Cityscapes

An Instagram project casts a soft light on Mumbai’s charming Ballard Estate

Frozen in time, the city’s first planned commercial district is home to old offices and many old stories.

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.

#30DaysOfBallardEstate All this month, we’ve taken you on a tour of Ballard Estate. But what we’ve not done is tell you about the person it is named for: Colonel JA Ballard, the founding chairperson of what was then the Bombay Port Trust (BPT). Formally set up in 1873, the trust was responsible for building the city’s historic port and Ballard Pier. But well before that, the city’s harbour was used by Maratha as well as British and Portuguese naval forces and was the gateway to India for centuries. Even today, a walk past the stately Alexandra Dock [from where material was excavated to construct the office buildings such as the Sapda Building (pictured) designed by George Wittet in the early 20th century] fills us in the ‘hood with a sense of pride in being a part of history. Photo: Athul Prasad (@athulprasad) Tag us in your pictures of this iconic neighbourhood with #30DaysOfBallardEstate to get featured on our page! #mumbai #india #vintage #heritage

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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.”

#30DaysOfBallardEstate If you've ever strolled through Ballard Estate, chances are you've seen this regal statue, part of the facade of the Mackinnon Mackenzie Building. Originally home to shipping company British India Steam Navigation Co Ltd founded by Sir William Mackinnon and Robert Mackenzie in 1862, this gorgeous structure now houses the offices of the Bombay Chamber Of Commerce and Industry. Interestingly, the shipping company's rival at the time, the Scindia Steam Navigation Company, (the first Indian shipping firm to challenge the British monopoly over trade routes) also set up shop in Ballard Estate, just a few lanes away. Photo: Shruti More (@shrutimoree) Tag us in your pictures of this iconic neighbourhood with#30DaysOfBallardEstate to get featured on our page!

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@samirasood's conversations with Mahesh Singh have always and only been about the quantity of ginger in her tea. Their relationship has now grown to the point where it is actually wordless – he knows exactly how she likes her chai. Today, when she went to talk to him about #30DaysofBallardEstate and showed him a few pictures on Instagram, his eyes lit up as he as asked “hamari photo net pe daaloge?” (You'll put up a picture of me in the internet?) Originally from Kanpur, he came to #Mumbai around nine years ago to join his elder brother in the running of his tea stall. While he’s grateful for the 5pm office crowd that throngs his table for a glass of cutting chai, what he loves about Ballard Estate is the peace. “Yeh area sabse best hai, bahut shanti milti hai.” (This area is the best, because it's very peaceful). As she left, promising that she'd come show him his picture when it went up, he grinned and handed her a glass of cutting chai, just how she likes it. Swipe left for more images! Photo: @athulprasad Tag us in your pictures of this iconic neighbourhood with#30DaysOfBallardEstate to get featured on our page!

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#30DaysOfBallardEstate There’s probably no one more important to the survival of Team CNT than this man. Kalappa Venkat Basarge, the man who delivers piping hot poha, idli and filter coffee to our office every morning, from neighbouring National Hindu Restaurant, is pretty much our lifeline. But what’s his life like? The 46-year-old has been working at National for 10 years now, even though he lives way off in Thane. Originally from Belgaum, #Karnataka, he's been in #Mumbai since he was 13. “Jab samajh aayi, tab se Bambai main hoon" (since I've been old enough to understand the world, I've been in Bombay), he tells CNT's @samira.sood. In fact, he’s just returned from a visit to Belgaum to see his mother, and is now busy trying to get his 15-year-old son into a good junior college. He’s seen a lot of change in Ballard Estate, but, he grins, famous #Bollywood superstars still come to National, and have even shot scenes in the café. “Par mujhe filmon ke naam toh yaad hi nahin rehte,” he laughs, a laughter as warm as the poha he delivers. Photo: @athulprasad Tag us in your pictures of this iconic neighbourhood with#30DaysOfBallardEstate to get featured on our page!

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#30DaysOfBallardEstate The thing about this work life is that you’re constantly in a rush. Driving, cycling, walking, always dashing to get somewhere. But sometimes, if you just stop and look around, you’ll see so much. Like this World War 1 memorial commissioned by the Bombay Port Trust in the early 20th century. Honouring those BPT employees who died in the war as well as the BPT’s contribution to the effort, the sandstone memorial is engraved with numbers of troops (1,87,000), hospital ships (668) and other details of the war, and is a standing reminder of India’s history. Photo: @athulprasad Tag us in your pictures of this iconic neighbourhood with#30DaysOfBallardEstate to get featured on our page!

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#30DaysOfBallardEstate Boman Kohinoor was 20 years old when he took over the reins of @britannia_co from his father, Rashid, who started the restaurant in 1923. During WWII, Boman and his father spent nights at the restaurant, worried that it would be attacked, owing to its proximity to the city's ports. Under Boman’s leadership, #Britannia has gone on to become one of Mumbai’s most sought-after eateries for Parsi and Irani cuisine. Their berry pulav, sali boti and dhansak attract gourmands from far and wide, but it’s not just the food that makes people want to keep coming back. Boman personally visits every table, taking orders and sharing stories with diners. Also, a look around Britannia’s spartan interiors will reveal a life-size cutout of Prince William and Kate Middleton towards the ceiling; the royal couple met the charming ‘young’ man last year after a CNT video featuring him went viral. But the 93-year-old’s wish-list is far from over. “The world’s oldest man is 145 years old, and I want to break his record.” And while capturing this shot, he blessed CNT's @priyankalive and @athulprasad to surpass even his record. Now we know where that caramel custard gets its sweetness from. Photo: Athul Prasad (@athulprasad) Tag us in your pictures of this iconic neighbourhood with#30DaysOfBallardEstate to get featured on our page.

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