Karachi by Night ~ by Chester Williams

~ by Chester Williams

Live entertainment once nourished Karachiites and its nightlife was the envy of people from the rest of the country.   The hotels dotted across the city were the hub of entertainment from the ‘50s to the early ‘70s.  From providing live music shows and dance performances to hosting dance parties and serving as a rendezvous for people, the hotels of Karachi were the centre of attraction.  Today, they are just a pleasant memory for those who were fortunate to have lived through the era.  Kolachi takes a nostalgic look back this week at the city’s once-thriving hotel and nightclub scene.

Taj

In 1942, a hotel by the name of Taj was constructed on the Club Road.  In its first phase it served as a residential hotel.  In its second phase, around 50 rooms were added.  Notable personalities who resided at the Taj included Pakistan’s only Nobel Laureate, Abdus Salam and the Quaid-e-Azam’s British nurse.  “Taj’s business slumped after the imposition of martial law in 1958, to revive the hotel, the Oasis nightclub was added in 1963,” shares its owner Venu Advani’. “It aimed at providing entertainment to male customers.  Andaleeb was established for tourists and lovers of local culture, and the discotheque Playboy came much later in 1971”, he says.

Advani reminisces that performers from Europe often frequented Iran and Iraq via an agent in Beirut.  So he visited Beirut to select and invite those dancers and musicians to perform at the Taj.  However, their numbers were small due to the fact that only 50 per cent of their earnings could be remitted to their home country in line with the State Bank’s forex policy.

When the foreign minister of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) Dharamcsec Senanyake visited Pakistan, the government officials showed him Moenjodaro and Taxila.  He was soon invited by the Advani family to visit Andaleeb.  The hospitality there was so cherished by him that the very next day he excused himself from a state appointment to visit Andaleeb again.  “The foreign minister said he was bored of seeing dead places and the liveliness of Andaleeb was what he craved for, recalls Mr Advani.

A programme by the name of ‘Karachi by Night’ was initiated by Advani to facilitate the tourists.  There was no proper government authority working on promoting tourism at the time. ‘Karachi by Night’ was a night-long programme where the visitors were routed to various hotels and clubs such as Excelsior, Metropole and his own hotel Taj.   In 1977, prohibition led to the shutdown of all bars and nightclubs.  And the martial law that followed ensured that the entertainment came to a standstill.  In 1981, Taj Hotel disappeared altogether.

The Palace

An eminent philanthropist, Ardeshir Mama, built a home to accommodate his 21 children which was famously called Mama’s Mansion.  The building was constructed soon after the First World War.   It is said that a small bistro was established by Mama.  However, when he ran into debt, the property was forfeited to the Punjab government.  In the early 1930s, Sidney Marder, a European Jewish Karachiite bought the place and relocated his hotel Killarney to Mama’s Mansion and renamed it as ‘Killarney Hotel- Marder’s Palace’.  Killarney was used extensively as lodging for US officers.  The hotel ran well till after the World War II.  Marder sold the property sometime in 1946-47 and left the country.  Mr Advani states the Singhs of Calcutta ran the hotel.  It is possible that Sidney Marder sold it to them.  In the years that followed, it simply became the Palace. “After partition, the Indians were allowed to maintain private properties in Pakistan”. In 1967, the government took over the Palace and it was sold to the Ramchandani family who operated it till it was bought by Sadruddin Ghanji,” shares Advani.  Ghanji demolished the old structure and built the current Hotel Sheraton on its grave.

Pictures from the period show that the name of the hotel was written as a neon sign on its dome. In other pictures, the name was seen affixed to the rooftop.  The hotel held an important place in the social life of the city.  The Palace Hotel, from 1948 to 1953 was the residential enclave of foreign diplomats.  The Palace also attracted a regular crowd of intellectuals soon after partition.  It is said that Faiz Ahmed Faiz would be a part of those gatherings whenever he passed through the city.

Since nightclubs were very popular and socially acceptable back then, the Palace too housed such a facility by the name of Le Gourmet. The main attraction at Le Gourmet were the jazz musicians from abroad, although many old-timers have doubted this fact.  Local Jazz musicians such as the Francisco band also performed at the Palace in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The famous cabaret dancer of yesteryear, Marzi Kanga, also performed at Le Gourmet.  After such venues were shut down, Kanga went abroad to perform at international hotspots.

