Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Notes from B.Town (Day 2)

Moving out of the old city proper, I travelled to explore some of the suburbs of Mumbai. Starting at the Marine Drive, I went to the Banganga tank in Walkeshwar, the mills of Lower Parel and then to Bandra and Pali Hill. I was surprised to see that many Gymkhana Maidans along the Marine Drive do not have any boundary wall facing the main street; made the urban open space feel larger, more public.

I vividly remembered my last visit to the Banganga tank and wanted to relive the experience of this urban oasis, introspective and calm; as much beyond the city as it is inside it. The neighbourhood reminds me of the ruins of Hampi, ancient and oh-so-stable, as though it is going to remain exactly the same for another hundred years. The temples become the social anchor to the tank, holding the essence of the place together in all the bustle and transformation of the city.

Lower Parel was quite a surprising mix of the old and the intervened, with many fluid and elegant multi-storey glass buildings abutting grimly old low lying neighborhoods. This was a story of aggressive urban transformation, that I think would have had equally powerful social consequences. While rehabilitated people occupied humble four storey housing with hand painted signage; offices, stores and meeting rooms occupied the the glass towers. I then went to the Mathuradas Mill Compound, my taxi cab driver told me that most of these towers were built on mill compound sites that would have looked much like this at one point. I did sneaky tours of a few places and finally planted myself at the very pleasant Cafe Zoe. While all of the internal adaptive reuse was interesting indeed, these establishments just felt very disconnected from their setting, almost oblivious and opaque. It felt like the city had here been reduced to architecture, buildings in cement and steel and was then worked with, just formally and spatially. This was quite different to all that I had observed the previous day, but in some way very familiar (almost similar to a lot of Delhi).

I then went Bandra to meet my architect friend Pallavi who took me around Bandra. Lunching at the maze like Candies, we walked to the village of Chuim. Starkly different from the intense urban villages of Delhi, this was pleasant and quaint. Pallavi told me the villagers here were well to do but more importantly content with their peaceful lives. Walking past a few cool studios we came across this partly hidden funky signage to the Hive. Curious much, we walked in to find ourselves in the middle of this inspiring and engaging place that hosted coworking, independent events, workshops, classes for village children, a cafe and a sea of possibilities on their spacious terrace. The discovery excited and inspired me at many levels. How much does the Hive owe to its setting? Are there places like this in Delhi? How can I help sustain these creative projects?

The following visit to the Ranwar village only made many of these questions clearer. Walking across the main bazaar street selling fresh fruit and vegetables and everyday things we reached the neighborhoods that housed quaint cafes and street art. It was pleasant and pedestrian in a very good way. There were many people and houses rich and poor; young and old, but essentially ordinary and comfort. The place was eventful but not intense, it was comfortable. It made me wonder how the urban villages of Delhi became so intensely overused and abused, as hotbeds of volatile rental real estate and repurposed architecture disconnected with its neighboring social fabric?

And still every inch of urban space felt utilized skillfully and defined. Later that evening in front of Salman Khan’s home, Pallavi and I talked about this thrifty spirit everywhere in the city. She told me it came from how perhaps everyone comes to Bombay and struggles for a few years, working really really hard and only then does life become a little comfortable. It is not embarrassing to have less money. It is not embarrassing to travel on local trains and buses. It is ordinary life and there are many more people living this ordinary life, sharing public space and transport. How does this compare with Delhi? The metro has made so much of a difference but has it?

I clearly have to spend more time to figure out and visit many more places in Mumbai and Delhi. Crawford Market, Kala Ghoda, Dharavi, Versova, Thane and many many more places are still left to do. Do let me know if you have any recommendations/ suggestions or any starting points of answers to some of these questions.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Notes from B.Town (Day 1)

I went to explore the older parts of Mumbai on the first day, Bombay. Starting from what was possibly the first establishment of Colaba, the Sassoon Dock, I went to Fort, Yazdani Bakery, Horniman Circle, and stopped at Brittannia Bakery in Ballard Estate for lunch. The air mostly felt dense, almost suffocating at places that were not ventilated. While the fish, sea food, flower and everyday goods market by the Sassoon dock became one of the most (overwhelmingly) memorable sensations of this trip, walking through the busy markets into the bylanes of Bhuleshwar with signage reading in many many locally spoken languages made me got me closer to the city’s real diversity and its cultural intersections.
Most of the wandering on the first day made me feel like Mumbai was far more urban than Delhi was and had been a mature and bustling centre of urbanity for much longer than Delhi has. It was thriving with density and diversity, with its people, shops and transactions. Walking through the Fort and Ballard Estate area, with most buildings dating back to the 19th and early 20th century colonial lineage, there was this sense of comfort for the human scale. The formal building edge, the generous footpath and the sufficiently wide road seemed to really make it comfortable for people and also impressively accommodate for the many cars of present times. The synergy felt deliberate.

In Dhobi Talao and Bhuleshwar, the expression on Old Parsi and Gujarati owned buildings changed to become more localized. The street grew tighter (and busier but organized) and the neighbourhood felt a lot more intervened upon and contemporary. The teleporting threshold of the big Krishna temple under renovation at Bhuleshwar felt suspended between the busy transactional hub and the temple courtyard that humbled you amidst other old Gujarati women and men. This un-urbane nucleus was at the centre of all of this city and yet quite outside it.

The city had this amazing intensity that came from its efficient and thrifty use of the available urban space. Seating created by buildings, shop fronts, places for plants, the edge of the sidewalk, the entrances to buildings, large urban doors that could be opened only partly to work like smaller windows. Bademiya in Colaba surprised me and inspired me. It actually manifests itself in a way that the main kitchen and seating area separated by the main street! So it functions as a take-away and a dine in restaurant with the service circulation being its most public access. Among other things, this also got the centrestage to the food. I often miss this efficiency in Delhi where I see tonnes of public space wasted because it is left unclaimed or undefined.

Notes from B.Town

I was recently in Mumbai for a short solo vacation after a close cousin’s wedding. It had been quite a while since I had really been unoccupied enough to just absorb the spirit of a place, draw of it and draw from it. This was ideal. The intention was to pretty much get lost in the city, see the city life and city lights. The plan was simple; to just walk around town, visit neighbourhoods and food places and observe and draw. Much inspiration for drawing with brush pens came from the Superheroes at Turmeric Design and the happy notebooks from Paperbox

Having been to the city a few times before and being decently skilled at the Marathi language (though I did not end up in many places where I needed to use it), I was able to easily break the touristy ice and hunt for the local flavour, get a feel of of the city. My Mumbai based uncle insisted that I can never get the real feel of Bombay until I spend a night on a footpath. After having spent almost all his adult life in the city, he claims to have never wanted to get this feel of the city for himself.

On the first evening of this trip, I walked to the very charming Abode, to prepare an itinerary for the coming two days. In the itinerary were things/places my friends in Bombay insisted I do, along with suggestions from Abedin Sham at the Abode. Right after, I spent an hour at the Gateway of India. 

My Bombay bucket list was solid and the tone was set;to unearth the old and to understand the intervened. Having recently done a fair bit of Delhi Dallying I was looking forward to explore the city as cultural and architectural narratives woven together. Now that I go through these notes again, I see a whole bunch of grammatical and etc errors. But, I also see spontaneity and honesty. 

I consciously decided to have no music playing in my ears mostly through the trip, but Avishai Cohen’s album Gently Disturbed seemed to be getting the vibe quite well. Articulating an underlying structure in the city that you can surely sense but cannot decipher lucidly, the music during the breaks was as engaging as the city itself. 

Here are notes from Day 1
Here are notes from Day 2