In 1968, a 17-year-old walked into Hamilton Studios in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate accompanied by her mother. The photo studio was especially popular at the time: it was believed that once you get a picture taken there, you’d get married soon. The daughter was in for a matrimonial photo but that was not all she got. Ranjit Madhavji, the owner of Hamilton, saw the teenager’s ease before the camera and recommended her as a model for the Khatau Mills calendar. Zeenat Aman’s march to stardom began there.
This delightful story is just one of the many that make up the legend of Ballard Estate, the old business district in South Mumbai whose wide avenues are lined with architectural stunners built in neoclassical style.
“Ballard Estate has so much history unknown to most Mumbaiites (us included),” said Divia Thani, editor in chief of Conde Nast Traveller India magazine. “Did you know there was a railway line here that sent trains all the way to Peshawar? It’s a beautiful part of the city that’s often forgotten, despite its rich heritage.”
Since May 1, Conde Nast Traveller, whose office is in Ballard Estate, has been running a photo project on Instagram, hashtagged #30DaysOfBallardEstate, chronicling the history of this area. “We love travelling and heading to far-off places around the world, but the fact is, we work every day in an area that more tourists should know about and visit,” said Thani.
Ballard Estate came up in the early 20th century, almost incidentally.
In the 1910s, as Bombay Port Trust, the custodian of the city’s natural deep-water harbour, began excavating the shore to build a new dock, it realised that a place was needed to throw that earth. Happily, it chose a low-lying, marshy land next door – an area that following reclamation would be known as Ballard Estate after the Bombay Port Trust’s first chairman, Col. John Archibald Ballard.
The task to build Bombay’s first planned commercial district fell on George Wittet. Appointed the consulting architect to the Government of Bombay from 1907, Scottish Wittet had already left his imprint on the skyline of the city with the Gateway of India and the Prince of Wales Museum (now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya). But, as Alisha Sadikot says, “Ballard Estate was Wittet’s masterpiece.” Sadikot is the founder of the Inheritage Project, which curates walking tours and visits, including in Ballard Estate. Earlier this year, she wrote in GQ India:
“With bright and airy work spaces, Ballard Estate rivalled the closed, dark buildings of the older Fort area, and soon found favour with some of the leading companies of the day: including shipping giant British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd, established by Sir William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie in 1862. By the turn of the 19th century the ‘BI’s’ formidable fleet was described as ‘straddling the seas East of the Suez, here, there and everywhere’. Its rival, the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, the first wholly Indian shipping company that defied British monopoly over the sea trade routes, also chose Ballard Estate. As did the Indian branch of the multinational Pathé Frères, at the time a noted manufacturer of cinematographs and other motion picture equipment, which built its headquarters, Pathe House, in the Estate.”
Ballard Estate is still home to many shipping companies and old offices besides the 94-year-old Irani eatery, Café Britannia.
“When you come to a particular neighborhood to work every day, especially over 10, 20, 30, even 40 years, that area becomes home,” said Thani, explaining that the focus of Conde Nast Traveller’s Instagram project was the people of Ballard Estate. “The people we’ve featured – including Britannia owner Boman Kohinoor – are not just excited to see themselves online, they’re thrilled that their neighbourhood is being celebrated. They feel strongly about it. They have great memories of it. They’ve seen it change. They want others to know about its history, heritage, landmarks, locals.”