Metropole

One hotel that survived till more recently was the Metropole, whose building still stands as a city landmark despite talk of its demolition.  It has a special place in the hearts of the city.  It was established by Cyrus. F. Minwalla, the then vice-president of the Karachi Cantonment Board.  In 1951, it was inaugurated by the Shah of Iran.  Initially, it housed two floors but later other floors were constructed. From 1953 to 1964, it served the city with an inimitable flair.  As one entered the hotel, there was a coffee shop that was a daily rendezvous for senior and city journalists.  The juniors would hang around to eavesdrop.  A cup of coffee cost two rupees, which was a heavy sum back then. On Sundays, a special Parsi menu was served with Dhansak the most popular dish.

The legendary jazz musician, Dizzie Gillespie, who visited Karachi in the 1950s (most likely 1954), performed in the garden of the Metropole.  The Meridian international center website states that he refused to play until the doors were open to the ‘ragamuffin children’ because the tickets were so expensive that the people with whom the musician wanted to connect couldn’t make it.  The garden could accommodate up to 4,000 people.

The hotel also served as a host for many state functions.  In the mid-1950s, the Ismaili community requested a suite to be prepared for His Highness the former Aga Khan.  The Pak-American Cultural Centre regularly held events and the French ran an opera at the Metropole.  “In 1964, the opening of the Inter-Continental proved to be a blow for Metropole as the customers were attracted to the new place,” claims Happy Minwalla, who owns the building along with his sisters.  Metropole continued to operate and thought of innovative ways to pull in an audience.  “In 1967, we introduced our discotheque- the first in the city”, says Mr Minwalla.  Local bands of the city, such as the Incrowd performed at the discotheque.  In 1968, the famous Samar nightclub was built.   Samar had live orchestra from abroad, be it Italian or Filipino.  Local bands also performed, one of them was the Captivators.   Marzi Kanga also gave enchanting performances at Samar.   The beautiful dancer Amy Minwalla, who often danced in films also held shows at the Metropole, where people recall her performing ballet including some international dancers.

Professional belly dancers were a norm, with Princess Amina from Beirut being the most popular.  Cultural events such as plays and the Berlin Orchestra conducted by also took place.  “Christmas and New Year parties were a rage back then. Even Valentine’s Day was celebrated with a ball being held,” says Minwalla. “The hotel looked for any cause for celebration, be it the fourth of July, theme based events such as Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean nights or Italy’s Independence Day, where exclusive Italian cuisine was served”.  Minwalla added that 2,500 marriages have taken place at the Metropole. “In 1967-68, Z.A. Bhutto held the launch of his party, the Pakistan People’s Party, at the Banquet Hall of the Metropole,’’ recalled Mr Minwalla with pride and nostalgia.

Sections of building were rented out to offices in the late 1970s.  The prohibition hurt Metropole, which closed Samar and the discotheque.  The Zia era ensured that dance and mixed- gatherings were not promoted in any way.  Even food quantity was restricted, further hurting Metropole.  The hotel continued to serve as a residential and catering facility but the old charm was gone.  In 2004, the owners decided to demolish the building and construct a high-rise hotel.  When a section was demolished, it agitated the conservationists, who then got the building declared a heritage site and barred it from being demolished.  A court will now decide the fate of it.

Hotel Grand

In 1937, my parents bought an old farmhouse in Malir, reminisces Minwalla.  “During the war, the U.S. soldiers needed to pitch tents.  The farm land was leased out.  My father ran the bar and my mother ran the kitchen.  In the process, Hotel Grand was born.  Since it was close to the airport, it was a popular destination for those visiting the airport.  Many airlines such as Pan American housed its crew at the Grand.  The Olympic-sized swimming pool pulled in many customers.  Back in those days, a drive to Malir was quite exciting as there was no Sharea Faisal to take one to Malir,” shares Happy Minwalla. In 1972, the Minwallas closed the hotel and sold the building.

There was also an Imperial Hotel on Queens’s road.  It ran the Lido bar.   It is said that it was usually preferred by people with more modest incomes.  Further up the road is the Beach Luxury, also once a major hub of nightlife housing the Kasbah and 007, which had managed to survive.

The Railway hotels

Apart from these hotels, the citizens were also catered to by four railway hotels – the Carlton, North Western, Bristol and Killarney, all fairly near the Cantt station.  While there are many accounts regarding the construction and ownership of the Bristol, Byram Avari, owner of the Beach Luxury and Avari Towers, maintains that it was constructed by a Hindu gentleman and operated by an English Jew, Mr Wiseman.  “The official rules stated that no Indian, regardless of faith, could run an ‘English style hotel’,  In 1944, Mr Wiseman left the country and sold the property to Avari’s parents, Dinshaw. B Avari and Khorsheed Avari, who had to make special requests to the Commisioner, Sir Sidney Ridley, to purchase the hotel and run it. “They were granted the permission on certain conditions which included serving only chicken at lunch and dinner given the high price of beef”, recalls Avari. They ran the Bristol for 11 years. “After partition, the hotel saw its business boom as Karachi became the capital city and destination for foreign diplomats,” narrates Avari.

