Connaught Place, the Capital’s grandest and most famous shopping complex, had a not-so-grand beginning. In fact, when CP, with its spacious verandahs and lofty white arcades, was ready for occupation in 1933, it had no takers. Most traders of the Walled City joked that the big shops of CP will end up serving as horse stables and car garages.
“Property dealers and owners most of whom wanted to rent out their shops had a hard time convincing prospective tenants. Initially, some well-known traders from the Walled City and neighbouring states such as UP and Punjab opened their shops in CP. But there were hardly any customer for the first few years,” says Sultan Singh Backliwal, 84, managing partner, Indian Art Palace in CP. Backliwal’s family was among the first from the Walled City to set up a shop in CP.Many traders from Shimla, where they already had their shops and boasted of a large chunk of Britishers as their customers, also opened their branches in CP.
But the business in CP picked up after a largescale influx of American and British soldiers into the city during the Second World War. In fact, British and American soldiers and the anglicised from Civil Lines provided CP its first footfall. “These soldiers were our first customers. They brought a new life to CP,” says Ashok Vaish, 64, owner of Vaish at Rivoli Tailors, which was set up in 1939, the year the Second World War broke out.
In the early 40s, the reputation of the shops in CP began to spread far and wide. In fact, CP had iconic shops, which could easily give high-end shops in many European streets a run for their money in terms of their quality of goods, display and salesmanship. Some of these shops were run by Britishers. A few such shops were the Empire Stores, Army and Navy store (both general stores, Ranken & Company, Phelps; ( both tailors and drapers) Hamilton & Company (jewellers), B Lila Ram & Sons ( sari sellers), RS Bhola Ram & Sons (wine merchants, etc.
“Shops in CP sold high-quality goods imported from Europe and America. The CP traders had developed deep trust and personal rapport with their customers. There was no question of a customer being cheated in any way,” says Backliwal.
The shops in CP, with their large European style display windows and suave and English-speaking owners, attracted the rich, famous and the royals. In fact, many would roll out a red carpet every time a royal came for shopping. It also meant that being a customer at a CP shop could elevate your social status.
“We in Old Delhi were amazed to learn that Moti Lal, our next door neighbour, (later a famous film actor) was a customer at Phelps,” late Maheshwar Dayal, who was president of the New Delhi Traders’ Association (NDTA) )in the early 50s, had said at a seminar on the predestination of CP in 1992.
Unlike Inner Circle, the Outer Circle had a heterogeneous mix of shops — commercial offices, restaurants and car showrooms. The shops in CP used to remain closed for lunch break from 1.30 to 3.30pm.
In the 40s, there used to be a carnival-like atmosphere in CP during Christmas and New Year. However, only a few shops owned by Britishers offered ‘sale’.
A major change in CP occurred after Independence. Most Britishers, who ran the shops in CP, left. A large number of refugees from Pakistan set up show-windows in the corners of the blocks.
Post-partition, the pagadi system to take a shop on rent started and many shops were taken over by refugees.
But despite its present congestion and chaos, CP continues to be the city’s most famous shopping centre. “CP is a heritage market, it was a matchless shopping plaza and will remain so forever,” says Backliwal.