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The heart of Delhi, even then

delhi Updated: Sep 01, 2011 13:24 IST
Avishek G Dastidar

In the 1930s, two decades into the new Capital and a few years after New Delhi was formally inaugurated, it was Connaught Place that held all the indicators of how the new city was doing, and where it was headed.

To go by "media reports", including those in the Hindustan Times , columnists and political commentators made CP the mascot for New Delhi.

Renowned columnist of those days, Captain RL Rau of HT took a round of CP one evening in 1936 to find answers to questions like "Is there truth in the rumours that New Delhi had become more cosmopolitan?" or "Is the talk of Delhi becoming the centre of the hub of future politics, or is it all part and parcel of the natural growth of a rising young city?" What he found paints a picture of a place poised to become a commercial juggernaut, one that was already being compared to the 'hip' markets in Bombay and Calcutta.

"Three years ago it was impossible to get a tray of tea and a piece of cake for a price of two annas in New Delhi. Today one can have an excellent tea for this sum in one of those numerous restaurants in Connaught Circus as one is accustomed to in Bombay for instance," Rau observed in his column.

Connaught Place had already become Delhi's stepping board to a more modern lifestyle in entertainment, shopping and of course eating out.

Wenger's, the confectioners, owned the largest restaurant in New Delhi on the first floor of their present A-Block outlet. Established in 1926 as Spencers in Kashmere Gate, Wenger's was one of the first shops in CP. Owned by the Wengers, a Swiss couple, it introduced Delhi to the joys of pastries, tarts, mousses and homemade Swiss chocolates.

"It took years for ordinary Delhiites to warm up to these items. Only the royalty, British officers and foreign-returned businessmen patronised Wenger's," says Charanjeet Singh, manager at Wenger's, who joined in 1965.

Keventer's, Galgotia, Snowhite were some of the early movers into CP. Maharajas and their queens from the royal houses in New Delhi flocked the shops for everything from designer clothes, artefacts, shoes, and even pianos. Eating was high on their agenda too.

"The restaurant menus were such superhits that most establishments have retained their old favourites," says Sunil Malhotra, owner of Embassy Restaurant, one of the old favourites started in 1948.

Davico's overlooking the Connaught Plaza and then Standard restaurant carried the mantle of food and beverage scene for decades before fading away in time. But the mainstay of the high life those days was Regal.

The Regal theatre hosted renowned artistes of Western Classical music, Russian ballet and British theatre groups. Famous Hollywood movies such as Paul Robeson's Emperor Jones, Metro Goldwin Mayer's Mata Hari were some of the biggest attraction for cine-goers, including the Viceroy.

Along with Odeon and Rivoli, there was Indian Talkie House that opened in 1938. The "talkies" were so famous that ticket prices started going through the roof. The HT columnist complained: "A movement should be started for cheaper tickets at these houses of entertainment. For a seat, one pays more than one does in Calcutta or Bombay".

But the boom was rudely interrupted for about 10 years. World War-II coupled with the upheaval for Independence brought about a recession in the markets in the next decade. But by the 1950s, CP was back on its feet, never to look back again.