Initially, the hotel had been a simple eatery for the army officers and affluent. “We maintained an in-house band and dance parties for New Year and Christmas used to take place,” shares Avari.   In 1955, the Dinshaws bought the Bristol, from whom it was sold to Mr Rizvi, an income tax officer.  Despite changing hands, Bristol’s bar and cuisine were maintained.  In 1960s, the price for a couple’s ticket to a New Year’s party was Rs 300! Later on, shows such as Saturday Night Disco and Nightclub were introduced, where groups from Thailand, Germany and France performed.  In 1961, Hollywood actress Donna Reid rested at the Bristol when she had an overnight stay in Karachi en-route to Cairo. In 1994, the hotel suffered two subsequent attacks leaving Mr Rizvi injured.  The hotel shut down.  The building still stands and is often used for shooting drama serials.

Killarney was owned by Sidney Marder.  In 1930s, the hotel relocated to the Palace.  It served as a Russian consulate for years.  Currently, it is being used by Bayview High School.


North Western
was constructed in 1908.  “It was owned by a Jewish family, the Wyse, who were from Austria, they sold it to my father, Agha Mohd Yusuf sometime in 1946, as they were migrating to South Africa”, informs Hissam Yousuf.   It housed Agha’s Tavern, which served continental cuisine, and Agha’s Grill, which served Pakistani delicacies.  Entertainment was not offered as such but Christmas and New Year were celebrated with fervour.  Then came the dark ages and prohibition affected the hotel.  In 1985, the family decided to shut down the hotel for renovation and repair of the building.  Later, it was sold to private developers.  The building stayed vacant till early 1990s, when it was demolished along with Carlton, while in process of being listed as world heritage sites.

Best Western Plaza

The Best Western Plaza opened on Daudpota Road sometime in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  Its construction continued till after its opening.  It had 14 storeys.  The 14th floor housed a disco, which continued to operate in Zia’s time, till his moral police came across it.  It was used as a backdrop in many Pakistani films.  An open air theatre was used for Qawwali and poetry recitation.  During Badar Mir’s recital, the gates were nearly broken down due to the heavy crowd.  The hotel also hosted Mohammed Ali and Madam Nur Jehan’s programmes.

Moreover, The Beijing Dragon Palace had one of the finest Chinese restaurants of its time and that too with local chefs.  A section of the hotel, such as the Irma coffee shop and the Hamza conference hall amongst others, were named after family members of the owner.  The family maintains that Indian stars such as Vinod  Khanna, Rekha and Dilip Kumar also resided at their hotel.  In 1990s, the family ran into a financial crisis and leased the hotel to someone with strong political connections.  The hotel was subsequently found guilty of allowing prostitution to thrive on its premises, leading to a raid.  Subsequently, the hotel was shut down in 2000.

Hotels are on the hit-list and unable to offer much for entertainment.  Besides society has become more conservative and many equate music and dance with vulgarity and sin.  However, Karachiites crave for affordable entertainment and hotels even today to bring back some of the nightlife of the past.  If cinemas are seeing a revival, why not entertainment at hotels too?

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14 thoughts on “Karachi by Night ~ by Chester Williams

  1. About Hotel Metropole : In 1966 The Discotheque was opened; the first of its kind and the very first band that was contracted to play there was called ‘ The Forethoughts ‘ I was the Keyboard player in that group the lead guitarist was Asif Lukmani the bass guitarist was Bashir Baloch and young Umeed Ansari was the drummer and I
    Anis Ahmed on Keyboard. Out of this group Bashir Baloch died on 2nd September 2012 in Paris. I am based in
    London since last 43 years. Asif Lukmani and Umeed Ansari are both in Karachi. You can confirm this with Happy
    and Mitzy Minwalla, we played in that Disco for almost two and a half years.

  2. Taj Hotel was never on Club Road but opposite the Karachi Club on what was then known as Kutchery Road. Incidentally Club Road (Sind Club and Karachi Gymkhana are the two clubs on this road) still maintains its old name and runs from The Hotel Metropole to the Sheraton Hotel.

  3. Hi there I played the drums for the ” forethoughts” get in touch with me and I will help you correct some historical facts about the music scene in Karachi in the sixties . Umeed

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