Kala Ghoda: Changing landscapes, shifting templates

09 June,2024 06:50 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Fiona Fernandez

This buzzing sub-precinct, often dubbed as the city’s premier district for art and culture, is witnessing tiny, yet noticeable changes to its streetscapes. The hub for all things history, heritage and typically ‘Bombay’, needs to be preserved in its OG avatar

The Kala Ghoda area in South Mumbai. Pic/Fiona Fernandez

Our first memories of ‘experiencing' Kala Ghoda was as a wide-eyed collegian stepping into Café Samovar. It was unlike any eatery that our suburban soul had ever witnessed before. Conversations around us swayed from the latest productions at NCPA and Indira Gandhi's splendid saree collection, to the need for more states to set up their emporiums in the city. From silver-haired Calcutta cotton-wearing SoBo aunties, to theatre actors, to students like us, the tiny linear-shaped space somehow managed to pack in a heady mix of cosmopolitan, multicultural patrons. With hindsight, on all our visits, it strangely never felt crowded or noisy.

In that one hour as I sipped on pudina chai and pakodas and later, their bestseller - keema roll - my friends' chatter seemed less interesting. This was the ultimate cool hangout. Our next halt was to check out a few shows at the adjacent Jehangir Art Gallery. I recall gazing with awe at the late Milon Mukherjee's works - the actor and artist - passionately explaining to a bunch of us about the inspiration behind the collection on display.

After that healthy dose of art and culture, the rain came down, and we had to abort our mission to explore the rest of the area. Piqued by curiosity, I made a solo trip the next week itself. It's when I discovered what became my Disneyland for years to come - Rhythm House. Anyone who hasn't been there might as well discontinue reading this column. The vibe inside this music-filled universe was a haven for every kind of music buff. Santana and Ella, Madonna and Mick, all grooved in perfect harmony. Wayside Inn next door became another must-halt adda to watch the city go by.

For me, and I can safely say, countless Bombaywallahs, Kala Ghoda became the ‘centre' of discoveries, and the stamp to best represent its cultural heartbeat. Later, my foray into the world of history and heritage made me look at this neighbourhood with a more refined, deeper lens. In pre- and post-Independent India, it emerged as the nucleus where writers, artists, poets and theatre people converged to discuss, debate and talk shop. Being surrounded by the David Sassoon Library and Reading Room, the now-in-ruin Watson's on Esplanade, the art gallery, the synagogue, the museum and Max Mueller Bhavan, as well as iconic restaurants like Chetana, Samovar and Khyber, it lends a fascinating diverse historicity to the area. Most of these landmarks [as well as several other key sights and sounds] have backstories of their origins, their founders, and a legacy worth celebrating for centuries to come. The sense of discoverability is immense.

However, on a recent hop across this beloved neighbourhood, we noticed [these sightings have occurred on our many walks here for a while now] the rapid emergence of new, shiny glamorous entrants into this neighbourhood - a complete contrast to the OG fabric. The presence of these Johnny-come-latelys is nearly blinding and out of sync with the previously organic evolution of the area. As I crisscrossed the gullies off the main traffic island, I lost track of their numbers. The new pizza/ice cream-type newbies also made me stop and get a sense of the changing F&B scenery.

A certain kind of gentrification has crept in; the sameness in the template is getting obvious. With it, I've also spotted a different prototype of the visitor/shopper/tourist doing the rounds here, as they hop in and out of their Maybachs and BMWs. The culturally-clued in Bombaywallah is hardly spotted in these swanky window-dressed stores-lined gullies; sure, they pop in and out like side characters in a play on this newly-drafted map.

It also took me back to recall the socio-cultural impact that places like Wayside Inn, Cafe Samovar and Rhythm House had on the area; how they were able to draw in people across social strata in the pre-digital, pre-Insta age. A few remain, like Chetana, where the ambiance is 100 per cent intact, and yes, ghazals are still played on loop. Khyber and a few others have also survived from that era, holding on strongly.

While it is reassuring to know that there are plenty of invested stakeholders who will ensure that the map does get drastically redrawn, or that its heritage value and character doesn't get tampered with, it is these small developments that remind us about these changes and make us a tad uncomfortable; that it has already taken up a hefty amount of visual and physical space in this neighbourhood is there for all to see.

Going ahead, it will be critical to ensure that things don't go off-balance in this precious tiny cultural hub where brilliant minds and class-less sanctuaries of the arts defined the city, and also paved the way for a cultural awakening. Today's generations might be oblivious to the fact that there was a time when the likes of FN Souza and Nissim Ezekiel sipped on coffee at Wayside Inn as they discussed the city's packed cultural calendar. It was the real Bombay that built today's Mumbai. Let's preserve what's left of it.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana

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