Delhi in the 50s


My latest piece for the TimeOut Delhi magazine as part of our cover story about the ten decades of Delhi. If this essay feels a bit abrupt, it's because it was part of a larger canvas that looked at Delhi life over the last 100 years. Read on:

As New Delhi struggled to its feet after Partition, it had at least two things on its mind. The first was rebuilding the lives of its refugees, in new colonies at the city’s periphery, areas like Rajinder Nagar to the west and Kalkaji to the south. The second was escapism. The elite cinemas of Connaught Place were too few to help refugees flee the difficulty of their new lives in raw, far-flung suburbs. Between 1952 and 1961, cinema halls sprung up right in the neighbourhoods they now inhabited.

Jangpura, the colony originally provided to the villagers displaced from Raisina Hill, received a new deluge of the displaced, and with them Eros, south Delhi’s first movie hall. Karol Bagh had Liberty and Patel Nagar had Vivek. In 1954, the Delite and Golcha cinemas both opened at Daryaganj, the former with plush interiors and the first air-conditioned hall in the city. (Such was the impact of this new cinema-going experience that the Hindustan Times film critic gushed about Delite’s “carpeted floor, comfortable seats with sidelights [and] the lowest rates, lower than any of the New Delhi cinemas,” instead of reviewing their debut flick Angaray.) Come 1961, Shiela would expand the movie-watching experience with its 70mm screen.

The birth of these movie halls didn’t just provide Dilliwalas with entertainment, but also heralded the first days of an egalitarian cinema culture in the city. They collapsed the elite cinemas, like Regal, with the working-class scene of travelling fairground shows. With class-stratified seating and cheap front-row stalls, for the first time, people of many classes shared the same hall, receiving the same entertainment. Inclusiveness didn’t just mean cheap tickets, though. When Shiela opened, screening only English language movies, patrons were offered synopses of the story written in Hindi and Urdu. To add to the sensation, audiences were sometimes treated to live stage-shows, as at Delite in 1955, when the Pakistan-born father-son duo Prithviraj and Raj Kapoor enacted the play Yahudi ki Kahani.

Meanwhile, for the more established set of Dilliwalas, live entertainment meant Rudy Cotton enthralling listeners with his saxophone renditions of “Blue Moon” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” at the Lagoona in Scindia House. Indians had finally inherited the thumping music-stages and dance floors from British officers and US soldiers. At the restaurants of CP – Lagoona, Alps, York’s and Volga – live jazz had centre-stage of Delhi’s social life. While Cotton’s melodies rang through Lagoona’s walls, Hecke Kingdom and the Jazz Quartet band propped up the fortunes of Volga in CP. Until the band arrived, Volga’s tables stayed vacant. After the Quartet tuned up, you were lucky to get in. “Hundreds have had the uncomfortable and embarrassing experience of either queuing up for a table, or going elsewhere for their fun,” recorded the listings magazine Delhi Diary. Those who went elsewhere often landed up at Alps, on Janpath, to hear pianist Mosin Menezes and his Quartet belt out his famous number “Night Flight”.

The crescendo of New Delhi’s jazz era was a visit by no less than Dave Brubeck, on a 1958 world tour sponsored by the US State Department at the dawn of the Cold War. Over 3,000 people crowded into a free open-air concert in the University Gardens to see Brubeck slam out “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and “St Louis Blues” (he would only compose “Take Five” in 1959, on his album Time Out). A sombre State Department communique reported the success of the Delhi show, in demonstrating to Indians that jazz “can display discipline and intellectuality of a high order”, and shouldn’t be classed with “wild and undiscplined” rock ‘n’ roll. Either way, the message from Brubeck that Delhi heard loud and clear was the title of his second song, “I’m In A Dancing Mood”.