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  Sassoon in the city

Sassoon in the city

Published : Feb 10, 2016, 9:50 pm IST
Updated : Feb 10, 2016, 9:50 pm IST

The Sassoon family and Mumbai share a close bond, one that is reflected in many of our heritage structures and institutions even today. So when a descendant of the family visited the city to trace his roots, we tagged along, in a bid to be reintroduced to its many forgotten charms.

Ranjit Madhavji and (right)Timothy Sassoon pose with a 1920s Kodak camera at the Hamilton Studios. (Photo: Shripad Naik)
 Ranjit Madhavji and (right)Timothy Sassoon pose with a 1920s Kodak camera at the Hamilton Studios. (Photo: Shripad Naik)

The Sassoon family and Mumbai share a close bond, one that is reflected in many of our heritage structures and institutions even today. So when a descendant of the family visited the city to trace his roots, we tagged along, in a bid to be reintroduced to its many forgotten charms.

It’s a weekday afternoon and Hamilton Studios in Ballard Estate bears a peaceful stillness, making an occasional tinkle every time someone passes through its chimed curtains. Owner Ranjit Madhavji has made a rare visit to the studio. His health does not permit him to leave the house for long hours, but the man has been waiting all afternoon for a special guest to arrive. “When I came to know that a ‘Sassoon’ was going to visit, I had to be there,” says the octogenarian, referring to Timothy Sassoon, the great-great-great grandson of David Sassoon, the Baghdadi Jew who was one of the richest men in Mumbai. In his time (mid-1800s), the Sassoon family built several of the landmarks of this city. To this day, the David Sassoon library and the Sassoon docks are reminders of that legacy, but there are other places that have fallen out of popular memory.


Hamilton Studios’ link with the Sassoons is largely forgotten by the city, but not by its owner. Madhavji’s keenness to meet Timothy (or Tim, as he is known) has to do with the fact that his studio, bought in 1958, used to stand as Sir Victor Sassoon’s house before the purchase was made. Hence, an invitation was extended to his great grand nephew, who wanted to visit places associated with his family.

This is his third visit to the city, but Tim, who owns a visual effects and post-production studio in Los Angeles, is as curious as a first-time traveller, reaching for his smart phone at the hint of a potential capture. A black and white portrait of Madhubala that hangs on the wall catches his fancy in particular and he goes back to it to get a better click. “I’d need more than a day to do justice to this goldmine,” he says, referring to the studio where almost everything is a collector’s item.


Portraits of Zeenat Amaan, Vinod Khanna and JRD Tata among others adorn the walls. Inside, a 1920s Kodak portrait camera stands tall with lights — equally old — placed alongside. “It’s impossible to get the bulbs for them these days. I looked all over the city and even abroad but my niece finally found some in a little shop in Delhi. I told her to buy them all,” says Ajita Madhavji who now runs her father’s studio. Piles of dust-coated negatives lie in the corner, waiting to be digitised and archived into a coffee-table book. Untouched by the world outside, the studio has stayed true to its sepia-toned era, pulling everything and everyone that crosses its path, into a time warp.


After a tour of the place, and discussing his admiration for traditional cameras and dislike for digital ones, Madhavji senior regales us with tales of how he had bought Hamilton with a blank cheque, pulled off photographing 220 employees of Crawford Bailey in one room in a single shot, and managed to blow up a 20 feet portrait using traditional equipment.

Coming back to the reason they were meeting this day, Tim pulls out a picture he had found earlier in the day, of his uncle Victor. Recounting an anecdote he had read, Tim says, “Sir Victor was a bachelor for most of his life and married only in old age. But he was very popular with the women. When someone asked him the secret behind it, he said, ‘Well, half my ancestors were women’.”


