There Once was a Hatter

1Through a gateway leading off Cunningham Road stands the Hatworks Boulevard, one of the few colonial era mansions that have survived the turn of the century.

The structure, now home to about 12 businesses, is named after the Imperial Hatworks, a hat-and-headgear-making factory started by England-trained master hat-cutter Nadir Maneckjee.

“He broke away from his father’s business to start this,” says Rishad Minocher, Maneckjee’s grandson and one of the current owners of the mansion.

Minocher says his grandfather first rented the house in the 1920s, when he started the business in the outhouse that collapsed last January, “all thanks to our neighbours”, says Minocher.

(At the same time the foundation of an apartment block of Queen’s Corner, around the corner, gave way, and the residents vacated in a rush. The residents alleged that the damage was caused due to the negligence of a builder constructing an apartment next door.)

Though Maneckjee moved in to his Cunningham Road home in the early 20th century, the mansion dates back about 100 years further, says Minocher. “Our records go back by that much, but we don’t know who built it,” he told City Express.

Among the rumours floating around, one has it that it was an outhouse to the Cubbon Hotel.

A couple of decades after moving in, Maneckjee bought the house from a ‘Mr Bhat’, who owned it then, and made a few changes.

“It was the Bengaluru-style red and white – like the High Court – which he changed to cream and white,” says Minocher. “He also added a few ‘Parsi’ ornamental touches – the fire near the roof in the front.”

On the premise that most other surviving colonial houses don’t have the wooden false ceiling, and his ancestral home does, Minocher believes this is likely his grandfather’s doing as well.

“The walls are all 23 inches thick, and made with mud bricks and lime plaster,” he says. “It’s usually very cool inside.”

However, with the temperature in the city hitting a record high, the airconditioners in all the stores are whirring.

Some rooms have wood-panel flooring, characteristic of structures from the British colonial period. In some others though, red-oxide flooring was replaced by tiles manufactured by a company in earstwhile Bombay, Bharat Tiles.

“Such guard tiles were usually manufactured in Italy, but a company in Bombay had just started making them,” says Minocher. “My grandfather was a supporter of the swadeshi movement.”


So when Minocher and his wife decided to refurbish it decades later to open it up for boutiques, they had tiles shipped from the same manufacturers.

“We realised the company still operated in Mumbai,” he says. “And we needed a few extra tiles, which we got from there.”

Apart from moving the porch and the gate, Minocher tried to retain the architectural features as they were.

“Some of the wood structures had been painted over. We scraped it off, so that the teak finishing would show,” he says. “Some of the bathrooms too had to be redone so that they would be suitable for public use.

Minocher, who lived in the heritage building till he started going to college, recalls a time when the road wasn’t the congested stretch, it is today. A mere six houses lined the stretch between Queen’s Road and Ali Askar Road, he says.

“We didn’t have to because we had a huge garden, but once in a way, we would play cricket on Cunningham Road,” he says. Once in every three to four overs he, his siblings and friends would have to move the stumps to let a car pass. And rains didn’t dampen their spirit, for their game could continue indoors – ‘in the huge corridor that runs through the house’.

Architect Mansoor Ali, of Bengaluru by Foot, says this was once a neighbourhood for the British and rich Indians. “The Maharaja of Travancore also lived here,” he says. “Of all the old bungalows, about three still exist.”

Human Presence

Little surprise that maintenace is hardly easy. And old houses are better preserved when lived in, Minocher believes.

“Houses are creatures of temperament; they need the warmth of human presence,” he says.

After Minocher’s mother, who took over running the factory after her father, passed away in the 1980s, her widower moved to a smaller house at the back.

After that the mansion remained largely vacant. So when Minocher and his wife toured Singapore, they found that such structures were often used by boutiques, and decided to implement the idea.

Initially, conservation architect Renu Mistry guided the couple, after which they took it forward themselves.

“I am in the restaurant business, but I had just sold a restaurant, so I had some time on my hands,” says Minocher. “So I stood here and got the work done.”

The restoration began in 2003 and went on for a couple of years.

The Hatworks

When Nadir Maneckjee started The Imperial Hatworks in the 1920s, it mainly made headgear for the British armed forces – the British Indian Army, the Navy and Air Force.

“At one point, they made hats for many in the Iraqi army, when they were here,” says Maneckjee’s grandson Rishad Minocher.

Over the next few decades, the firm’s clientele expanded to include sportspersons, royalty and the commoner, ‘for everyone wore the sola topi’. “They came up with the pre-tied Mysore petha, even for the rulers,” says Minocher.

“People of Wadiyar household would select six-yard sarees – the kind the maharajas preferred – to make turbans out of. Some would even ask that the leftover pieces be sent back,” he recalls, with a chuckle.

Framed photographs – one of a member of the royal family wearing the turban and another featuring various turban designs – hang on the walls of Hatworks Boulevard.

The first polo helmets the company manufactured were a laminated modification of the sola topi, he says. But production was hit after the import of reed was banned in the 1960s, he adds.

“And the hats were of very good quality, in fact more than was good for business,” he says. “They lasted forever, and people who bought them would return occasionally to have them done up, but not to buy new ones.”

Over the years, skilled workers became scarce too, and the factory was kept running more for passion than for profit. Finally, after Minocher’s paternal grandfather, who was last overseeing operations, passed away in the 1990s, its shutters came down permanently.

Published on Indian Express

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