Advertisements and Consumer Culture: An Illustrated Glimpse of Modern Life in 20th Century Bombay

The island city of Bombay has enjoyed the status of a modern metropolis since the 19th century.[1] The city not only ushered in trade through its lucrative coastline, but came to embody a port of desire and aspirations, where one could enjoy opportunities and adopt new, ‘modern’ ways of living. The term ‘modern’ is one increasingly repeated with the turn of the new century, often appearing through the forms of media emerging at the time, like cinema, radio, and of course, print advertisements. It broke away from the past, embracing new futures, innovations, lifestyles and appearances. For many, it became a chance of upward mobility in the social hierarchy, through adoption of various ‘modern’ markers such as attire, consumer goods, home decor, and general lifestyle ideals. 
The late 19th and early 20th centuries also saw the emergence of an Indian middle class — a class of people sociologist BB Misra has defined as one “which arose as a result of changes in the British social policy, and with the introduction of the new economic system and industry, and with the subsequent growth of new professions.” [2] They were often government workers participating in colonial administration, journalists, doctors, and other types of salaried workers who had amassed an income to spend on “consumer items”.[3] It was this section that is presumed to have fuelled modern capitalist society by collectively participating in a culture of consumption, even if their individual incomes were not significant.[4] This culture, however, is not one necessarily reliant only on the propensity to spend. It is, as Prashant Kidambi and several other scholars have argued, an “articulation of a middle-class identity”, as one’s consumer habits also became a marker of social status.[5] The middle class in India was not simply an economic category, but a “product of self-fashioning carried out within the colonial public sphere.” [6] It was this group that often identified itself as ‘modern’, gradually dictating appropriate social conduct and becoming arbiters of taste — a “cultural project” of self-fashioning that is always evolving, never a fixed category. [7]

The emergence of this amorphous category of people also coincided with greater strides in printing technology. Print production had arrived in India by the late 18th century, and colonial centres like Bombay, Calcutta and Madras soon became hubs where the technology flourished. By the early 20th century, print was an established medium for circulating discourses on modernity, and advertising became a novel site to reflect this messaging. The thrust of these advertisements was frequently about leaving behind an older world order, and embracing the ‘modern’. So much so that even advertisements about advertising underscored the importance of being in tandem with ‘modern times’. 

Advertisement for neon signs in 1938. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive

But what did it mean to be ‘modern’? Was it simply a breakaway from tradition? The adoption of Western styles and ideas? Where did the idea of the ‘modern’ feature vis a vis class, gender, and emerging ideas of nationalism in early 20th century Bombay? These advertisements form an important site to explore the intersection of consumption and the various interpretations of ‘modernity’. Often, the target audience for these advertisements were members of the emerging middle class, especially readers of English language media. The discourses coming through in them were shaped by these middle class sensibilities, as much as they were shaping these sensibilities. The following essay is an attempt to explore some of these threads through a look at print advertising of consumer goods and experiences from the 1930s to the 50s. The advertisements being looked at largely appear in English language papers like The Times of India and The Bombay Chronicle, or popular film magazines like Filmindia, journals like the Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, and at least one brochure published by the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) in 1953. It is safe to assume that these advertisements did not emerge in a vacuum, therefore, providing a fairly illustrative glimpse into prevailing discourses at the time.

