Sexagenarian Laxman Joshi, a resident of the historic Keshavji Naik Chawl in Girgaum, ruefully states, “Young people don’t exercise anymore”. He’s referring to the end of a long tradition: the Suryanamaskar competition that was once part of Mumbai’s first Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav celebration. Established in 1893 at the behest of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the celebration remains unchanged since Joshi’s childhood, except that the contribution required from residents — less than a rupee in his childhood — is now Rs. 200. The chawl’s Ganapati idol continues to be sculpted by the More family, in the likeness of the original idol, for generations. Nearby, in Mugbhat lane, sculptors add finishing touches to a colourful profusion of idols. Old timers claim that much remains the same. But in reality, pandals are increasingly being sponsored by real estate developers, and the historic precinct’s heritage wadis are fast disappearing.
The change in Girgaum seems miniscule in comparison with the rest of the city that is rapidly transforming beyond recognition. And yet, it is far from the leafy agricultural settlement of the 1800s: the village at the base of a hill (hence the name ‘giri’ gaum), known for its coconut groves, orchards and lively demographic mix of Marathi, Gujarati, Marwari, Christian and Parsi population.
The French writer, photographer and traveller, Louis Rousselet, likened it to Rue Breda of Montmartre, a vibrant Parisian district: “Girgaum, the Breda Street of Bombay, is a vast wood of cocoa-nut trees, which extends from the bazaars to Chowpatti, at the head of Back Bay. In the midst of this picturesque forest are innumerable huts half-concealed by a rich tropical vegetation…”
Accounts of Girgaum in books like Laxmibai Tilak’s Smritichitre and Govind Narayan’s Mumbaiche Varnan describe the area as one filled with the cries of vendors and occupied by shops of grocers, jewellers and traders.
That the public celebration of the Ganesh festival began as a political statement here is hardly surprising; Girgaum was the birthplace of ideas. It produced many great thinkers and leaders, the most prominent among them being the philanthropist, educationist and social reformer Jagannath Shankarshet. The first Indian member of the Asiatic Society and one of the directors of the Great Indian Peninsular Railways, Shankarshet was also known for his support to Indian theatre. Among his many contributions to education and society was the establishment of the first school for girls — part of the Students’ Literacy and Scientific Society — in Girgaum in 1849 on his own property. The Mumbai Marathi Grantha Sangrahalay, established in 1898 in Bhai Jivanji Lane, is testimony to Girgaum’s focus on literacy and education.
The cultural legacy
The arts flourished as a natural progression. Girgaum housed the photography studios of Dr. Bhau Daji Lad and Raja Deen Dayal, and, briefly, Raja Ravi Varma’s printing press. Marathi theatre and Hindustani classical music found patronage among the wadis. Last year, Laxmi Baug in Bhatwadi threw open its doors once again, treating music lovers to a performance by Ustad Raja Miyan of the Agra gharana. The erstwhile venue of all-night baithaks had to adhere to contemporary sound regulations, but not before it gave its present-day audience a glimpse of its past glory, harking back to a time when exponents such as Faiyaz Khan, Abdul Karim Khan and Kesarbai Kerkar brought the neighbourhood alive with their song. Bhaskarbuwa Bakhale Path, that housed another such venue — the Trinity Club — is named after the accomplished musician by the same name. Bakhale was also known as the music teacher of an illustrious disciple: Bal Gandharva.
Music and theatre overlapped during this time, as did their audiences. Early sangeetnataks were performed in private residences at Zaobawadi and Fanaswadi, hosted by wealthy patrons such as Atmaram Shimpi and Vithal Sakharam Agnihotri. Later, theatre became an important political medium in the fight for freedom. The playwright K.P. Khadilkar — the arterial Khadilkar Marg in the heart of Girgaum is named after him — was booked for sedition by the British for introducing nationalistic messages in plays like Keechak Vadh (1907).
As the Independence movement gained momentum, it garnered the support of Girgaum’s residents. The Coronation Theatre that screened the first Indian film, Raja Harishchandra, was also where the Calcutta singer Gauhar Jaan sang nationalistic songs ‘of the spinning wheel and khaddar’ in the drama Noor-e-Islam. When the freedom fighter Usha Mehta announced on the Congress underground radio in 1942, “This is the Congress Radio calling on 42.34 metres from somewhere in India,” “somewhere in India” happened to include several locations in and around Girgaum.
