Mumbai's changing landscape: the city losing iconic establishments

High rent, changing technology and need to cater to ever changing preference for the new are slowly leading to the exit of age-old establishments Mumbaikars grew up with, writes Aparna Joshi

Mumbai's changing landscape: the city losing iconic establishments

Aparna Joshi

Rising rent, changing urban landscape and changing technology are forcing several iconic establishments in Mumbai to bite the dust. When institutions die, it’s not just a loss of brick and mortar. Some of the spirit of the city dies with it too. That’s why news that K Rustoms, the iconic ice-cream shop that hugged the periphery of Brabourne stadium for 84 years, might down shutters soon, is hurting Mumbaikars. No quantity of their signature ice-cream sandwiches is able to console them this summer.

Several generations of Mumbaikars patronised Rustoms on their way from colleges, offices or after a movie night out. Rustoms had moved in when the land was reclaimed from the sea. For many it is one of the few doughty SoBo institutions to survive in the Art Deco district.

It continues to be no frills, displaying its menu on white boards and wrapping ice- creams in tissue before they are handed over to customers. The Rustoms family, caught in legal wrangle with the Cricket Club of India for two decades, says they will continue to fight. The CCI on the other hand, says it wants to set up a café in the space Rustoms stands today to cater to its members.

It is the eternal story of Mumbai, with the new edging out the old. Rhythm House, the city’s best known music store at the corner of K. Dubhash Road (Kala Ghoda) for over 70 years, shut down in 2015. The Curmallys had nurtured the shop with an eclectic collection that ranged from jazz to Bollywood and had won the hearts of music fans with listening booths. By 2017, however, music piracy and rise of subscription services forced Mahmood Curmally to sell the 3500 square feet space to diamond trader Nirav Modi.

A year later, when ED attached the property, prominent citizens led by industrialist Anand Mahindra banded together online in an initiative to ‘acquire, restore & re-purpose Mumbai’s iconic Rhythm House’.

A year later, men’s fashion designer Kunal Rawal took over the first floor of the building, right above the erstwhile record shop, for his flagship store. The lower half of the building retains its old facade, the iconic Rhythm House signage lost in the glitter from upstairs.

Next door is the glitzy Punjab Grill. Old timers recall a little cafe that stood in its place for almost a century, with bay windows dotted with potted plants, chequered tablecloths covering wooden tables and with the art of young painters on its walls.

The Wayside Inn was where nationalists converged, where the tabloid Blitz was born and where B.R. Ambedkar spent hours poring over his drafts. Mohammed Ali Jinnah and ornithologist Salim Ali were also regulars who relished biting on sandwiches and consume endless cup of tea. The inn made way in 2002 to a snazzier Silk Route. Two decades on, there is now the Punjab Grill.

Jehangir Art Gallery struggled for three decades to gain control over a narrow strip within its premises, called Cafe Samovar, for its expansion plans. Samovar in the 1960s was an instant hit with the art gallery visitors. Its specialitiesmutton chops, pakodas and an array of teas was as much a draw as its quaint cane lanterns and the garden views it offered. In March 2015, however, the cafe, a favourite of M.F. Husain, V.S. Naipaul and Amitabh Bachchan, lost the case.

Across the road from Samovar stands another landmark - now called Esplanade Mansion, it was once the grand Watson’s Hotel, where Brothers Lumiere showed their new invention - cinematography - to a Europeans audience in 1896. Built in 1869, it is the oldest surviving cast-iron structure in India. Watson’s was an exclusive ‘Whites Only’ hotel, with wide balconies on each of its five floors and a majestic atrium. Mark Twain stayed at Watson’s in 1896 and wrote about it in ‘Following the Equator’: “… in the dining room every man’s own private native servant standing behind his chair, and dressed for a part in Arabian Nights.”

By the 1920s, the building changed hands a few times before its rooms were rented out to tenants. The Esplanade Mansion is now a UNESCO World Heritage Property and has been recognised by the World Monuments Fund as one of the 100 most endangered monuments of the world.

The Strand Book Stall on PM Road is still a vivid memory for many Mumbaikars who loved books just as much as its owner T.N. Shanbhag did. It stood its ground from 1956 till 2018. It was a purist’s delight, with no toys, stationery or CDs taking up shelf space. Its annual sales were legendary. But nine years after Shanbhag breathed his last, his daughter could no longer sustain the place.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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