The ‘Modern’ Woman Out in the World
One of the most significant themes emerging out of the assortment of advertisements that were examined is the emphasis placed on ‘looking’ modern. This appearance was dictated not only by attire, but also by the products and goods one used. Especially for women, products like lipsticks, creams, skin lighteners, etc, came to be associated with “the expression of modern femininity”.[8] These new commodities, often separate from more ‘traditional’ home remedies and beauty treatments, also came to be associated with modernity itself, and new forms of freedoms and corporeal autonomy for women. [9]
In the advertisement below, from a May 1938 issue of Filmindia, a blonde-haired, European-looking woman is pictured in a print campaign for Pond’s Creams. The emphasis of the advertisement is on discovering a new technology that presents the skin with essential vitamins that “keep skin tissue healthy”, underscoring the scientific outlook of modern life.[10] It is not incidental that the woman in the advertisement adorns a modest saree with her head covered. Films, and other forms of visual media at the time, often attracted Jewish, European or Anglo-Indian women, who were relatively less constrained by moral stereotypes associated with the publicness of the work. They often adopted ‘Indian’ monikers (Ruby Myers became ‘Sulochana’, Esther Victoria Abraham became ‘Pramila’, Mary Ann Evans became ‘Nadia’), presented themselves in ‘traditional’ fashions, and sometimes even spoke an accented Hindustani (post the advent of talkies). [11]
An advertisement for the new Pond’s Creams “Skin Vitamin” in 1938, with a ‘white’ model. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive
An advertisement for the new Pond’s Creams “Skin Vitamin” in 1938, with the ‘white’ model coded with more ‘traditional’ Indian attire. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive
In an August 1938 issue of Filmindia too, one sees another advertisement for the cream, this time with a different, albeit still ‘white’ model. The model has her hair neatly oiled and parted down the middle. The end of her saree is draped over her head, and a small bindi sits on her forehead. This advertisement directly addresses “women living in the tropics,” again invoking the work of “biologists” who discovered a way to keep skin exposed to the “burning sun and hot, dry winds” looking fresh. [12]
While there is an appeal to women in these advertisements to care for their skin through new and innovative beauty products, the images also betray certain anxieties about the ‘modern’ woman, with even the ‘white’ models coded with traditional ‘Indian’ elements in their attire. As women too entered the workforce in the interwar years, the autonomy yielded from these new sources of income threatened social transgressions as they emerged in the public sphere. Priti Ramamurthy, in her chapter on India in the anthology Modern Girl Around the World, notes that only images of “cultured” female film stars, “possessing respectable patrilines” were used to sell commodities to the emerging market in 1930s India.[13] Indeed, by 1941, Leela Chitnis became the first Indian actress to appear in an advertisement for Lux Toilet Soap, which had so far featured Hollywood actresses, even for print campaigns in India. 
Hollywood actress Sylvia Sidney in a 1937 campaign for Lux Toilet Soap. Source: Bombay Chronicle, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai
Bombay cinema star Leela Chitnis in the first Lux campaign featuring an Indian actress, in 1941. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive
Chitnis, born to a conservative Marathi-speaking Brahmin family and the daughter of an English professor, represented the ideal of an Indian woman.[14] Her layered attraction of being a beautiful, upper caste and educated woman was cleverly wielded to lend legitimacy to the products she endorsed. However, even she complicated the notion of the “cultured” female star, taking up film work after four children and an estranged husband (whose last name she came to be known by).[15] The ‘modern’ woman, therefore, was a figure full of contradictions, despite social anxieties about her new-found agency. She was hard to slot into binaries of progressive or conservative, cultured or disreputable. Even if her choice of attire was the traditional saree, it often got a glamorous spin, with new kinds of materials, draping styles and blouse fashions emerging.
An advertisement for Pohoomull’s Silks shows the latest in saree fashion, in 1938. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive

The emphasis on women’s physical appearance is clear, as is the tendency to market beauty and wellness products largely to women, suggesting that these interests are reserved for a certain gender. But print advertisements and other visual media emerging at the time would also have been the first time women saw themselves represented in modern and vibrant ways. The images of these aspirations may have drawn from stereotypes, but they showed possibilities of constructing new selves and new ways to be. As women became the consumers themselves, they were addressed as the decision makers of not only their bodies and physical appearance, but also of their households, recognising their many roles as working professionals, mothers, homemakers, etc. 

The Home and the World: Bombay’s Nationalism vis-a-vis Modernity 

One cannot speak of emerging discourses in 1930s Bombay without a mention of nationalism, and the growing ‘swadeshi’ sentiment in response to British colonial rule. The city embraced several new ideas emerging in the West, and attempted to be a cosmopolitan conclave for Indians and European expatriates alike to enjoy amenities at par with the rest of the world. But it was also the headquarters for the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Muslim League – parties at the forefront of the independence struggle. Like in many economies around the world at the time, in urban India too, commodity capitalism and nationalism were simultaneous developments. This is apparent in the creative copies presented in advertisements, as well as in many commodities circulating in the market. 

