The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, July 29, 2001

Memorial for a legend
K.R.N. Swamy

"The Cairns’’, the 150-year-old bungalow in which the "prince among Indian industrialists," J.R.D.Tata, lived, is a shambles today, with cracked windowpanes and dry leaves cluttering the once immaculately kept driveway. But, thankfully, as the 97th birth anniversary of the industrial magnate falls on July 29, the Tata group is working on plans to convert the bungalow into a befitting memorial for him.

J.R.D. TataJRD Tata (1904-93) was listed among the top 100 influential decision makers of the world during his prime. He headed the most powerful Tata group (now capitalised at more than Rs 36000 crore in the Indian Industry. He founded Indian aviation and supported the promotion of any worthwhile national cause, whether it was scientific research or family Planning. His companies built the most prestigious flats in India, so that out of their rent al income, the cause of fine arts could be supported, by the creation of the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai.

But he himself lived in a rented bungalow known as "The Cairns" in the elite area of Mumbai’s Cumballa Hill for 50 years. It is very puzzling to note that, despite the fact he could have built a magnificent house in the most prestigious locality of Mumbai, JRD Tata did not care to have a house of his own. It is known that few years before his death, he had sold away the stationary properties he had and handed over the amount to a Trust for charities. He had a great nostalgic affection for the old Scottish type of bungalow in which he was staying, in the posh locality in Mumbai, rented to him by a Parsi Trust.


It appears that once he had a friendly discussion with the Chairman Of the Trust (another well- known Parsi), which owned the building and jocularly remarked that the Trust could evict him whenever thay wanted as he was paying only a sum Rs 1230 as monthly rent and there was no stipulated lease period. The Chairman told JRD that they were unlikely to do so to the most well -known Indian industrialist of the 20th century and informed him that the lease would be valid till a month after JRD’s demise, and that the rent would never be raised. One does not know how JRD, with his wry humour, reacted to the offer.

When he passed away at the age of 89, on November 29,1993, in far off Geneva, his wife, Thelma Tata paralysed with a stroke and not able to comprehend the outside world was still alive. It is averred that till she passed away few months later in the "Cairns", the news of her husband’s demise was not conveyed to her. After her death, as the Tatas had no children, the building reverted to the Avabai F. Petit Residuary Estate Trust.

“The Cairns,” J.R.D Tata’s rented house, still contains the electrical machine tools he used to tinker with
“The Cairns,” J.R.D Tata’s rented house, still contains the electrical machine tools he used to tinker with

The 150-year-old two-storeyed bungalow, built on a 4700 square metre plot on an elevated rock with 15 rooms, provides a panoramic view of South Mumbai and at one stage it was feared that it would be sold away to land developers. As it is, today it is a shambles, with cracked windowpanes and dry leaves cluttering the once immaculately kept driveway. Local historians are not able to tell us as to who built this mansion. The erstwhile top satrap of the Tata group, Russi Mody, a frequent visitor to the mansion when JRD was alive, described it as a "strangely beautiful house" and opined that most probably it belonged to a sister of the famous Sir. Dinshaw Petit, before it was handed over to the Trust.

But the 4700 square yards of land on which the building rests is worth today more than Rs 350 million or about Rs 80,000 per square yard! The trust, while conscious that the mansion could very well be a memorial for one of the greatest Indians, was not able to sacrifice this huge amount by donating the land. In April, 1998, it officially invited tenders for the sale of the bungalow with the surrounding compound and quite a number of offers had been received.

Shocked, Mumbai rose in protest. Pramod Nawalkar, then a Cabinet Minister in the Maharashtra Government, inspected the building with other interested mumbaikars and stated that he would not allow the bungalow to be tampered with!. "The Cairns" was declared a heritage monument under category 3 of the heritage list brought out by the Indian Heritage Society. Under its rules, only minor additions and alterations could be allowed with reasonable structural changes, retaining the original architectural beauty of the bungalow.

At this stage, the original firm of JRD’s ancestors, Tata Sons Ltd, has decided to convert the mansion into a museum on JRD, to keep alive his memory for posterity, and keep the edifice as the official residence of the Chairman of the Tata group. Soon after his 95th birth-anniversary in 1999, Tata Sons bought the edifice for Rs 50 crore, and Tata Housing, the building wing of the Tata Empire, is working out plans to convert the Cairns into a befitting memorial for the great industrial magnate. The Rs 5 crore restoration is being supervised by the famous architecture firm of Charles Correa Associates and it will take about a year to complete the renovations.

To quote a writer, "The Cairns is surrounded by full-blown trees — gulmohar and mango, among others — as well as a choice of small cottages which used to house the retinue of household staff, Part of this property will be developed into a row of ground floor-plus-one houses meant for senior Tata executives. And mumbaikars need not worry, that the charming old world area will be changed by neo-modern building. The trees and the scale and feel of the building will be kept, with the main building as the residence of the Chairman of the Tata group". This bungalow is redolent with the memories of the "Prince among industrialists" and one of the rooms is still full of the electrical machine tools he used to tinker with, in his free time.

Thanks to Tata Sons Ltd, it would be a befitting "Memorial for a legend"— MF