off, for extended periods of my life – my father had a suite in the old wing that has been referred to, at various times in its long history, as the ‘Heritage’ wing and now the ‘Palace’ wing. I reminisce about the long swims in the pool, surrounded by flower bushes, which today has guests stretched across gleaming white loungers basking in the sun.
I reminisce the hotel staff that refused to leave in the time of crisis, that stayed on to live and die with the only home they knew, the same staff that has known only a life in service of this magnificent institution that they have created and given life to, the staff that I have seen since I was a child, and those that survived are there until today. Today, I watch in pride as our beloved dome that towers above the greater part of the Colaba skyline gleams happily, telling the story of dreams, fires, art, politics and the changing seascape with poetic nostalgia.
Life has such unpredictable twists and turns, one minute I am planning a wine-tasting dinner at the Crystal Room, and the next praying for its safety. Names flood my mind, those that served us, and many like us, for so many years – Ranga, Rathore, Uday, Neville-Debesh?
The magnificent art collection that dates all the way back to the early 1900s when the hotel was built, the rosewood and ebony and cedar furniture carefully curated over years and years from ancient India, France, England and the rest of Europe, the dramatic cantilevered stairway all date back to the sixties, but gleam delightfully in the tropical sunshine only enhanced by the seashore on the banks of which this magnificent hotel towers dramatically. Old and new. The palace wing and the ‘new’ wing- metaphorically speaking of life as it is- the newness and the ancient aspects which intertwine to make life so much more flavorful.
Soon, it will be Christmas and The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel will herald in the festive fervour with its famed delicate gilded angel with filigree wings which will swing from the center of the large aqua and mint dome above the remarkable grand winding stairwell decorated for Diwali, Christmas and the New Year like every year since decades.
Fragrances of marzipan waft up through the many hallowed halls that brandish great canvases of the masters from the Progressive group, priceless art by the greats- Razas and Padamsees, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar, Nand Lal Bose, Husain, Rabindranath Tagore, Turner and Langhamer from their early beginnings. Historic works in museum-like long fragrant halls. The Taj that has literally and metaphorically risen from the ashes like the Phoenix, up and operational at the earliest opportunity is today visited by people from all over the world, and not only for its world famous international and traditional cuisines.
The charm and attraction of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is not only in its palace like architecture and extraordinary antique dome, but in the fact that it has retained its celebrated history but upped its game and reinvented itself and its restaurants time and again. Many veterans wailed and wept when the charming coffee shop Shamiana they had dated in through their college days was razed to be replaced by a nightclub. The Shamiana they knew and loved moved to another location, only to be brought back to its original location ten years later. There have been experiments, changes, hits and misses, all part of the momentous remarkable journey of this mecca of cuisines, celebrations, art, state visits and world famous parties. I have partied with the famed Parmeshwar Godrej, artist M F Husain, Bollywood’s grand director Yash Chopra, all of whom proceeded to their heavenly abode, but the Taj stays on telling stories of times spent with them and creating even more histories as we speak. Senators, Ministers, Authors, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Actors, Directors and world citizens will come and go, but the Taj Mahal will enjoy its journey, sprawled exquisitely on the banks of the Indian Ocean, gleaming in the sunshine, piano singing the background score in melodious wistful tunes, reminiscing sentimental memories, keeping secrets of clandestine meetings and singing the glories of historic moments that occurred in its gilded corridors and crystal and ball rooms.