In 1918, Godrej Soaps Ltd., a renowned conglomerate today, was a homegrown company that introduced the first toilet soap made without animal fat (appealing to Muslim and Hindu consumers alike). The emphasis in Godrej’s advertising was often on the goodness of local ingredients, invoking the idea of the homeland through scents and fragrances associated with the region, like sandalwood and neem.


As Sabeena Gadihoke, in her seminal essay on the Lux star campaign has posited, toilet soap was a commodity categorically associated with “modernity’s global imaginary” and the various discussions surrounding public health and cleanliness.[16] Until the 1920s, a variety of items were used on the subcontinent to clean one’s body.

A Godrej soap campaign featuring an illustration of an ‘Indian’ woman, highlighting the goodness of local ingredients. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive
The differentiation of “soap” from these other formulations marked it as a ‘modern’ commodity.[17] Yet, the invocation of antiquity, with phrases like “time immemorial” in many of the Godrej advertisements, with reference to the tried and tested goodness of indigenous natural herbs like neem, is an interesting interweaving of modernity and nationalism. These were carefully chosen ingredients that evoked a sense of being attached to the land that yielded this native fauna. 
An evocative advertisement by Lever Brothers (India) Limited describing itself as a ‘swadeshi’ firm. Source: Our Bombay, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai 1953, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

By 1953, Lever Brothers (India) Ltd. (known today as Hindustan Unilever Ltd.), in a spread within an MCGM brochure, declared itself unequivocally ‘swadeshi’, with an advertisement campaign invoking “the man in the street”. Published six years after Indian independence, the write-up in the advertisement looks to a “better way of life” with superior standards of health for the common man.


It is with the “scientific manufacture of soap”, claims the advertisement, that good health and hygiene has been made more attainable to the man on the street (the company was known for the manufacture of soaps like Lux, Lifebuoy, Sunlight, etc). 

At the end of the blurb, the company makes a case for its presence in the Indian market, emphasising its role in manufacturing of “Indian-made goods”, employing “Indian labour” and meeting the “increasing demands of the Nation” with “Indian raw materials and Indian skills”. [18]

Lever Brothers (India) Ltd. was incorporated in 1933, after the growing swadeshi sentiment prompted the boycott of imported goods (Lever Brothers was a British company). Bombay, of course, was the favoured city to set up base for the company as Lever Brothers (India) Ltd., with its first soap factory established in Sewri. It is not incidental that the backdrop to the cotton dhoti and kurta-clad figure in the advertisement is a skyline with signature Art Deco-style buildings synonymous with Bombay, which also helmed the arrival of a new and cosmopolitan way of living, through the introduction of modern apartments. The visuals in the advertisement is an acknowledgement of the country’s newfound sovereignty, set against the backdrop of modern (read: better) living. 

If the swadeshi sentiment often came through in the advertisements through these decades, so did the flipside — of foreign brands making a case for their legitimacy in the lucrative Indian market. An interesting entry from June 1933, in The Bombay Chronicle, is an advertisement by Marrott’s, which sold waterproofs or rain coats. The nearly argumentative tone of the advertisement calls out “enemies of swadeshi” – homegrown names that “buy foreign waterproof cloth and sell as swadeshi”. The implication seems to be that even within the swadeshi-driven market economy, there were duplicates that weren’t as ‘swadeshi’ as they claimed. “Why buy Japanese as Swadeshi? Buy Marrott’s” instead, asserted the advertisement. Here too, the figures in the spread are notable. The women, dressed in fitted waterproofs, don chic bob haircuts under cloche hats – the signature attire of the modern flapper woman in 1920s Europe and America. The advertisements for ‘swadeshi goods’, in contrast, often had men and women dressed in traditional attire, though the women’s nine-yard sarees were often traded in for the more modern six-yard version, as seen in the advertisement below for Currimbhoys. [19]

A 1933 advertisement by K.C. Marrott, calling out the supposed hypocrisy of swadeshi brands. Source: Bombay Chronicle, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai.
A 1932 advertisement by Currimbhoys highlighting their swadeshi cotton goods. Source: Bombay Chronicle, The Asiatic Society of Mumbai.
Modern Life in a City Carved Out of the Sea

So far, the advertisements above have shed light on the appearance of modernity through choices of attire, personal grooming products, and the complex relationship it shared with the nationalist rhetoric. But a large aspect of its emergence in Bombay from the 1930s also had to do with the shaping of a new city, carved out by pushing back the sea, i.e. reclamation, which in itself was a modern engineering marvel. The following sections delve into a few significant aspects of this modern city, with its new living quarters, spaces for recreation, and the embrace of a new lifestyle.

