Mumbai's old yarn: Textile market Mooljee Jaitha waits for a new thread

Photos: Kamlesh Pednekar
Stories pave the labyrinthine alleys of the Mooljee Jaitha market. The 4.1-acre property in Mumbai, which houses 1,000-odd shops — cubbyholes really, padded with white cushioned seats — was once bursting at the seams with fabric and people. Today, it is mostly bare but for a few stragglers who hang around while a family shops for a trousseau. Yet, almost every tradesman here is brimful of tales of a bygone era — when the market was the business hub of the textile world’s future big names.

An empty corner marks the spot where Dhirubhai Ambani traded in yarn. And a merchant’s memory holds the image of a callow Kishore Biyani visiting his family shop. Several such stories and the large signboards that carry the names of brands that still ply the textile trade — from Raymond and S Kumars to D’décor — reveal the market’s upper crust.

It wasn’t just commerce that oiled the spindles of the market; politics did too. This is where Mahatma Gandhi found the funds for his Satyagraha, where wholesalers offered — albeit reluctantly — their imported cloth to the swadeshi pyres that were lit across the city in the 1900s and where Sarojini Naidu canvassed for support for the freedom movement.

Sarojini Naidu
The Mooljee Jaitha or M J Market, popularly known as kapda bazaar, sits at an interesting intersection of history and commerce in the development of Bombay (now Mumbai). The market is owned by the New Piece Goods Bazar Company (NPGBC). Registered in 1871, this is the second oldest firm in the country, after the East India Company. Although its registration number (004) indicates that it was the fourth to be granted the status of a company, receipts and other documents show that it was the second to knock at the registrar’s door.

Today, with M J Market and the 12-odd buildings in the area that the company owns facing imminent redevelopment, much of its storied past is set to disappear. But while the impending overhaul will rob Mumbai of another piece of its textile legacy, the market’s stakeholders aren’t grieving. Ever since news of the redevelopment emerged, the 1,339 shareholders of the privately held company have seen their stock prices soar. The company’s 97,200 shares have since been trading at Rs 20,000-25,000 (face value: Rs 100 per share). The company’s net worth is Rs 12.5 crore and it earned a net profit (after tax) of Rs 2.45 crore in 2017-18.

Dhirubhai Ambani

 
NPGBC directors have already obtained an in-principle approval from their shareholders for the redevelopment. 

A project management company has been appointed and the hope of windfall gains is driving fresh energy into an otherwise moribund market.

This is, however, not the first time the market is abuzz with talks of redevelopment. Surendra Savai, who was president of traders’ group Mumbai Textiles Merchants’ Mahajan for over three decades (1985-2016), says he had negotiated with 12 municipal commissioners during his tenure, but the talks always drew a blank.

For one, the merchants always failed to agree on a deal. Given the huge value this South Mumbai property commands on account of its prime location (the Kalbadevi area), every figure and settlement seemed too little. The government, too, dithered on permissions, swinging between declaring it an open space and a green zone.

When it does open up for redevelopment, the Kalbadevi area, which is home to 30-odd old markets including 

M J Market, will unlock a huge tranche of land. While the hurdles are aplenty, the Devendra Fadnavis government is expected to push the redevelopment plan through before the general election this year. 

Kishore Biyani
The bazaar has seen many twists and turns, says Kanubhai Narsana, secretary of the Mumbai Textile Merchants' Mahajan, whose firm has been a part of the market for 90 years. He recalls an attempt by an Arab trader in 1955 to buy out the market from its founding family, the Jaithas. At the time, another market old-timer, Navnit Shah, stepped in and formed a collective of merchants who bought over a large portion of the owner-family stake. A redevelopment plan was made at the time, too, but it fell by the wayside.

Sometime in the 1980s another plan was drawn up — to convert the market into a 25-storey building, wrote Kanti Bhatt, a veteran writer with the Gujarati magazine Chitralekha, but that too didn’t materialise. And then, says Savai, there was a move to shift the market to the Bandra-Kurla Complex, but the traders failed to reach an agreement over the terms of transfer.

The eighth generation of the Jaitha family, now minority shareholders in the company, agrees that the market needs to be redeveloped. However, their sway is limited today as they are no longer promoters of the company. Rajnikant Jaitha and his nephew together hold close to 7 per cent equity stake. They were reluctant to speak about their intentions for and memories of the market for this report, but are believed to be working in tandem with the present set of promoter-shareholders to push the redevelopment through.

The market is now just a pale shadow of its former self, says Devchand Chheda, city editor of Gujarati bi-weekly Vyapar and founder of the Kutch Corporate Forum, the apex body of industrialists and businessmen from Kutch. “Today, barely 15 per cent of the traders make a nominal profit, 35 per cent make ends meet and the rest are bleeding,” says Chheda who has been reporting on the market for over four decades.

It was not always so. Bhatt, writing for Chitralekha, had reported that in 1981 several shops had a turnover of over Rs 2 crore and big traders even recorded sales worth Rs 10-15 crore. In 1980, the daily trade volume here was Rs 1 crore, he wrote while also documenting the spectacular Diwali celebrations when Mumbai’s who’s who would turn up to see the lights at the market.

