Celebrating the city

Early this millennium, there was an informal meet on how to promote tourism in Mumbai. This was doubtless against the backdrop of projecting the city as the commercial capital of the country, if not an international finance centre. But what do visitors, from other cities in India or abroad, do after a day’s work is done?

There was a belated realisation that the culture of a city should throb as pulsatingly as the financial cogs. However, apart from the Gateway of India, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS), to give it its full title, and the beaches of Girgaum and Juhu, there wasn’t much that the visitor could do in his leisure time.

This put Mumbai at a serious disadvantage when compared with its big contender as the city of choice for investors, New Delhi. Not only were there innumerable monuments scattered over the length and breadth of the capital but it was also part of the Golden Triangle, with Agra and Jaipur well within reach.

At the meet on Mumbai, Siddharth Kak, the well-known producer of the television series Surabhi, turned to me and asked why I didn’t have a festival in Bandra. The remark discomfited me at the time; I didn’t want to be seen promoting a “suburban” event, away from the glitz of south Mumbai, where everything was happening.

It was a few months later that Radhika Jha, the novelist, who had shifted temporarily to Bandra from Delhi, dropped in to see me. She mentioned that in France, where she had lived for some years, every small town has its own festival every year, which wasn’t necessarily the biggest or best, but presented its own distinctive culture.

It was then that the penny dropped and some of us from the Bandra West Residents Association (BWRA) went to meet the Bandra-based event managers, Fountainhead. Serendipitously, Neale Murray and Brian Tellis had already been thinking of an event on these lines and even had a file devoted to it.

The first Celebrate Bandra festival took place in 2003 and was held every two years till 2014 when the Times of India came in to sponsor it on an annual basis. It alternates between nine days one year and five the next to give the organisers some time to breathe. The longer version, the eighth edition, just concluded on November 20. It’s not for nothing that the suburb has been crowned The Queen. The current Convenor is Patricia Nath.

A date with Bandra

This has put the festival on the cultural calendar of residents and non-residents alike. Many persons from Bandra living abroad make a special effort to time their holidays around the festival’s dates. It may help to make Mumbai a more liveable city if neighbourhood festivals sprout up at different places at different times of the year. Imagine the pleasant surprise for someone living in the Taj Lands End hotel if he happens to stumble upon a musical event right next door at the Bandra Fort amphitheatre.

Ever since the first edition, the event has been eagerly awaited by Bandra residents. Bandra is probably more cosmopolitan than any other area in Mumbai and this, to a large extent, makes the festival so special. While music, both Western and Indian, gets the most attention, there is a wide range of other events, including theatre and film. Even sports is given its due, since Bandra has seen Olympians in games like hockey. Last year, the chief guest at the opening was Leander Paes, who owns a flat in the suburb.

The very first year, an old-time Bandra resident exclaimed that the festival had made her proud to belong to the suburb. That encapsulates the feeling of pride and belonging that such an event can impart. When we published souvenirs for most of the earlier festivals, there was a mad rush to lay hands on copies when anyone from Bandra visited his relatives in the Gulf, Canada and other countries.

Souvenirs had contributions by the Kolkata-based writer and musician Amit Chaudhuri, who has a book of poems St. Cyril Road, recalling the street he lived in with his family as a boy. He was invited to the festival to read his poems and also sing at a separate session. Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found, described how he worked out of an office on Hill Road when he was researching this book. We reprinted some of Eunice de Souza’s Bandra poems.

The built heritage of Bandra was described in detail, with the remains of the Portuguese fort at Bandstand occupying pride of place. The composite culture of this suburb was dealt with too, with articles on the Jari Mari temple, the Parsi fire temple and of course the plethora of Catholic churches, with Mount Mary Basilica and St Andrew’s church the most iconic.

This November, the World Resources Institute organised a walking tour through the old villages of Bandra, along Ranwar Road, Waroda Road, Bazaar Road and Chapel Road. These villages have witnessed radical transformation over the years, where century-old pedestrian paths have been completely usurped by motor-vehicle traffic. The objective of this walk was to bring forth the daily mobility struggles of the people in this area, and to discuss practical solutions for re-imagining these streets as vibrant and safe public spaces.