Modern Materials for Constructing a New City

By the early 20th century, with the city already brimming with people drawn by the opportunities it had to offer, there was a pressing need to build spaces for this growing population to live in. Chawls were the obvious recourse taken by the newly constituted Bombay Improvement Trust, to house the incoming migrant population from the hinterlands.[20] The more socially mobile groups of people, often belonging to the middle class, however, gravitated towards the low-rise apartment systems developing in the city at the time. Newspapers like the Times of India carried multiple spreads and special supplements dedicated to these emerging residential systems, describing at length the scale of the developments, materials used, and the modern constructions they promised to be.

A building supplement from 1940, for instance, goes into extensive detail about the development in Marine Drive, from names of the individual buildings, their floor plans and the decorative treatments used. An advertisement by Simplex Art Floorings, which claims to have provided Rs 3,75,000 worth of marble mosaic and tiles for the buildings in this residential district, described the development as an “ultra-modern city within a city”.[21] Reinforced Cement Concrete or RCC, which emerged as an alternative to stone as building material, was also advertised extensively as the choice of material that made it easier to carry out this infrastructural development on a vast scale. 
Advertisement by Simplex Art Floorings Ltd describing the work done in the new Art Deco constructions on Marine Drive. Source: Times of India, February 1940; Art Deco Mumbai Archives

On the exterior, these Art Deco districts lent the city a streamlined look with their neat geometry, uniform heights and structural soundness emanating from concrete as a new material of construction. There was a spirit of constructing a new city with a modern outlook. Newspapers and other media at the time were replete with advertisements for cement, new building materials, tiles, paints, etc. Often, these were endorsed with the promise of an “ultra-modern” look, a clear shift in building styles, especially for homes and residences.  

Advertisement by Shapoorji Pallonji & Co., principal contractors for several buildings constructed on the Back Bay and Marine Drive. Source: Times of India, 1940, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

Tiles and coloured concrete were two products advertised heavily as modern construction materials. Colorcrete or coloured concrete was an innovative method of adding a pop of colour to building facades, while also giving it structural support. “Colour is one of the most important factors in modern building construction,” reads an advertisement by the company Killick, Nixon & Co., which highlights “two modern mansions” in Cumballa Hill. 

Advertisement for Colorcrete by Killick, Nixon & Co. highlighting the importance of colour in modern buildings. Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, 1937, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

An advertisement for Garlick & Co. screamed “modern floors”, with an illustration of the interiors of a home with a minimalist decor. “No modern home is complete without tiled floorings,” said another advertisement by the company. The “modern home” was at the heart of the conversation of a new kind of lifestyle in the city.

Advertisement by Garlick & Co. for “Modern Floors” constructed with tiles. Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, 1951, Art Deco Mumbai Archives
Apartment-Style Living

Apartment-style living brought about a change in the order, making space for the nuclear family to enjoy life in the city. The segregation of “zenana” and “mardana” (separated living quarters for men and women) was often done away with, the toilet came into the boundaries of the home (as opposed to being a separate unit outside the house for reasons of “purity”), and one’s neighbour in the next flat could often be of a different faith, nationality or caste (if not class). It engendered a cosmopolitan way of life, where one lived in their private, individual units, but there was scope for multicultural interactions by virtue of how these apartments were laid out. In contrast to chawls, which were often organised on regional and caste lines, apartments heralded a multicultural way of life, creating a new social structure in which neighbours could fraternise. As much as their development in the city signalled modernity, the interiors of these apartments were an equally important expression of one’s modern tastes. 

In 1937, the Indian Institute of Architects organised the Ideal Homes Exhibition, which was held in the Town Hall (known today as Asiatic Society of Mumbai). The exhibition was modelled on a similar event organised by the Daily Mail in London since 1908. It was a showcase of recent buildings erected in the city, architectural drawings, and most importantly, it contained models of fully furnished rooms that were befitting of a modern home. These rooms were also equipped with the latest appliances and tools to enjoy all the everyday luxuries of this new way of life. The exhibition envisioned the home with a cohesive idea of interior decoration, with pleasant colours and materials that were suited to the local climate, and all the modern amenities that would make a home comfortable.

