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The flying Corsican

Giacomo d' Angeli, a confectioner from Corsica, arrived in Madras in 1880 and opened his `Maison Francaise'. His `Kitchen Department', he assured the gentry of Madras, was "the first and finest of its kind". It didn't take long for d'Angeli's catering service to get known.



D' Angelis Hotel shortly after its opening in 1906. The Bata showroom is now here. (Courtesy: Vintage Vignettes)

AS MOUNT ROAD heads southwest from Round Tana it forms, not far from the circle, a triangle with Blacker's Road. And in that wedge, there now functions Bata's main showroom in the city. Once, however, the building was better known as home of perhaps the best hotel in the city, a reputation that gradually diminished with changes of ownership and name and increasing competition.

First on the block was Giacomo d' Angeli, a confectioner from Corsica, who arrived in Madras in 1880 and opened his `Maison Francaise' on this site the same year. He was, he advertised, a "manufacturing confectioner, glacie & c., general purveyor and mess contractor". His `Kitchen Department', he assured the gentry of Madras, was "the first and the finest of its kind... Superintended by a First Class French Chef". It didn't take long for d'Angeli's catering service to get known and, soon, it was a favourite of Government House, across the way. Lord Ampthill, Governor of Madras 1900-06, was particularly impressed by d' Angeli's service and cuisine and insisted that the Corsican cater all his parties. From all accounts, it was business that not only kept d'Angeli busy year-round but also made solid his financial foundations.

Those foundations helped him enlarge the Maison Francaise into a small hotel that opened in 1906 with the announcement that he was opening "a small hotel on the premises, Mount Road, for our customers from up-country". Business was so good that, by 1908, he had developed it into what he had long dreamed of, a fashionable hotel that he called Hotel d' Angeli's. It had every luxury of the time installed, most of it imported.

The hotel was built around a courtyard that d' Angeli developed as a Parisian garden in which residents and visitors could relax. The running verandah outside its first floor rooms looked down on the courtyard and was embellished with decorative imported wrought iron railings. An even more ornamental version of this, graced the first floor verandah overlooking Mount Road that was protected from the sun by a Parisian awning. The hotel offered Madras's first electrical lift, electric fans, an ice-making plant and cold storage, hot water on tap, floors of imported tiles, and a three-table billiard room. Its French and Italian cuisine and wines were renowned throughout India.

It's a reputation d' Angeli brought to Sylk's Hotel in Ooty when he, in the 1880s, entered into one of the first management contracts to run a hotel in India. Sylk's owed its named to C. Sylk, who had renamed it in 1868 after taking over Dawson's Hotel which dated to 1842. In 1925, new owners changed the name of Sylk's to the Savoy Hotel, but continued to let d' Angeli manage it. The Savoy itself was taken over in 1943 by Spencer's, but by then d' Angeli was long out of the Presidency's hoteliering picture. And in the end, his successor is better remembered in the city. Yet, Madras has every reason to remember d' Angeli for being a trailblazer in quite a different context.

Inspired by Bleriot, his fellow-Frenchman, who was the first to fly across the Channel, d `Angeli got Simpson's to build him an aeroplane! He tested this made-in-Madras machine in Pallavaram, found it flew, then decided to offer flying demonstrations one day at Island Grounds for a fee. Crowds paid up to watch those demonstrations in March 1910 - and at least one boy was courageous enough to accept d' Angeli's invitation to fly with him during one of his several flights that day. d' Angeli, thus, was not only the first in the South to run a modern hotel, but he was also the first to fly in South India.

d'Angeli's Hotel was taken over by a fellow Corsican and a fellow confectioner, Bosotto, probably around 1930. Certainly, it was still the best hotel in Madras when Douglas Jardine's MCC team toured India in 1933/34 and spent many an hour in it. The renovation of the Connemara, till then a more permanent home for its residents, and its replacing Bosotto Hotel as the best in the city was still some way ahead, taking place only in 1937. Such was the reputation of Bosotto's till then, one inherited from d `Angeli's, that Sassoon's of Bombay but an international name from Hong Kong to London, had their showrooms in it.

Douglas Jardine, it should be recorded, was leading the Marylebourne Cricket Club (as teams representing England were then called) on its first official tour of India and arrived in Madras in February 1934 to spend ten days here. Jardine's appreciation of the Madras crowd - despite some stone-throwing when Naoomal was felled after being hit on the head by Clark while trying to hook him - and the Madras hospitality could well be taken to mean that Bosotto's catering in the Chepauk pavilion during all the matches and the felicitations dinners at the hotel were certainly upto the standards of someone who brought to the game all the snootiness of the Oxbridge of the day. His easy victories - and one of the few occasions on tour when he had a good score - might also have had something to do with his expansiveness.

The MCC beat the Indian Cricket Federation XI in a one-day fixture, the first time that an Indian team in Madras - the forerunner of the Madras Cricket Association - officially played a visiting team. Then the visitors trounced the Madras Presidency in a three-day match, making its highest score of the tour, 803 in its only innings after scoring 456 for 5 on the first day and facing four new balls in the innings. The MCC, in the third and final test of the tour, won by 202 runs, scoring 335 and 261 for 7, C.F. Walters stroking a stylish century in the first innings and Jardine holding things together in the second when Amar Singh and Lala Amarnath threatened an early end to the innings. India's 145 and 249 was the disappointing response that enabled England to win the series 2-0.

Bosotto's was also where visiting generations of jockeys from Australia, England and Ireland used to stay when they came for the Madras Racing Season, which was a memorable one in the 15 years on either side of Independence. And there was at least one slick-talking jockey on the verge of retirement who wanted his patron to buy the hotel and employ him to manage it! Whether jockeys from abroad found a home-away-from-home in d' Angeli's before the Bosotto days, I do not know, but d' Angeli himself was bitten by the speed bug, as his airplane adventure demonstrated.

After the heady day of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Bosotto's began to focus more on confectionary and catering and sold off the hotel. Today, the name, Indian-owned, survives elsewhere in the city, its focus on cakes and pastries. Meanwhile, the hotel under new management became the Airlines Hotel, then a restaurant and finally, a rabbits' warren of offices. The last time I explored the premises was five years ago.

Its dilapidated rooms and toilets were being used as office and business space for micro-enterprises but with the hotel room numbers still visible, the courtyard was still there, though of garden there was none, and the verandahs survived. But through all the grime and neglect, the opportunity of restoration to crate a colonial-style heritage hotel was clearly visible. Is there a hotelier enterprising enough to dream such old-fashioned dreams?

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