Mumbai: Annual Bandra Fair hijacked by 'outsiders'

The East Indian community claims they, the original natives who helped promote the fair since inception, have been shunted to the sidelines, denied stalls

The annual Bandra Fair, which kicks off today, celebrates the feast of Our Lady of the Mount which falls on the Sunday following September 8, the birthday of Virgin Mary. The week-long celebration when all roads lead to the Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount that overlooks the Arabian Sea, is one of Mumbai's most popular religious celebrations, dating back to over 300 years.

The Church controls 150 stalls from about 500 that surround Mount Mary Church during the annual fair
The Church controls 150 stalls from about 500 that surround Mount Mary Church during the annual fair

It’s also one of the most controversial.

With over 60,000 visitors arriving in the first few hours on day one last year, safety has been top of mind for the tony suburb’s cosmopolitan residents. Last year, the fair came under the scanner of the Bombay High Court after a PIL was filed, alleging that the BMC had not taken adequate safety precautions or drafted rules to govern the more than 500 stalls that sell everything from pickle and eats to arms and legs made of wax for offering to the Mother.

MGP spokesperson Walter Murzello. pic/nimesh dave
MGP spokesperson Walter Murzello. Pic/Nimesh Dave

A Facebook page of the East Indian Community titled, Save Bandra Fair, ran a post last August that rued how “paid activists and officials” were trying to rob the community of celebrating a 300-year-old tradition. A silent candle light vigil was called on August 15 at the Mount Mary steps to announce solidarity. That same week, the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (MGP), a welfare organisation representing the city’s ancient East Indian villages, ran a post on its Facebook page, taking a dig at the inconvenience faced by Bandraites, who were rooting for fewer stalls to contain chaos. “All Bandra residents who have a problem can go for a holiday to their native place,” the post read.

Visitors at the stalls set up the week-long Bandra fair, last year
Visitors at the stalls set up the week-long Bandra fair, last year

Ironically, the very same organisation isn’t in the mood to support the fair this year, calling it a “commercial event”. In the very same breath, its representatives are keen to have a slice of the commercial pie, questioning the fairness behind the process of allotting stalls that line over 12 lanes running up to the Church.

Advocate Godfrey Pimenta, vice president of The Bombay East Indian Association, said, “Approximately five hundred stalls are going to be pitched on land owned by the Church and BMC. While the Church has an internal process of selecting stall owners based on their past participation, the rest are handed out to highest bidders by the civic authority. This year, not a single stall has been given to an East Indian.” The association is one of the earliest establishments set up in 1887 to unite the community during the British era.

According to figures available to him, the most coveted stalls line the steps of the Church and their rentals decrease as you move further down the road. Pimenta claimed that about 20 stalls have been given to bidders at a cost of R4 lakh 40 thousand per stall. Of approximately 500 stalls available, 150 are under the control of the Church while the rest are controlled by the BMC. While the East Indian community’s representatives urge a more transparent process of allocation, they rue the fact that as Mumbai’s oldest inhabitants who in fact, first promoted the fair, they have been ruthlessly sidelined. Also, their demand for a Special Holy Mass in the East Indian Marathi dialect is yet to be acknowledged by the Church, they say. The MGP has communicated its disappointment to the Church, and Bandra West MLA Ashish Shelar.

In fact, according to Walter Murzello, spokesperson and trustee of MGP, the organisation has reports that indicate that the land where Mount Mary Church sits originally belonged to members of the East Indian community. “We were the first people to promote the celebration and support it. But what began as a religious celebration has now turned commercial. The East Indians played a major role in assisting the Church and municipal authorities organise the feast since inception. We’ve been reduced to mere volunteers, robbed of our chance to showcase our age-old tradition of food and culture,” he said. He sees the skewed allocation of stalls as “injustice”, which he finds unacceptable considering “the Church promotes equality”.

Although the Church’s structure is just about 100 years old, the legacy of the statue of Our Lady of Mount dates back to the 1700s, when according to some records, the statue was disfigured by Arab pirates, its right hand broken, and tossed into the ocean. According to legend, a Koli fisherman dreamt that he would find it in the sea, and did. In 1760, the damaged chapel of Mount Mary’s Basilica was rebuilt and the statue that the fisherman had found was substituted with a statue of Our Lady of Navigators from the nearby St. Andrew’s Church in Bandra.

Aniceto Pereira, assistant rector of Mount Mary Church, who supervises the allocation of stalls, confirmed having received a letter from members of the community, but said the request had come late. “Their grievance is worth considering and I have assured them that it will be addressed after the feast. The Church is in control of about 150 stalls and are handed out to traditional vendors from across India, irrespective of cast, creed or religion. We have nothing to do with the stalls controlled by the BMC, “ he said.

Addressing the safety concern, Pereira said the Church had received a notification from Mumbai fire brigade to reduce the number of stalls. “We can’t up numbers just to keep everyone happy but we haven’t said a no to them either,” he said.

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