Next to the real estate explosion of Yari Road in Versova, Mumbai, is the sinuous and cacophonous Versova village—home to around 15,000 Kolis, Mumbai’s fisherfolk community. Every other day, the fisherfolk, including the men who sail early morning and the feisty, bejewelled women who sell the day’s wares at markets nearby, fight the city’s municipal authorities and real estate companies to keep the land that Versova’s Koli association, Vesawe Koli Samaj Trust, owns. Barring fish markets and stray roads lined with sellers of dried fish, Kolis, believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the land that is now Mumbai, are a rare sight.
In 2006, the association started the Versova Koli Seafood Festival, to earn from their fresh catch and showcase their dance, music and culinary traditions.
It was a success; hundreds of people crowded the stalls and it went on till the wee hours. They served alcohol—beer and “quarters”—along with the food. Over the next few years, celebrities and the hoi polloi mingled at the dusty open-air venue—actor Katrina Kaif came in a burqa last year, according to 40-year-old Bharat Janardhan Pede, chairman of the organizing committee for this year’s festival, which started on Friday.
Apart from making a killing—every stall, run by 10 women who cut, paste, clean, cook and serve the food, made around Rs.50,000 every day at the three-day event last year—the festival is a gesture of defiance by this slowly disappearing community. Even the men look dazzling in gold and bright-coloured shirts. They celebrate their love of food and dance with gusto.
In the festival’s ninth year, the venue remains the same; Pede says they have added varieties of small fish, including kolim and lefa, to the menu. Tisrya (clams), kalwa (mussels), shark and kapa (small tuna) are the regulars, besides crab, lobster, prawns and the popular fish varieties. Bamboka bombil (half-dried bombil, or Bombay Duck), shark kheema, bombil vade, rawa-fried mandeli and the Koli fish soup made with bombil, prawns and eggplant are difficult to find, but worth seeking out.
The overwhelming whiff of the sea and molluscs on hot coal, the jostling, folk songs blaring out of a raspy speaker—the Versova Koli Seafood Festival is an evening of sensory overload.
The Versova Koli Seafood Festival is on till Sunday, 6pm onwards, at the St Anthony’s Church grounds, Versova village, Mumbai. Prices range from Rs.150-1,000 for a dish.