Tim is able to quote many such anecdotes and for a sixth generation Sassoon (since David), he knows his ancestral history very well. He is able to roughly draw up a family tree in his mind with names that spill over a couple of dozens and when stuck, he pulls out his phone to show a picture of the tree that runs across two pages. He admits that not many from his family have made an effort to do so. On his last visit, Tim had made a generous donation to the David Sassoon library and is here again, discussing its prospects and challenges with the DSL president, Mr Vivek Ajgaonkar. “It’s a privilege to be able to relive what your ancestors built ages ago. I am very fortunate,” says Tim as he walks through the edifice built and named after his family patriarch. He is here on a particular mission today. “I want to capture the sculpture on my phone so I can take a 3D printout of it. I could keep it in my house or better even give it to one of the institutions associated with the Sassoon trust,” he says referring to the only full-length statue of David Sassoon (turbaned, bearded, wearing flowing robes) anywhere in the world. It was in 1870 that the library was built with a donation of `60,000 from David Sassoon, with the rest coming from the British government. Tim holds a patron membership of the library today.


Speaking of the family legacy, it disintegrated soon after the demise of the first generation after the patriarch. By then, the Sassoon family had left Mumbai.

Sir Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy, a contemporary of David Sassoon, had once said that the resources that he used best were his sons. “It’s true. For a man who couldn’t speak English, he achieved a lot. He had trained his sons very well in the business and treated them like regular employees. He was probably the toughest on them so that the others didn’t think they had an advantage over the rest,” says Tim. What happened to the generations after that “They just went to the UK and partied. I know of quite a few who choked on their silver spoons,” says Tim, nonchalantly.


He doesn’t quite have the same enthusiasm while talking about the business that led to the silver cutlery: The trade in opium. “Nobody really likes to talk about that, do they ” he counters.

While David Sassoon is known as a philanthropist and ace tradesman on the one hand, a reputation of benefiting from the opium trade is connected with his name too. The Sassoons, along with the leading Parsi businessmen of the time, had a large share in the opium trade — legal during the British Raj. These businessmen got a great deal out of the Treaty of Nanking that was signed to open up the Chinese market for opium trade. This was after the First Opium War, which ravaged the Chinese treasury and population despite the rulers’ attempts to ban the drug that had had such a deleterious effect on its people.


Tim believes that this opium-induced passage of history is often seen through a hazy lens. “Opium wasn’t illegal at the time (1800s). The Sassoons and the Tatas—both had a license from the British East India Company for the business. The licensees however, only accounted for 20 per cent of the business. It was a big market and there were others practising it without a license. Opium at the time was used in medicines as well. But it came to an end because people started realising the damage it was doing. We look at it from the lens of the later attitudes, not the earlier attitudes and that’s the problem. The unfortunate thing is that when China rebelled against opium, the ‘licensees’ of the Company had to testify that they had suffered damages due to the Chinese actions and that became the pretext for the First Opium War.”


It is their mutual interest in the drug that brought the Parsis and Jews together, says Tim. “They both basically fulfilled the same social needs of the time. No wonder they got together,” he adds. That, and a lifestyle that was the prerogative of the rich and influential — like flying. Sir Victor Sassoon was one of the founding members of the Bombay Flying Club spread across acres at the end of the Juhu aerodrome—which also happened to be on Tim’s itinerary for the day. It was Sir Victor who signed JRD Tata’s pilot’s license. Known as the father of aviation in India, Sir JRD was the first to obtain the pilot license in February 1929. It is the first flying club in present day India (Karachi is said to have hosted the first in erstwhile India). For a place with its legacy, the flying club bears a very humble look. “It’s simple but very well maintained and up-to-date with the technology in its field,” says Tim before admittedly indulging in ‘college humour’ as he holds up a toy plane in one of the classrooms. Chief instructor at the Flying Club, Mr AK Bahadur takes us on a tour of the hangars and the various classrooms where students train for courses affiliated with the Mumbai University. A Piper Super Cub finds a place of pride at the club, standing tall in a hangar all by itself. Mr Bahadur informs us that it is the oldest flyable aircraft in the country and has been flown by Sir JRD Tata himself.


The day ends with a visit to the Sassoon Docks. “To imagine that this place laid the foundation for trade in Western India ” says Tim. It has been an eventful day, but there’s a lot more to see and not enough time — like the Masina hospital that was once the residence of David Sassoon and the Magen David Synagogue in Byculla apart from Bhau Daji Lad museum that was built with the patronage of David Sassoon. “I’ll be back,” Tim promises. “With my daughter the next time around, hopefully.”