“Home has an attraction of its own to a man returning after a day’s toil, whether for the rich or for the poor,” noted the editorial of the Journal of the Indian Institute of Architects published in January 1938. A well-decorated home was an indication of the owner being clued into the latest styles and international trends of interior decoration. Although, it was questionable how many residents of the city would have been able to afford the ideas proposed by an exhibition like this, it was a novel endeavour nevertheless.

Scholar Abigail McGowan, in her work on the ‘Domestic Modern’, has described the discomfort of British residents in the city who found traditional Indian homes devoid of the comforts they enjoyed back home, while nationalists, until the late 19th century, often prided the ‘home’ as a site of tradition and Indian culture, separate from colonial hegemony.[22] The middle class elite in 1930s Bombay, however, took to this idea of global modernity that dissolved borders, allowing them to be in tandem with international trends, and creating a cosmopolitan city at par with any metropolis in the world. As an English-speaking professional class, they often had a cosy equation with the British, a negotiation of sorts that served a double purpose of exploring modernity, and ascending in the economic systems fostered by them.    
Advertisement by The Novelties for modern furniture in an “ideal home”. Source: Times of India, 1937, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

There are a plethora of advertisements from the time that illustrate the types of homes that may have been considered aspirational. An advertisement put in The Times of India by The Novelties in 1937 went with the peg of making one’s ideal home “different”. “Modernise your home with a suite of Austrian steel furniture,” asserted the copy, describing it as a better option than wood for the city’s climate.

Another advertisement for Miller Cabinet Works draws attention to the work of “skilled Chinese carpenters” carried out under “European supervision”. 

Advertisement for Modern Furniture in Modern Homes, by Miller Cabinet Works. Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, 1936, Art Deco Mumbai Archives
Army & Navy Stores, a British cooperative that served several expatriates in India’s colonial cities often took out advertisements for furnishings. These stores opened along networks of British colonial centres, like Karachi, Madras, New Delhi, and Bombay, bringing to the “tropics” styles and basic consumer goods local to London. In an advertisement from 1936, one can see an illustration of a sleek Art Deco-styled sofa, along with the copy: “To professional men baffled by the glut of cheap, commonplace furnishings and fittings in Indian markets, we offer sympathetic help.” [23]
Advertisement for Army & Navy Stores, Ltd. with lavish designs for Art Deco-style furniture. Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, 1936, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

Women, again, became the focal point in many of these advertisements. A spread in a 1934 Times of India “Beautiful Homes” supplement describes the plight of the “average memsahib coming to India for the first time”, invoking the sensibility of the English housewife to make her new abode in India more “homely”. [24] The messaging in advertisements for interior decoration and beautification of apartments was frequently directed at women readers, the idea being that as homemakers they would spend a greater amount of time indoors (like the “average memsahib”) and would be the perfect candidate to be concerned with the aesthetics of the house. In another Times of India entry from a few weeks prior to the aforementioned spread, the various upgrades possible in the kitchen, from electric refrigerators to stoves, are highlighted. These interventions are proposed as modern conveniences, but the figures in the images, and who the copy is addressed to, are only women. Even in the modern home, gender roles seem to be dictated by traditional conventions.

Advertisement for a surface cleaner with a clear image of a woman on the packaging. Source: Times of India, 1934, Art Deco Mumbai Trust Archives
Advertisement for a cooking utensils store appealing to the “happy housewife”. Source: Times of India, 1934, Art Deco Mumbai Trust Archives

Gas was a significant modern amenity. Bombay Gas Company placed several advertisements in newspapers and journals of the time, making a case for refrigeration, hot water, and easy cooking with gas. “No tropical food problems,” declares one 1936 advertisement, referring to a shift in lifestyle as preserving food in Bombay’s wet climate became possible with proper refrigeration. The modern home could also be equipped with hot water on demand, allowing one the luxury of enjoying long, hot baths instead of just the functional act of ablutions. Many of the advertisement copies by the company draw attention to how sleek and good looking all the appliances are, and how they add to and enhance the aesthetics of the interiors.