Given its cosmopolitan character, Girgaum would soon become multilingual; language was no barrier and the same audience could be seen enjoying Gujarati, Marathi, Marwari and Parsi (staged in the Gujarati, Hindustani and Urdu languages) theatre. Actors, too, expanded their horizons; Marathi actor Susheela Lotlikar (later known as Vandana Mishra) would find fame and fortune in Gujarati and Marwari theatre. This heterogeneity could also be seen in Girgaum’s diverse faiths, shrines and structures like the Gora Ram and Kala Ram temples in Thakurdwar, the Shri Ganesh temple in Phadkewadi, Dadi Seth Agiary, Ambroli Church on Dr. Wilson Street, St. Teresa’s Church and the East Indian settlement of Khotachiwadi. Religious reform was integral to this neighbourhood of thinkers and the Prarthana Samaj, now merely a landmark, was once a bustling institution.
The culinary trail
The menu at Avte Cold Drink House opposite the Ganesh temple in Phadkewadi features an intriguing drink called ‘Sekuji Bin’. A waiter reveals the ingredients — castor oil and bel leaves. “Try it only if you have dysentery” are his words of advice. A glass of ‘piyush’ (also available next door at Prakash), a sweet-salty milk-based drink once consumed in copious amounts by residents of Old Bombay, makes for a safer alternative on a healthy day.
Today, Girgaum may well be the last bastion of traditional Maharashtrian cuisine in the city. On this Ganesh Chaturthi, like any other, ukdiche modak are available on order at Madhavashram, the last of the many khanavals or eating houses that once dotted the area (Anantashram in Khotachiwadi continues to be missed for its Malvani fare). The vegetarian eating house and lodge, located near Girgaum Court, was established nearly a century ago to cater to travellers and migrants into the city. It no longer hosts modak meals on its moonlit terrace as it once did for Sankashti, but now serves special meals in an adjoining hall.
Abodh Aras, CEO of Welfare For Stray Dogs in Bhatwadi, was acquainted with the heritage wadis of Girgaum when his work as a volunteer with WSD led him into its by-lanes. “I was struck by how old some of the wadis were,” he says. Aras also discovered the area’s many eateries that allowed one to get a fix of Maharashtrian fare like pohe, sabudana vada, thalipeeth and misal pav, in addition to thaali meals at places like Vinay Health Home and Sujata Upahar Griha. Aras recommends Kulkarni’s for its potato bhaji, Virkar for its snacks and Panshikar for its chiwda and sweets. In the last 15 years, small places providing gharguti (homemade) cuisine have mushroomed here; among these, Vinayak Keshav and Co. takes orders for festivals and is known for its puranpolis, mango panna and modak.
The presence of a large Gujarati population in the area ensures a variety of Gujarati items on the menu and farsan shops abound. But the demand, according to Aras, has gone down ever since the Diamond Market moved to the Bandra Kurla Complex. The curiously named Café de la Paix, a modest Irani café that dates back to 1932, however sees regulars come here for its popular mint tea and the mandatory bun maska. Apparently, its Parisian namesake had made a great impression on the well-travelled owner of the building, who requested the café owner to name it after the original.
Festival or not, Girgaum always exudes a celebratory feel. Well after its Ganesh festivity has ended, its dahi handis broken, and Gudi Padva celebrated with the new nauvari-clad female biker brigade, vestiges of its vibrant past remain. These are seen in the form of special meals at Madhavashram, stalls like the Gandharva Brass Band ‘established in 1930’, and quaint shops selling musical instruments like the tabla, chaughada and pakhwaj. In these days of cultural appropriation and linguistic chauvinism, the history of Girgaum is a fine example of the city’s once-syncretic culture. The next time you’re navigating its crowded gullies, be sure to look at this old neighbourhood with new eyes.
Janhavi Acharekar is the author of the historical novel Wanderers, All , a collection of short stories Window Seat: Rush-hour stories from the city , and the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa . The city of Bombay/ Mumbai features prominently in her writing.