Dogs of War: Change doesn't seem to come easily to 92-year-old Bombay House of the Tata Group

The street dogs allowed to loll around in Tata Group's Bombay House lobby seem to have survived the power struggle between Ratan Tata and Cyrus Mistry.

Dogs of War: Change doesn't seem to come easily to 92-year-old Bombay House of the Tata Group
MUMBAI: Nearly everyone who comes to Bombay House for the first time notices the dogs. There seem to be two to three at any given time — street dogs, but well fed and rather somnolent, sleeping in the lobby, indifferent to the corporate toing and froing.

The dogs are allowed this privileged position thanks to Ratan Tata, who’s a big dog lover. One of the projects he started in what turned out to be his not-quite retirement was for an animal hospital and, despite more demands for his time now, it seems this will kick off on schedule.

He often feeds and plays with the Bombay House dogs and they wake up to greet him when he enters.

After Tata handed over the reins of the Tata Group in 2012, some discreet inquiries were made about the future of the dogs.

The response was that their position was probably safe — the Mistrys were a dog-loving family, and this four-pawed part of Bombay House would remain the same, whatever other changes might take place.

Change in general doesn’t seem to come easily to Bombay House, the 92-year-old headquarters for the Tata Group. It was built by Sir Dorabji Tata, son of the founder Jamsetji Tata, to deal with the rapid expansion in the group’s activities. His obituary, in the Times of India of June 4, 1932, noted that by 1920 the group had more than 22 separate companies.
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This was too much for their earlier offices, centred at Navsari Chambers, and in 1921 it was decided to build a new building.

That year Sir Dorabji started the Associated Building Company “with a capital of one crore of rupees, and towards the new premises in Bruce Street, now known as Bombay House, each company paid its proportionate share of the costs. The land was acquired in the boom year at the enormous price of Rs1,700 per square yard.”

Bombay House’s architect was George Wittet, who came to Bombay in 1903 as assistant consulting architect to the government of Bombay. Wittet is best known for taming the exuberant style known as Bombay Gothic, which was used for the city’s most notable 19th century buildings, like Victoria Terminus, the municipality, university and high court.

Bombay Gothic is a defiantly eyecatching style, with soaring arches, high domes and lavish external decoration.
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Wittet’s early 20th century customers, who tended to be dominated by corporations and public institutions like hospitals, wanted something more sober, though still notable-looking. Wittet obliged with what has been called the Renaissance Revival—big, solid blocks of buildings, with restrained external decoration, usually around the windows. Even his best known design, for the Gateway of India, is notably more block-like and less whimsical than his Victorian Gothic predecessors would have made it.

Wittet developed a particular connection with the Tatas. In 1909, he had become consulting architect to Bombay, but he gave that up in 1920 to join the Tata Engineering Company as director, a post he left only in 1926, just months before his untimely early death from dysentery, at the age of 47. Much of his time at Tata would have gone in overseeing the construction of Bombay House, which opened in 1924.
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LOW-KEY STRUCTURE
The building Wittet designed is elegant, but also seems determined to be relatively invisible. It is not on the main Flora Fountain junction nor the inner Horniman Circus space, but on a narrow lane connecting the two where it blends in with other buildings, all mostly of the same size.

The main features of the building are the firmly closed windows and an arcaded entrance above with discreet letters spelling out its name. Any identification as the Tata headquarters is deliberately kept lowkey.

Perhaps the only real noticeable thing is how notably clean the immediate neighbourhood is, thanks to a street house-keeping measure that the group has been implementing along with its neighbour, Central Bank of India (also designed by Wittet). Despite all attempts to be lowkey, Bombay House has seen its dramas.

In 1950, it was the scene of a daring robbery, of the cash that was taken from the office on the 10th of every month to pay the workers at Tata Mill in Parel. According to the Times of India, a group led by “Mahomed Sher Dil alias Jimmy alias Joachim, Lawrence Pinto alias Larry, Rustom Dhunjishaw and Shamshoor Rahiman” had made careful note of the movements of the trucks that took the cash to plan the robbery.

The plan went off well enough at first. An accomplice tipped them off after three trucks were loaded. Driving a sedan, “Larry, Rustom and Shamshoor, who were armed with revolvers, aimed them at the coolies, and cautioning them snatched two trunks and put them in the car. The third trunk fell on the road and burst open. The accused however took the khaki bag from this trunk and snatching away a fourth trunk from the fourth coolie drove away.”

They managed to snatch Rs 3,49,265 and might have managed to get away with it, if the police hadn’t caught the accomplice, who then proceeded to identify the others. It is some evidence of the easy cross-border relations of the time that Sher Mahomed had managed to get to Pakistan, but was still arrested and brought back to Bombay to face trial.

HOUSE STORIES
Most of the drama at Bombay House though has tended to be more internal and linked to the sometimes notoriously cranky shareholders at the group’s annual general meetings (AGMs) that used to take place there. One probably apocryphal story tells of a gentleman who would use every AGM to complain about how the soap manufactured by Lakme, then a Tata company, caused problems to his wife’s skin.

Finally, one day JRD Tata is supposed to have told him politely that the company had done what it could to change and improve the soap, so perhaps it was time for the shareholder to consider changing his wife. Another much told, though also probably apocryphal story, concerns the main street on which Bombay House stands which, in 1973, was renamed after Homi Mody, a long-time director of Tatas and one of its most prominent faces. He was also the father of Russi Mody, the famous boss of Tisco.

On one occasion when the younger Mody drove up to Bombay House and left his car prominently parked outside, a policeman came up and demanded if this was his father’s road that he was parking like this, to which Mody replied, well, yes! Life in Bombay House could take on a ritualistic aspect.

In 1973, the Times of India described how “the directors’ lunch at Bombay House is an institution, probably as old as the company. Every afternoon, all the directors lunch with the chairman, the food being served by Taj, one of Mr Tata’s companies.” Horizons, the Tata commissioned history of the group, depicts the boardroom where all the current drama took place as a notably formal place, all dark polished wood and red velvet chairs, with Jamsetji Tata’s bust looking down sternly from one end.

This may seem like no more than the group deserves, and yet there is a danger that an office with such a strong sense of place and tradition can bring. It can all too easily become a bubble, reinforcing a sense of specialness that over time can have fewer roots in reality. A headquarters with the history of Bombay House can become a trap, where tradition is invoked to keep out uncomfortable, but needed change. As Ratan Tata returns to control Bombay House on the backs of such invoked tradition, the dogs will probably be happy to see him again, but one wonders how many others really will be.
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