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Test kitchen, workshop, a home for misfits

St. Jude’s is treated as an almost-sacred passion project, a “labour of love”. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

The walls are painted black inside Bandra’s St. Jude Bakery, filled with posters, paintings, and little scribbles and reminders in chalk. In a corner, there’s an old mirror that’s there only because Gresham Fernandes’s wife made him get rid of it as it was covered in stickers. So it found a home here. The tiles — emphatic, technicolour, tessellated designs — were given by Bharat Tiles who, in return, hosted an exhibition for a new design they’d come up with. One side of the space functions as a kitchen, with expensive-looking equipment (all borrowed or refurbished) and unusual ingredients, including dried seahorse, its pungency escaping through the plastic casing.

The other is basically a whimsical, Bohemian co-working space. The interiors are in a constant state of movement; the grey, tangled web of lights — nominally, a chandelier — is another bequest. There’s bloom in the air because it was a bakery for 30-odd years.

It’s not one anymore, Fernandes assures me. He’s the group executive chef at Impresario, the hospitality group that owns some 40 restaurants across the country, including the wildly popular pub/ co-working space, Social, and he pretty much co-runs the space along with Kumud Dadlani, provenance manager at Impresario. It’s owned by the group, but sort of functions as a kind of independent retreat and testing ground, distanced from corporate existence, having started life as a test kitchen.

Hiding from real life amid the bijou cottages and houses on the cusp of Waroda Road and Veronica Road, just off Hill Road, St. Jude’s seems to scream out an old-world sense of languid restfulness, sort of disconnected from urban tumult. It’s an alternative space that takes on a degree of contemporary cultural significance on the Bandra — and Mumbai — art landscape. There’s no schedule, and no fixed calendar, reiterate Fernandes and Dadlani. They’ve had experimental gigs there, but it’s not a “venue”. Interesting, hand-picked exhibitions take place there from time to time, but it’s no art gallery. All along the space, there are canvases of kaleidoscopic, abstract works, but it’s not really an art studio either. They do frequent curated dinners there, with only friends invited, as “guinea pigs”, to test out experimental dishes and menus. There was an event featuring locally-made oils; people introducing different kinds of mustard and vinegar. Another, which was a workshop on cheese, featuring Indian cheese that’s not paneer.

But, Fernandes sighs, it’s most definitely not a restaurant. “People walk in, see plates, and they think it’s a restaurant. People have come in while we’re having a meeting,” he says, “and they’re like, ‘Where is our water?’ Does this look like a restaurant? At least, ask first.”

It’s an annoyance, no doubt, but the confusion is not entirely misplaced. St. Jude’s has a striking presence that anyone would be intrigued by, despite the shuttered front. “Hey, Saint Judee, please help me. I am really a lost cause,” proclaims the stunning type-art mural that adorns its entire front, painted by Portuguese street artist Akacorleone.

Riyaaz Amlani, chief executive officer and managing director of Impresario, originally bought St. Jude Bakery with the intention of living there, after the previous owners chose to shut down the bakery once their lease expired. In an unfortunate or serendipitous turn, the place morphed into a godown and storage space since its condition rendered it unliveable, until November 2014.

That’s when St.+Art, a street art festival (the Impresario group is a partner), had its way with the façade of the bakery, setting the wheels in motion for what we have today.

The festival began in Delhi and has had one edition in Mumbai as well. Akshat Nauriyal, co-founder and content director of St.+Art, tells me how the space, despite its small size, met their requirements: “It wasn’t ideal in terms of space, but it was in Bandra, it was in an old building. We try to use repurposed spaces; interesting places in the city.”

The front was painted by Akacorleone, who specialises in typeface art. He’d seen a lot of hand-painted signs upon his visit to India for the festival, and, on discovering the bakery was named after St. Jude the Apostle, “patron saint of lost causes”, came up with the words on the front. The other side, Nauriyal reveals, has been painted by Gomez, an Italian artist, further adding to the evolving mythology of St. Jude Bakery. They used it as an outpost, with a couple of the artists working from there, and also hosted a street art exhibition inside for a month.

Fernandes and Dadlani treat the space as this almost-sacred passion project, a “labour of love”. Financially, it’s independent of Impresario (although there’s no rent), so they have to manage their money efficiently, which means renting out the place for events, occasionally. It’s not a cost centre at all. But they’re selective, almost to a fault, in their curating, functioning practically as a dictatorship — a benevolent one though.

They only allow artists whose cause or work they genuinely admire or buy into, or friends they respect; they’ll quote an exorbitant price to rent out the space if they sense any unease in the working relationship you share with them, just as a deterrent (or a potential way of paying the bills).

In April, there was an experimental gig — featuring puzzling, inaccessible electronic and noise music — called the Listening Room that took place there. The musicians used the space in an innovative fashion; different guys setting up at different spots during their performances, leading to a blurred line of separation between the artistes and the audience. They usually don’t like to let in more than 30 people. But that night some 100 people showed up. The crowd was surprisingly well-behaved — “everyone was there only for the music,” says Dadlani — but the neighbours still objected during one of the noise sets.

Noise, as a genre, is challenging even for veteran listeners, so it’s understandable there was objection to the ruckus. That’s something they’re wary of. It comes from respect and they don’t want to upset their neighbours. But equally, the “walk of shame” they have to take when they walk through the area is something that fills them with dread.

Mumbai, given its status as a lively, cut-throat, all-consuming metropolitan beast, doesn’t always allow for a gestation, or an incubation, of the arts — the off-kilter movements that may require some effort to fully access and embrace. Profitability for the curators becomes, for good reason, just as essential as altruistic intellectual stimulation for the patrons. In that context, alternative spaces such as St. Jude Bakery take on greater significance. It’s really a test kitchen, a workshop, a working space for employees of Impresario and assorted friends. But in spirit, the place functions as so much more. There’s some debate about how “iconic” the original bakery was. Fernandes tells me how all the bisecting little villages that made up the Bandra of a long-forgotten time each had their own bakery, many of which are still around and fully functional today. Nauriyal concedes, as well, that maybe its status as this “iconic” spot in the city may have something to do with the fact that it’s now defunct. But, in these troubled modern times, St. Jude Bakery is not just a remnant of past heydays, but also, in a way, a platform allowing the misunderstood arts to survive and flourish. A spot for creative thought, a home for the weirdoes, the misfits, the outcasts. And a test kitchen.

Akhil Sood is a freelance culture writer from New Delhi who wishes he’d studied engineering instead.

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2021 3:14:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/akhil-sood-on-the-bohemian-st-jude-bakery-in-bandra/article8654988.ece

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