Wholesale dream for Bombay
Crawford Market's design was ahead of its time and incorporated crucial factors for a key public utility service
A few days ago, I mustered the courage [it was a Sunday evening] to step into the main bazaar area in Mulund after a long time. Blame it on scars from the past [read: the inability to do the balancing act with heavy bags across the desi version of an obstacle course] but I decided to head straight to the melee and take things head-on.
It had been a while since the main building, the heart of the buzzing area that housed the Jalaram Bappa Mandai (Marathi: market), had undergone a complete revamp. The old asbestos-roofed structure with brick and stone partitions for fruit, veggies, a few small retail vendors that sold kitschy beauty products, and hosiery [a rarity on signboards these days] had been replaced by a monstrosity of a structure. I missed the rickety, earlier avatar that was always my local reference point for Crawford Market. And, unlike the new one, it was well planned, with suitable ventilation and sufficient exit points on both sides of the V-shaped structure that lined two important roads. Character amidst the chaos. Despite the hustle and bustle, vendors like for example, the kandawala, always found the time for pleasantries, etc. But I am digressing.
Recently, I had access to a book on Arthur Crawford that offered tremendous insight into his corrupt terms as the first municipal commissioner of Bombay and later, as commissioner of the southern division of the Bombay presidency. To say that it was revelatory, would be understating the obvious. The man misused his power and was embroiled in all kinds of bribes and scandals. While reading up on his projects in the city, naturally Crawford Market was a key mention. He foresaw the need for a wholesale market that could be the nodal point for all smaller ones that dotted the city.
A design competition was held and William Emerson won the contest. Crawford himself chose the spot for the market at the edge of the Esplanade [the undivided stretch that is today's Cooperage, Oval, Cross and Azad Maidans]. It was at the point where the White (colonial settlement) and Black (Indian settlements) Towns converged that made it accessible to both sides. The actual building was well partitioned and segregated for all kinds of fresh produce as well as non-consumable products. Entry and exit points opened into the main roads. Of course, with time and lack of quality control and checks, the place isn't a shade of its former avatar. Cleanliness and overcrowding continue to be pressing concerns.
Some years back, I had returned to Calcutta's famous Hogg Market (commonly known as New Market) and was pleasantly surprised to notice how the space had cleaned up its act. That place was reminiscent of Bombay's wholesale market in many ways — teeming crowds, varieties of sellers and vendors, confusing sections and sheer numbers.
Crawford surely can do the same. And, it must. Historic relevance apart, it remains the heart and soul of Bombay's very first market, in the ideal sense of the term; the template went on to be recreated across several others in the Bombay presidency and within the island city as well, on a smaller scale.
I did alright during my visit to the 'Mandai' that day. Yet the experience of being in a market wasn't quite there. It felt clinical. And that's probably why Bombaywallahs don't mind the madness of Crawford Market. Whether it is the trek itself from far off Vasai to buy that giant Christmas tree or the circuitous negotiation to avoid the shopping mafia during their monthly visits for bargain buys. It's a mini-universe that ought to be preserved for sure and replicated in its truest sense. After all, isn't it a bit like Bombay?
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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