“Three essentials for the modern home”, as seen in a 1938 advertisement - gas refrigerator, cooker and water heater. Source: Journal of Indian Institute of Architects, 1938, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

By 1953, in an advertisement published in the MCGM brochure, the company is found announcing no more gas connections are available since “citizens of Bombay” have embraced this amenity so wholeheartedly, resulting in a “demand which has exceeded the supply”.

The Bombay Gas Company claiming it has run out of supplies due to overwhelming demand for gas connections. Source: Our Bombay, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai 1953, Art Deco Mumbai Archives
The Entertainment Realm
There were also new avenues of recreation emerging at the time. The radio, of course, was a modern amenity, not only in Bombay, but around the world. To be able to hear a disembodied voice over a radio frequency was a marvel of modern technology, and to have a portable console within the home was a novel experience. It often became the centrepiece in the living room, around which the family would gather for the evening news. A Times of India entry from November 1937, the day the exhibition opened, stated: “In fact, round this marvellous instrument can be built all kinds of afternoon and evening parties. If you have half a dozen friends to dinner, the radio will supply the background music to the cocktails, while during dessert it will give you the day’s news.” [25]
An advertisement for His Master’s Voice (American) Radio asserting “no ideal home is complete” without it. Source: Times of India, 1937, Art Deco Mumbai Archives
A 1938 advertisement by HMV selling the most popular film records from the year. Source: Filmindia, Internet Archive

The following year, His Master’s Voice (HMV) put an advertisement in Filmindia with images of some of the most popular film stars of the time – Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar, Surendra and Bibbo, and K.C. Dey. “Finest Film Hits are Recorded on His Master’s Voice,” said the advertisement, with the iconic logo of the dog and the gramophone, as it encouraged patrons to take home their favourite film records to listen at leisure. 

Cinema exhibition and filmgoing was another significant development of the times, shaping public culture and recreation in urban centres around the world. Bombay was no different. The 1930s saw the emergence of a variety of Art Deco picture palaces, as well as the conversion of erstwhile stage theatres into talkies. Newspapers had columns dedicated to show timings, and often carried special supplements that covered various aspects of a new cinema in town. The cover of a brochure published by Excelsior Theatre paints a glamorous picture of what a night at the theatre could look like in the early 20th century. There are blinding lights illuminating the theatre’s Art Deco facade, streamlined luxury cars, women and men wearing the latest fashions. These cinemas boasted of scientifically cooled air, the finest talkie equipment, and various aspirational luxuries that urban life could offer. Going to the cinema was an all-encompassing experience of splendour and leisure, beyond simply the specific film that may have been playing. 

The cover of a brochure of their weekly programme, published by Excelsior Theatre. Source: Art Deco Mumbai Archives

Similarly, modern ideas of recreation also extended to other aspects of life. A playful advertisement for Beck’s, a German beer popular to this day, combines the leisurely ideas of playing golf and enjoying a cold can of beer. Notably, a big part of the island city’s development was the emergence of several gymkhanas and sports clubs in the early 20th century, in particular Brabourne (now Cricket Club of India), the Art Deco-style stadium in Churchgate, which provided wealthy Indians with a space to practice sport for leisure. A new city had been reclaimed from the sea, and it was being designed with several pockets of leisure and modern recreation. 

An advertisement for Beck’s beer making a reference to leisure sports and the pleasure of consuming a cold beverage. Source: Pathe Cinema Program, Art Deco Mumbai Archives
New Ways of Being Mobile

Mobility is one of the defining themes of the modern age. The 19th and early 20th century saw developments that dissolved international borders, allowing the travel of people, goods and ideas. The Indian Railways were established in 1836. Three decades later, the opening of the Suez Canal considerably reduced the travel time between Britain and India, bolstering trade between the two shores. By 1903, the Wright brothers had successfully powered the first aeroplane. As significant preoccupations of the modern age, speed and mobility were also reflected in the city’s built environment. In the Art Deco style, one can see motifs referencing these new modes of travel, with turrets resembling ocean liners or streamlined balconies that looked like locomotive engines. 

