Mumbai: 'New' residents of Byculla make case for retaining precinct's rich history

In the face of the city’s growing development, the ‘new’ residents of Byculla make a case for retaining the precinct’s rich history and heritage

“It’s more for them than us,” are the words of Pamela Bubber, a resident of Planet Godrej, a posh five-tower residential property at KK Road, that connects Mahalakshmi with Byculla. Bubber is referring to the Byculla Memory Project, which launched on Monday right in her neighbourhood. Initiated by residents of the 46-storey towers (developed on Simplex Mill lands) the project is a two-pronged effort to beautify their neighbouhood through tactical urbanism, and showcase Byculla’s rich industrial heritage and the working-class history. The project, it is hoped, will cut through the strong “us” and “them” class divide that’s obvious in central Mumbai, where defunct mill lands have been redeveloped as residential properties.

Artist Harshvardhan Kadam paints the compound wall of Planet Godrej to mark the launch of the Byculla Memory Project on Monday. Pics/Ajinkya Sawant
Artist Harshvardhan Kadam paints the compound wall of Planet Godrej to mark the launch of the Byculla Memory Project on Monday. Pics/Ajinkya Sawant

A mural, painted by artist Harshvardhan Kadam (aka Ink Brush N Me), is the first to come up as part of the Byculla Memory Project. Painted on the compound wall of Planet Godrej, it geographically marks Jacob Circle on one end with Byculla on the other, and depicts, in a Mario Miranda-ish fashion, the different communities that once inhabited the stretch — Jews (Jacob Circle is named after Sir Jacob Sassoon, for instance), Muslims, Hindus and Christians. It also takes into account the notable architectural gems strewn around, such as Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, the Khada Parsi statue and the Gothic Gloria Church.

Planet Godrej residents Harjith Bubber (left) and Sandeep Gadodia (right), and BIT Chawl resident and fireman Dharmendra Agarkar
Planet Godrej residents Harjith Bubber (left) and Sandeep Gadodia (right), and BIT Chawl resident and fireman Dharmendra Agarkar

Explaining Kadam’s mural to us, industrialist Harjith Bubber, who has been at the forefront of the project, says that the space beneath the mural will be cleaned up and street furniture will be brought in for the residents of the Bombay Improvement Trust (BIT) Chawl who live opposite. On Tuesday’s windy evening, we saw BIT Chawl residents sit on tiled platforms near a memorial to Dr Amebdkar on one end of the wall.
“People from across the street can come and use this space more if there is a proper seating arrangement,” says Bubber.

Seated near a vast aquamarine pool in Godrej Planet, Bubber says that in terms of urban place-making, this a win-win situation. “Residents from Godrej Planet may not physically use the seating outside or the mural. However, we can use it mentally as a space that we are arriving in,” he says.

The mural has become a hit with those within and outside the colony as a great selfie point.

Beauty in history
Taking the project further ahead, say Bubber and former industrialist Sandeep Gadodia, there will be a stress on the textile mills and the unionised movements that Byculla has witnessed over the last century. On Wednesday morning, we are joined by Dharmendra Agarkar, a fireman in E Ward, who lives in the BIT Chawl opposite Planet Godrej. Enthused by the mural when it was getting made earlier in the week, Agarkar shares childhood memories of how workers from Simplex Mills rejoiced in between shifts. “With dhols and lezims, the workers would play music or play games like kabaddi,” says Agarkar, who has been living in BIT Chawl since his birth, 49 years ago.

Agarkar could lay claim to Byculla as he swiftly points out its various historical aspects. He points to a flat in BIT once occupied by poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal. Further down the lane towards Jacob Circle lived Bhai Sangare, a Dalit Panther leader. Byculla Fish Market is where Ambedkar was married; the Elphinstone High School where Ambedkar was schooled is also in the precinct. “Right from the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement to gang wars, Byculla has seen it all,” says Agarkar. BIT Chawl, for instance, was built in 1923.

Gurbir Singh, an award-winning senior journalist and resident of Planet Godrej, says, “This project is for residents of Byculla to come together as communities in creating a more friendly neighbourhood. There is an onus on new properties and residents of gated communities to link with other residents as part of the city transform, from the industrial age to residential areas.”

The residents of Planet Godrej, including Nisaba Godrej, executive director at Godrej Cosumer Products Ltd, have collaborated with The Urban Vision, a think-do tank on livable cities, to make various urban elements.

Prathima Manohar, the founder of The Urban Vision, says, “Currently, development in the city is monoculture; several things in the neighbourhood may seem commonplace but we have to build public opinion around these things.” The long-term goal will include outdoor spaces, such as a reading corner for children in a garden, quality footpaths, and heritage markers in the area.

The Monday launch was attended by Ramakant Rahate, E Ward corporator, who said, “BMC’s rules and regulations will be followed for the Byculla Memory Project, which will be a way to beautify the place.”

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