In the good old days, there was a popular saying in Bandra that if one threw a stone, it would hit a pig, a priest, or a Pereira. Now that pigs have long departed for their heavenly abodes, I coined a variation: nowadays, the missile would more likely hit a Khan, a Kapoor or a Khemlani! It is this crucible where communities collide and form an amalgam which is quintessentially Bandra.

We need more festivals

Why is Celebrate Bandra the only major festival which has both stayed the course and is citizen-led, unlike its predecessor Kala Ghoda? Other neighbourhood festivals like Juhu Hamara is seeing its 11th edition but lacks the length and breadth of Bandra and is on for just three days.

By contrast, the oldest, Kala Ghoda, which began in 1999, is in a category of its own, being an art precinct with the largest footfall of galleries, with the CSMVS, the National Gallery of Modern Art and Jehangir Gallery surrounded by a host of smaller venues. The art installations predominate and the entire festival is concentrated in a small area. Due to complaints from residents about noise levels, the musical events have been shifted to Cross Maidan.

The suburb has, by some informal estimates, as many as 44 advanced locality management (ALM) groups, as the Municipal Corporation terms residents’ associations. The presence of major ALMs appears to be a prerequisite for the success of any neighbourhood cultural festival. Even Kala Ghoda spawned its association, consisting of artists and other professionals, a year before it took off. The BWRA and Bandra Bandstand Residents Trust, which maintain the Carter Road and Bandstand public promenades respectively, have seaside venues which form the backdrop for most of the musical events. All the more so with the Bandra Fort amphitheatre at the southernmost tip of Bandstand, which can seat 1,200 at a pinch.

These promenades and the amphitheatre are unique in that they were constructed early this millennium with former Rajya Sabha MP Shabana Azmi’s local area development funds, designed by architect-activist P.K. Das, maintained by citizens and supported by corporate sponsorship and revenue from events through the year. In that sense, people are already accustomed to witnessing musical and cultural programmes on weekends at these venues and it was a logical corollary to initiative a festival in 2003.

Nowhere else in the city, or indeed the country, do you have this unprecedented four-way collaboration which paves the ground for festivities over a week or more. There are sporadic events on the Worli Sea Face but they lack the zest of Celebrate Bandra. The umbilical link between the residents’ associations and the success of a festival can’t be overemphasised.

Bandra has many other things going for it, like a plethora of educational institutions, which provide venues and, in some cases, student power to volunteer to help with events. Earlier, the opening day parade has kicked off from St. Stanislaus school grounds; this year, St. Andrew’s School’s new AstroTurf was the venue for an entire day of sports, culminating in a celebrity football match. St Paul’s Institute of Communication Education (SPICE) provided premises for literary and film events.

Two clubs — the Bandra Gymkhana and D’Monte Park Recreation Centre (DPRC), which lie cheek-by-jowl — provide open-air venues for the food festival and, in recent years, objets d’art are on sale at Kitsch Mandi, somewhat on the lines of Kala Ghoda, which does this on a much bigger scale. In the past, we have used the spacious DPRC lawns to host a wine festival during Celebrate Bandra.

The changes we need

What needs to be fixed?

First and foremost, a neighbourhood festival needs much greater support from the authorities. Celebrate Bandra works on the unique model of not charging for any events and after the festival, gives back to the community. Thus we twice donated a bus to the NGO Aseema which runs an excellent municipal school, another bus to the St. Catherine of Siena orphanage, a water-harvesting project to Holy Family Hospital and a garbage-to-gas project to SPICE this year, among others.

In spite of this, we have to face the hurdles erected by the BMC and Collector — as well as the Fire Brigade, Traffic Police, PWD, Maharashtra Maritime Board, Phonographic Performance Ltd (for public performances of recorded music) and Rangbhoomi — to get all the requisite permissions. There is a strong case for not only reducing the red tape by having a single window for all clearances but also lowering the fees for some of these permissions.

