The real badshahs of Bhendi Bazaar
With over a month to go for the Bhendi Bazar Urdu Festival, a three-day event (January 10, 11 and 12), Kanika Sharma meanders in the nostalgia-laden gallis of the historic precinct, to meet legends and soak in cultures that must brave change despite the odds
The literary legacy of Bhendi Bazar brims at every crossroad of this historic place that enjoyed eminence since the 19th century. Zubair Azmi, founder of Urdu Markaz and the director of the scheduled Bhendi Bazar Urdu Festival in January 2014 has taken on the onus to revive and celebrate Urdu culture that the area specially contributed to.
Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Sahir Ludhianvi, Janisar Akhtar are famous names that Azmi could utter in his sleep -- a testimony to the passion that Bhendi Bazar has represented. When we ask about his reasons to organise the festival, he replies, “Urdu Markaz, the organisation that works for revival of the language and its culture, found a place in Imamwada Urdu Municipal School in 2007. Bhendi Bazar is an area that cannot be constrained by municipality definitions. In actuality, it is from South Mumbai to Bhendi Bazar, Nagpada, Dongri till the Saat Rasta belt.” The festival will include a programme titled Hundred Years of Urdu Cinema comprising exhibitions to celebrate the area’s culture.
Seated at the school on Imamwada Road, he delves further into Bhendi Bazar’s legacy, and the Progressive movement’s connect with the place. We were lucky to meet the last of the torchbearers of this visionary movement of writers -- 81-year-old Inayat Akhtar -- who was passing by on the lane right below his home, a stone throw’s away from gangster, Dawood Ibrahim’s own. “Bhendi Bazar is my complete life.
I like everything about this place. People have abused and maligned the reputation of Bhendi Bazaar,” says the one-time labourer who painted packaging boxes. He further reminds us that the area bred shayars of great repute: “Once, I heard Faiz Ahmad Faiz recite his nazm in the area. It created such an impression that I approached him for a copy, only to be told that these were available at Maktaba Jamia (a legendary bookshop) for R3. I thought, here I don’t have 3 paisa in my pocket, how will I get R3. Reading my mind, he invited me to his home where he gave me a copy. Since then, I got drawn into the movement,” recalls Akhtar, who helmed the Leftist movement and Communist party from the Yaqoob Galli chowk .
“All Leftist poets had their homes here, and would sit at the now-shut Café Khushali for black tea and kahwa. Persian poetry makes you feel that the universe is around you. The Arcadia building near JJ Hospital was the shelter of poet Janisar Akhtar, father of Javed Akhtar where he wrote many of his hit lyrics for Bollywood including, Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yaha, zara hatke zara bachke ye hai Bambai meri jaan. The room still exists in this building; it hasn’t gone into redevelopment,” breaks off Azmi making one’s moorings in current time fade away. “Places like these haunted us. We wanted Bhendi Bazaar’s culture and objects of historical importance to be recorded by way of the festival on an annual basis,” he explains.
When the lights go out
Akhtar wrote scripts for TV serials in the 1980s -- Nukkad, and Vikram and Betaal. He chuckles that when late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi issued a statement that India is progressive and in sync with the 21st century, they satirised this through two of Nukkad’s episodes, post which the serial was canned due to political pressure.
Akhtar’s zest to recount the vigour of the many poets he befriended in his course of life such as Kaifi Azmi, Ali Sardar Jafri and others is infectious. Yet, we found his simplicity, clad in a lungi and living in a small room, undeserving. “Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Krishan Chander, Mahindarnath -- became my idols. Earlier, my idols would be the area’s gundas: Abdul Qayyum Sajjani, Amir Jadia and Babu Madrasi (almost 10 or 12 of them) who had committed murders. I wanted to be a famous gunda, too. But look how destiny shaped me into a writer,” reminisces the indefatigable personality.
The changing milieu
The communalisation of the society due to communal riots across the city and country affected this neighbourhood. Although, the diverse characteristic of the place is minimal with several ethnicities migrated.
“This area has emerged as a Muslim concentrated area, and what was once an enclave of middle-class merchants, is changing into a Muslim ghetto. There is a higher rate of unemployment, crime, destitutions, and other social evils. Despite considerable improvement in recent times, the area still lags behind in development compared to other areas in the city,” reveals Dr Abdul Shaban, sociologist at Tata Institue of Social Sciences.
Dr Shaban is optimistic about the area’s redevelopment. He predicts, “A significant proportion of people living here are rooted in art and culture. I’m confident that its development will bring the past glory back as it may lead to the return of some families who have left.” Yet, when we pose the same to Azmi, one hears an opinion that Inayat Akhtar might reflect too. The intimacy of the community that contours this area might get hindered leading to individualisation and commercialisation -- a future we feel, Akhtar would be at a loss in.
Did You Know?
>> Legendary writer Sadat Hasan Manto would visit Nagpada’s Sarvi Hotel every evening for a cup of tea.
>> Avami Adara, a library-cum-hall of the Communist party, was a commune of the Progressive writers and music director Salil Chaudhary conducted music classes for students here.