With novel ways of voyaging being made available to a larger group of people, travel emerged as an industry even in the subcontinent. In this 1936 advertisement, TATA Airlines (later, Air India) announced a lottery contest for lucky winners to enjoy a “free Aerial Trip in TATA’S AEROPLANES”. There seems to be no itinerary attached with the trips, and in all likelihood, the prize was simply a joyride on one of the new TATA planes – a significant triumph given that the airline had kickstarted India’s aviation industry with its launch only four years prior, in 1932. [26]
An advertisement by TATA Airlines announcing a lottery contest in 1936, still in the nascent years of air travel in India. Source: Regal - The Theatre Magnificent, October 1936, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

In contrast to flying, railways were a novel but relatively affordable means to travel. In fact, Bombay was chosen as the starting point of the first passenger train in the Indian subcontinent, in 1853, which ran between Bori Bunder (later rebuilt as the Victoria Terminus) and Thane. By the 1930s, it became possible for ordinary citizens of Bombay to travel India for leisure. GIP or the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (now the Central Railway) took out packages for tours starting in Bombay, heading north towards Delhi, Benares, and Calcutta, or heading south towards Madras, Tanjore and back. These tickets were available to all classes of passengers. Again, notice the figure in the advertisement – an unmistakably Indian woman, seemingly lost in thought at the idea of being able to voyage through India, a convenience accorded to her by modern railroads and infrastructure.

An advertisement by Great Indian Peninsula Railways for round-tours starting in Bombay. Source: Excelsior Weekly Programme, Art Deco Mumbai Archives

Modern living, of course, is incomplete without the personal vehicle.

Campaign by Metro Motors Bombay advertising the latest Pontiac model, published in a weekly programme brochure by Excelsior Theatre. Source: Art Deco Mumbai Archives

While not everyone could afford an automobile, the city nevertheless welcomed several luxury automobile companies to set up workshops. General Motors, Ford and Premier Automobiles had all established shops in Bombay, and one would often see cars like Buick and Chevrolet being driven down the Marine Drive promenade.


The electric tram fulfilled the need for public transport in a growing city, with double-decker tram cars being introduced by 1920 to accommodate the density of passengers.

Today, it seems impossible to imagine the city was once connected by a thriving tram network. But the system did shape the infrastructure of the city, with the circular gardens at Sion, Dadar and Kings Circle acting as the last stop for the tram line. The local train network, arguably the nerves and sinews that feed the metropolitan city of Mumbai to date, also emerges by the early 20th century, allowing people to travel far greater distances. It is in this period that the adage “the city never sleeps” is being realised. Bombay, the hustling city, fostered opportunities, dreams, innovations and negotiations required to make life possible on its shores.

A way of life was being envisioned, much of which was fashioned around aspirations of modernity, or at least what one believed to be modern. ‘Modern’ became a catch-all term that also carried within it several complexities and contradictions, whether it be the degree of new freedoms accorded to women, the idea of a cosmopolitan city that was also the site of a burgeoning nationalist struggle for independence, and an emerging middle class that largely spoke the language of the coloniser – a tool of negotiation, in some ways, used to ascend in the social hierarchy.

In Conclusion
Many of the advertisements surveyed above were for brand name products, targeted largely towards the urban middle class in the city. Identifying as a member of this heterogeneous class often meant the rejection of vernacular practices as unscientific or backward, instead embracing ‘modernity’ by consuming branded commodities, frequently imported from overseas or manufactured in large urban centres like Bombay. [27]
These advertisements often presented the middle class consumer as someone who had the money to spare on these commodities and experiences, even if they had to look for “reasonable prices” or “value for money”. The Second World War, in which India reluctantly participated on behalf of Britain, led to the rationing of several basic consumer goods. This shortage, instead of hampering consumption, may have fuelled the desires of this flourishing middle class that had the purchasing power. As Douglas Haynes has pointed out, the advertisements of the period often sold “fantasy, pleasure and a modest degree of sexuality”, despite wartime rationing. [28]

If in some of the earlier advertisements, these fantasies looked foreign, often with European-looking figures, gradually they started to give way to more obviously Indian-looking figures – as if to say Indians too could partake in these fantasies now. These fantasies included the possibility of urban professionals enjoying leisure activities like visiting the theatre, promenading at Marine Drive, decorating their flats in the latest fashions, etc. While the degree of consumption may differ based on an individual’s purchasing power, what remained common for all those attempting to identify as middle class was the act of consumption itself. 