Considering it is now an annual event, as against a biennial one for the first few years, this should be a formality. However, we have to run from pillar to post to explain why, for instance, we should not pay entertainment tax for the free passes we print for the musical events at the Fort amphitheatre merely to regulate entry. One can well understand that other organisers of musical or cultural events sometimes abuse the system by issuing paid-for passes to circumvent paying the steep entertainment tax. However, the authorities should go by an event’s track record and make life easier to obtain all permissions.

In Maharashtra, entertainment tax is already too high at 40-45 per cent, and the State government proposes to increase this by another 5-10 per cent, before GST rolls out. This has ensured that major festivals have moved to other cities like Bengaluru, which is a big loss for Mumbai’s cultural life.

Prior to an early edition of Celebrate Bandra, we had discussions with the Maharashtra Tourism Development Council (MTDC) to examine how it could support the festival, but the negotiations did not lead anywhere. These have now been resumed and at the very least, organisers of citizen-led festivals should rely on the MTDC to iron out permissions and other snarl-ups that inevitably crop up with such arrangements.

This is all the more necessary considering that foreign cultural centres do their bit for festivals. Bandra has been especially fortunate in being supported by Alliance Francaise de Bombay which has brought jazz bands, apart from other events. A French national, Eve Lemesle, runs an organisation called What About Art in Bandra and, earlier this year, invited Celebrate Bandra to a discussion on how communities could be the new patrons for public art. As she states, this initiative “considers that local communities have always remained the great absentees from the art scene when it comes to commissioning art.”

Secondly, it is almost a prerequisite that there is a strong residents’ association in place before launching a local festival. This has certainly been the case in Bandra. Originally, an association from Bandra Reclamation was also an integral part of the festival and still associates itself informally with it. This has also been the experience of other initiatives like Juhu Hamara and, partially, of Equal Streets, where traffic is barred from major roads on Sunday mornings. It began in Bandra-Khar-Santacruz and has now shifted to Juhu, with variants in other suburbs.

Thirdly, for such festivals to succeed, it may not be necessary to extend it to an entire suburb as Celebrate Bandra and Juhu Hamara do. Even tiny precincts work, because they have the support of the local residents. A wonderful example is the recently-concluded three-day Ranwar festival in the village of Bandra, which obtained permission to block traffic for four hours through the village square during those hours; it was citizen-led, whether it involved music or food.

Signs of hope

Versova has its Koli food festival; Apli Mumbai, the forum which intervenes in the redevelopment of Mumbai Port’s docklands, has organised a similar festival in Sewri.

The BMC and India Heritage Society (IHS) are thinking exactly on these lines by recently organising Art in the Park events in parks and gardens in local neighbourhoods. As IHS Chair Anita Garware states, it has been holding these events with local participation and sponsorship. One such event was held at Narali Baug in Dadar, and the next will be in Priyadarshini Park on Nepean Sea Road. These provide a platform for architecture students from city colleges, apart from bringing entertainment literally to one’s doorstep.

About the author

Darryl D’Monte was Resident Editor of The Times of India and the Indian Express in Mumbai. He writes for several newspapers and websites and has devoted himself to networking environmental journalists in India and throughout the world for nearly three decades.

He is president of the Bandra West Residents Association, the former convenor of Celebrate Bandra and chairs the Celebrate Bandra Trust. He is also trustee of the Mumbai Waterfronts Centre, which in 2007 won the first Urban Age-Deutsche Bank award for projects which improved citizens’ lives in Mumbai and a member of Apna Mumbai Abhiyan.

Points to ponder

Mumbai can be more liveable if neighbourhood festivals are held at different times of the year

A neighbourhood festival needs much greater support from the authorities

A strong residents’ association needs to be in place before launching a local festival

Tiny precincts are good enough for such festivals

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Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 2:05:47 PM |

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