It is tragic, Chheda rues, given that “several big industrialists — Dhirubhai Ambani, Shambhu Kumar Kasliwal and Abhay Kasliwal of S Kumars, Kishore Biyani (Future Group), Vallabh Bhanshali (Enam) and many others — began their careers here”. Even Hemendra Kothari, chairman of DSP BlackRock, traces his roots to the market. In an interview to The Economic Times a few years ago, he said his daily routine included going to M J Market “every evening at 4 pm”.

Ambani, it is said, acknowledged his gratitude to the market by contributing towards a community hall. It was named Vimal Hall in his honour, but after a fire destroyed it in the 1990s, the market struggled to fund its repair. It has since been restored, but the name Vimal is no longer up on the board.

The market owes its origin to an intrepid young man called Mooljee Jaitha Asher whose family belonged to Gujarat’s Saurashtra region. The city’s gazettes record that Jaitha set up a company to trade in raw cotton, yarn and piece goods (cloth cut to a standard size) in the early 1830s. He made huge profits exporting cotton and yarn to Britain and then, around 1865, began work on a wholesale market along with two others under the aegis of The New Piece Goods Bazar Company (NPGBC).

“The market later became an important hub for the Swadeshi movement,” says Savai. “Freedom fighters used to hide here because it is like a bhool bhulaiya (labyrinth).” Nearly 80 today, Savai’s memory is like a sieve, but some anecdotes sparkle like crystal. He remembers hearing from old-timers about how some merchants would sell their imported wares in the morning and then carry the leftover fabric for the swadeshi fires that were lit outside Victoria Terminus (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial Terminus). He smiles at the memory of slogans of “Videshi mal ka moh chodo (Give up your fascination for foreign goods).”

The Bombay gazettes record Vallabhbhai Patel addressing the market on July 5, 1930, when he admonished the merchants for not responding adequately to Gandhi’s call for boycott of foreign goods. The reluctance to participate in the Swadeshi movement was less a love of the Raj and more a sign of the community’s single-minded focus on business. The market never closed except on amavas (no-moon nights) until much later, when labour laws and changing social norms forced it to change its rhythm. 

M J Market also marks the huge contribution that the Bhatia community made to the city’s economic development, says Chheda. Jaitha was a Bhatia from Saurashtra, Gujarat. 

A tightly knit community of traders, they trace their roots to a dynasty that ruled Magadha between 578 and 447 BC and whose people later migrated to Bhati near Multan in Pakistan. In a two-volume history of the community, historian Mangala Purandare writes that the Bhatias were progressive traders who educated their women and led many a reformist movement in their time. 

Almost everyone in the market today acknowledges the community’s contribution and says there was a time when “if you wanted a shop in the market, you had to be born into a Bhatia family”. The dynamics are different and the market is more cosmopolitan today, says one of the company’s directors.

The directors are aware of the challenge at hand and concede that they are all for the market’s redevelopment. But beyond that none is willing to say much. What are they planning to do? Who will be in charge of re-envisioning the space? Is there an architect, and what will they do to protect its heritage? While all the questions are met with grim silence and wary looks, the last elicits a burst of protest. “Heritage! Please do not even mention the word,” says one beady-eyed member.

He is worried that the property, which is now worth several hundred crores, could dissolve into a dud if declared a heritage monument. The shareholders of the company would then merely receive a paltry compensation from the government — a rather dampening end to a long, eventful journey.

Photos: Kamlesh Pednekar

The market and the freedom struggle

  • 1830s   Mooljee Jaitha sets up a trading company for raw cotton, piece goods and yarn. 
  • 1860-71  From the profits made from exporting cotton and yarn to Britain, Jaitha and two others — Thackersey Mooljee and Jairam Naranje — invest close to Rs 6 lakh to set up a wholesale kapda (cloth) market. To administer its operations, they launch The New Piece Goods Bazar Company.
  • 1871   The New Piece Goods Bazar Company becomes the second firm after the East India Company to apply for registration.
  • Around 1875   The market is named after its founder, Mooljee Jaitha.
  • July 1908   When the British charge Bal Gangadhar Tilak with sedition and arrest him, merchants at M J Market call for a six-day strike — one for each day of his imprisonment.
  • March 1919   The news of the passing of the Rowlatt Acts reaches Bombay and The Bombay Native Piece Goods Merchants’ Mahajan, an organised body of all the merchants operating out of M J Market, actively participates in the hartal (strike).
  • 1920   M J Market merchants contribute Rs 1.25 lakh to Mahatma Gandhi’s Tilak Swaraj Fund.
  • 1921  The market participates in the Swadeshi movement. Umar Sobani, a mill-owner close to Gandhi, reportedly donates clothes worth Rs 30,000 to the pyre of foreign-made goods, although not all merchants are in favour of the move.
  • February 1930   The market shuts down for a week in support of the Satyagraha launched by Gandhi.
  • April 1932   Sarojini Naidu addresses a gathering of merchants to drive home the message of swadeshi and inaugurates three shops in Sancha Galli, Dharam Raj Galli and Office Galli in the market.


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