At the heart of ‘modernity’ lay the end of an old order to embrace new technologies, commodities, attitudes, and ways of life. These advertisements positioned home products, construction materials, recreation, and the apartment itself as this way of life – an all-encompassing lifestyle that defines the city to date. It became the perfect conduit for those looking to rise in the social hierarchy, by taking on various aspects of modern life and fashioning a new class category. In an ideal modern world, older stratifications of caste and class ceased to be relevant. A modern city, like the one Bombay was emerging to be in the early 20th century, could be a site of dizzying aspirations, alienation and hardships. But it was a polyglot nevertheless, a new city, where anyone was welcome to adopt new ways of living. 

Suhasini Krishnan for Art Deco Mumbai

Suhasini is a writer and journalist based in New Delhi, with an academic background in Film Studies and History. Her research interests lie in cinema, modernity, and the making of an urban city.

[1]. Urbs Prima in Indis is Latin for ‘The First City of India’, a name given to Bombay to capture its position as the entrypoint into the Indian subcontinent for overseas trade in the 19th century. Bombay was renamed Mumbai in 1995. Wherever the article describes events before 1995, the city is referred to by its former name.

[2]. BB Misra, The Indian Middle Classes: Their Growth in Modem Times (Oxford University Press, 1963).

[3]. Douglas Haynes, “Creating the Consumer?” in Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, ed. Douglas Haynes, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy, and Haruka Yanagisawa (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010), 185-223.

[4].  Ibid.

[5]. Prashant Kidambi, “Creating the Consumer?” in Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, ed. Douglas Haynes, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy, and Haruka Yanagisawa (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010), 112.

[6].  Ibid., 110

[7]. Sanjay Joshi, Fractured Modernity: Making of a Middle Class in Colonial North India (Oxford University Press: New Delhi, 2001).

[8]. The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2008).

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Advertisement for Pond's Skin Vitamin, Filmindia (May, 1938), 12.

[11]. Sarah Rahman Niazi, “White Skin/ Brown Masks: The Case of ‘White’ Actresses From Silent to Early Sound Period in Bombay”, Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research 10, no. 3 (2019).

[12]. Advertisement for Pond's Skin Vitamin, Filmindia (August, 1938), 78.

[13]. Priti Ramamurthy, “All-Consuming Nationalism: The Indian Modern Girl in the 1920s and 1930s” in The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization, ed. The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008) 147-174

[14]. Cinemaazi, “Leela Chitnis”, Cinemaazi.

[15]. Ibid.

[16]. Sabeena Gadihoke, “Selling Soap and Stardom: The Story of Lux” in Visual Homes, Image Worlds: Essays from Tasveer Ghar, the House of Pictures, ed. Christiane Brosius, Sumathi Ramaswamy, and Yousuf Saeed, (New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2015), 294-311.

[17]. Douglas Haynes, “Advertising and the History of South Asia, 1880 - 1950”, History Compass 13, no. 8, (2015): 364.

[18]. Advertisement for Lever Brothers India (Limited), Our Bombay, Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, 1953.

[19]. Douglas Haynes, “Creating the Consumer?” in Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, ed. Douglas Haynes, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy, and Haruka Yanagisawa (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010), 185-223.

[20]. Aditi Dey, “Chawls of Bombay”, Sahapedia, November 2, 2018,

[21]. Advertisement by Simplex Art Floorings Ltd, Times of India (February 1940), 18.

[22]. Abigail McGowan, “Domestic Modern: Redecorating Homes in Bombay in the 1930s”, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 75, no. 4 (December 2016), 424-446.

[23]. Advertisement by Army & Navy Stores, Journal of Indian Institute of Architects3, no.2 (October 1936).

[24]. “Transformation Scene in an Indian Drawing Room”, Times of India, June 11, 1934, 12.

[25]. Jascoe Dorothe, “Don't Be Bored At Home! Modern Instruments Make Entertainment Easy”, The Times of India, November 3, 1937, 22.

[26]. “Wings for a Nation”,,

[27]. Douglas Haynes, “Creating the Consumer?” in Towards a History of Consumption in South Asia, ed. Douglas Haynes, Abigail McGowan, Tirthankar Roy, and Haruka Yanagisawa (New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2010), 185-223.

[28]. Ibid., 216

Research / Mumbai`s Art Deco / History