Art, fashion and Kala Ghoda

How Bombay’s historic colonial district is mutating into Mumbai’s iconic retail hub


Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Bombay was the Ilha da Boa Vida or the Island of Good life while the Portuguese occupied it in the 16th century. The British later built the crescent shaped fortification at the core of which was Bombay Castle. And within that crescent the good life continued. The southern half of the crescent, from the Town Hall until Apollo Gate (anglicized from the palwa fish), was the foreigners’ enclave, the elite colonizers who came in the garb of traders—Baghdadi Jews, Armenian Christians, and of course primarily, the British. While cotton was traded in the wide open space that is now Horniman Circle, women folk of this elite community shopped at a bazaar all along Medows Street.

This area is also the site of two momentous historical events. The Queen’s declaration of 1857 that heralded the beginning of the official British Raj happened on the steps of the Town Hall. And as significantly, Wayside Inn at Kala Ghoda was where Dr B.R. Ambedkar wrote the Constitution of India.

Perhaps the fortunes of the Great Western Building opposite Lions Gate best describe the shifting preoccupations of the Kala Ghoda precinct. The Admiralty Building, as it was first called, housed the naval administration and then the courthouse. When both functions found larger, more befitting homes, it became the Great Western Hotel. The area had a long flirtation with banking before it fell into disrepair and sleaze as a market for automobile repair parts.

In 1987, Tarun Tahiliani, the grandson of one such spare parts dealer, opened Ensemble, the first designer store in Mumbai, out of a rat-infested warehouse in the Great Western Building, in an area unknown till then for fashion or luxury. Thirty years later, Ensemble has been reopened and expanded, exposing the raw wooden logs in the ceiling and plastering the walls with mud and lime.

Fabindia similarly occupies a space that was the ground floor parking or the stable for horse carts of the elite residence above it. Apparently, it saw its phase as a dance bar before it was occupied for several years by a bank. By the time Fabindia took over in 2003, every reference to its origins in time, style and function had been obliterated. The arches and the cast iron columns had been blocked and covered over, as with the gorgeous Burma teak ceiling, leading to an archaeological journey to rediscover the basic structural elements. Banking clearly had no need for the “frivolities” of the past.

As fashion moves in and embraces these “frivolities”, this historic district could be witnessing a second resurgence. The original central business district of Mumbai has been on the decline ever since Nariman Point and then Bandra Kurla Complex stole that title and glory. The desire to revive that glory began with the creation of the Kala Ghoda Art Association in 1998.

The popular annual art festival organized by this association for the last 17 years optimizes public space and people’s participation, and could be singularly responsible for keeping the area topical and alive. The beauty of a historic district becoming a tourist hub is that this is not gentrification. Unlike the textile mills of Lower Parel, the Kala Ghoda precinct, anchored by its colonial history and encouraged by the location of Jehangir Art Gallery and the museum, was always the domain of art and administration.

Its slow but apparent transition currently into a retail and food hub, with stores as diverse in appeal and approach as Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Westside, has many precedents in the history of cities. Every city needs a hip area with fashion and art, live music, and the promise of good food. Both civic authorities and citizen movements globally have recognized the power of these neighbourhoods. Retail draws tourism, nurturing such iconic streets with art gallerists and restaurateurs. The oldest standing committee in Paris, the Comité Champs-Élysées, formed in 1860, still promotes the Avenue des Champs-Élysées by lobbying with civic authorities for special hours and unique events. Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul is the outcome of a similar public-private initiative with emphasis on pedestrianization, film festivals and heritage revival to popularize the avenue.

Kala Ghoda could continue this revitalization that spreads to the only “avenue” that Mumbai can boast of—D.N. Road—and embrace within its fold the sadly neglected Flora Fountain. Zara’s record deal to lease 50,000 sq. ft at Flora Fountain could be the tipping point that will galvanize retailers, heritage and art and, hopefully, the municipal corporation to unleash the potential of the original Ilha da Boa Vida.

Shimul Javeri-Kadri is a globally acclaimed architect. She took a guided walk by Khaki Tours to gather information for this piece.

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