Bombay Heritage Walks for Tata Employees

The business group takes staff back in history by organising Bombay Heritage Walks every week in an effort to reacquaint them with the company’s storied links to the city.

By Anirban Chowdhury  | TNN

How many Tata Group employees would know that George Wittet, the Scottish architect who designed the Gateway of India was one of the first board members of the Tata Engineering Co, the earlier avatar of Tata Motors? Or that Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata, founder of the Tata Group, had been arrested for arguing with an unfair British official at the Oval Maidan sports ground; that he had travelled with Swami Vivekananda on the latter’s legendary journey to Chicago’s Parliament of Religions and had been inspired from their conversation to envisage the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru; or that long before JK Rowling conjured magical dinners at Hogwarts, JN Tata’s son Dorabji Tata had a central well linking the kitchen in his mansion, Esplanade House, to the dinner table at the hall, so stewards would pop up from the centre of the table to serve meals?

Taj_Mahal_Palace_Hotel

Not many. But their employer has found an interesting way to change that. Tata Sons has tied up with Bombay Heritage Walks to organize weekend walking tours for its staff from its various firms, where they are told the conglomerate’s story, especially in the light of its inextricable linkage with Mumbai.

The Tata Heritage Walk starts at the Taj Mahal Hotel and stretches across 3.5 kilometers through Kala Ghoda, Flora Fountain, Horniman Circle and Fort entailing 24 l stoppage points.

The tour touches upon the group’s various early businesses, mostly in relation to buildings where they were discussed, initiated or housed.

The accompanying talk is heavy on anecdotes, such as this one: When JN Tata told his sisters his decision to build the Taj hotel, they asked in shock why after building a science institute and iron and steel factories would he want to put up a “bhatarkhana (eating-house)“?

Nevertheless, Tata built the hotel with care, importing ten pillars of spun iron from Paris to support the structure. Taj was one of the first premium hotels to welcome Indian guests and grew in popularity to grab business from the top hotels of the day. It also had the first licensed bar in the city. “We needed a novel way to tell our stakeholders about the history of the Tatas,“ says Harish Menon, vice president at the brand custodian’s office, Tata Sons. The idea struck him and Mukund Rajan, brand custodian and chief ethics officer at the group, in early 2014.

Soon after, they approached Abha Bahl, an architect and one of the two founders of the Bombay Heritage Walk. Bahl worked almost for a year-and-a-half, doing extensive research on the group’s history and working closely with its archives department.

“The research period was an eye opener for us. We came across more fascinating facts and anecdotes linking the group’s history to Mumbai than we could ever have been aware of,“ says Menon. One of them is an incident that occurred with JN Tata at an event to celebrate the opening of the Oval Maidan.Tata, an important guest and already one of the most prominent businessmen of the city, got into a fierce argument with an English officer who had claimed a seat left for a few seconds by his associate Premchand Roychand. Tata was arrested as a result and didn’t accept bail before the officer apologised.

Bahl says apart from tracing Tata’s History through buildings it has been associated with, the tour also picks up on strands from seemingly unrelated sources to make “connects“ with an aspect of the group.

An example is the David Sassoon library in Kala Gho d a . T he S a s s o on s , originally from Baghdad, were the biggest textile mill owners in Mumbai during the 19th century. But they were also the first major customers of hydroelectricity produced by the Tatas and agreed to replace them with coal to run their mills.

Another connect is the Watson’s Hotel, India’s oldest surviving cast iron building. The building, an architectural marvel is said to have been one of the inspirations for JN Tata to understand the importance of the iron and steel business. A long-debunked myth runs that Tata built the Taj Mahal hotel after being disallowed entry into Watson’s.

Bahl agrees that while extolling the achievements of JN Tata and, to an ex tent Dorab Tata, especially with relation to Tata Steel, the tour touches less upon the other Tata scions -JRD Tata and Ratan Tata.

The only significant refer ence is the Army and Navy building, the former office of India’s national carrier.

JRD Tata, India’s first com mercial pilot, founded the country’s first commercial airline in 1930. It was nation alised in 1953.

The Tata group has had five walks in the last cou ple of mont hs, attended by employees from Tata Communications and Titan Company among others.

Menon says replicating the exercise in other locations such as Jamshedpur “won’t be dif ficult and is an idea for the future“. future“.

Also, have senior figures such as chairman Cyrus Mistry and chair man emeritus Ratan Tata taken the walk yet? “The initiative is in its pilot phase. Going ahead, we are looking forward to our senior leadership experiencing the walk,“ says Menon.