Lalbaug is staying open late these days. Sometime in early June, the first murti shalas, or idol workshops, raised their makeshift studios along Sane Guruji Road and drove in a few hundred plaster-of-Paris models of Ganesh, designed, moulded and spray-painted with uniform colours: peaches-and-cream for the skin tone, white for the dhoti and stole, and a deep, matte crimson for the crown.
Now the workshops are engaged in the business of “touch-up”. From 9 in the morning to 1 in the night, artisans work on the idols, burnishing the crown with a final coat of gold, gently breathing red and purple glitter into the tilaks, sticking on diamanté work to embellish ornaments. On the pavements in front of the clothing stores, makeshift racks of shiny, sequinned fabric billow over the traffic on Ambedkar Road. The flower marts begin to work longer and longer after dinner, making kanthis—short garlands—of darba grass, particular to this season.
Lalbaug, even more than other parts of insomniac Mumbai, has a history of staying awake. For a century, it housed men and women who worked in Girangaon, the Marathi term for the mill district of south-central Mumbai. As the machines worked around the clock, so did the people. Homes, canteens, bars and theatres stayed open to serve each returning shift. Decades after the industry’s decline, central Lalbaug remains a bustling, all-day neighbourhood of the sort that European urban planners have begun to praise for their “mixed utility”, where shops, businesses and homes coexist to create a hybrid, fluid urban space. It is much prized by property developers; it is here that the world’s tallest residential tower (on completion, according to the Lodha Group), World One, is coming up on the 17.5 acres of land that used to be Srinivas Mills.
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As the monsoon gears up for its last onslaught, and Mohammed Ali Road and Bhendi Bazaar to the south take a breather after the festivities of Ramzan and Eid, the neighbourhood will be plunging into its own whirlpool: the public celebrations of Ganeshotsav.
It is a time of carnivalesque devotion for the area’s Hindu residents, and millions of people who pour in to worship at Lalbaug-Chinchpokli’s sarvajanik or public Ganesh idols. It is a time of pop-up markets, bruising crowds and dramatic political displays. It is also a time when the ongoing transformation of the mill district comes into sharp focus.
The historic Bharatmata Cinema, which gives the new flyover over the neighbourhood its name, has just begun to play a new Marathi film, Avadhoot Gupte’s Rs 1.5 crore extravaganza Moryaa; it is the story of rival Ganesh mandals and their conflict with the developers who want to take over their chawls.
This is a recurring theme in Mumbai life. Communities in dilapidated or crowded buildings remain eager for change, but wary of being deprived of their rights over areas they have claimed and tended for generations. In one of the world’s most frenetic property markets, where an annual 50,000 houses a year are built against a minimum demand of 1.2 million, tenants of old properties frequently find themselves at cross-purposes with developers. Perhaps nowhere has this been more acute than in Girangaon.
Like many things in Mumbai, the story of its most famous idol, Lalbaugcha Raja (the king of Lalbaug), also begins with a consuming interest in real estate. In Peru Chawl, a multi-religious settlement of Maharashtrians who migrated to the city in search of work, a group of small traders found themselves locked in conflict with an intransigent landlord to whom they appealed for space to build a market for their wares. In 1934, having won the land, a portion was dedicated to the annual Sarvajanik Ganesh Mandal, as thanksgiving for the granting of their wish.
Since then, the number of people drawn by the navas, the power of wish-fulfilment imputed to this Ganesh, has grown “from thousands to lakhs to crores”, the Mandal’s secretary, Sudhir Salvi, says. “We are re-routing the queues this year to keep devotees moving continually. You used to be able to sit before the idol for a short while and pray, but this year you will have to keep walking. It will help us to cut down time spent waiting in line; in the last few years we’ve had average waiting times of 24-30 hours.”
Flyover country: (from top) Artisans have been working in Lalbaug’s Ganesh workshops since June; posters of the film Moryaa, which is playing to packed houses in Lalbaug’s Bharatmata Cinema; the Lal Shah Dargah in Tavripada may be one of the origins of the name Lalbaug; and the newly opened Lalbaug flyover stands 7.1m above the neighbourhood. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
There’s never a dull moment. The vertical height of the new flyover was raised to 7.1m, just to accommodate Lalbaugcha Raja’s visarjan procession from underneath. Residents from Shraddha Co-operative Housing Society in the vicinity recently named in a complaint about police harassment during the 10-day celebrations, an indignity the Raja has never been said to suffer before (although the police did arrest organizers in the 1940s more than once for excessive anti-colonialism. In 1947, Lalbaugcha Raja went to ritual immersion dressed as Jawaharlal Nehru). The Mandal has been deep in talks about security concerns with municipal authorities, doubly serious since the bombings of 13 July. Already heavily policed, the doubling of CCTV cameras will make the Ganesh Maidan and its surrounding areas a panopticon.
As with the crowds, so with the money. Last year, the organizers reported that their collections from the festival approached Rs 17 crore; this year, the Mandal has insured its Ganesh for Rs 14 crore (up from Rs 5 crore last year).
Historians like Maria Misra and Rajnarayan Chandavarkar have written about how Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s fostering of the public, nationalist gatherings of Ganeshotsav actually served to supplant the vibrant Muharram tolis of the early 20th century, in which both Hindus and Muslims participated. The template for public Ganesh celebrations, with their devotional chants and political performances, borrowed greatly from the rhythms and energy of the street Muharram processions of old.
Today, when you exit the Lalbaugcha Raja complex on to the fragrant Chivda Galli, past the automated masala-pounding machines and the dingy kitchens in which chivda is mixed in miniature cement mixers, the centuries-old Chand Shah Vali Dargah stands as a quiet testimony to the layers of Lalbaug society.
Even Girangaon’s history of communal clashes could not prepare the area for the riots of 1992-93, a time when Lalbaug’s history of active Communism, mixed occasionally with Congress-led nationalism, had completely given way to the divisive politics of the Shiv Sena. The Chand Shah Vali Dargah was destroyed in the violence.
“It was a time when Muslims fled from their old neighbourhoods to other parts of the city,” points out Neera Adarkar, architect and urban researcher, and the editor of a recent anthology, The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life. The dargah itself has been cared for by a Hindu family, the Gaikwads, for many years; they continue to serve the rebuilt shrine today.
Shriti Tyagi, who does history walks through Lalbaug in the month leading up to Ganesh Chaturthi, leads visitors through the mossy lanes of the Tavripada settlement, to a shrine that may be even older: the Lal Shah Dargah, said to be the tomb of Hazrat Chand Shah’s elder brother. Like the neighbouring deity of the Ganesh Maidan, these dargahs too have long been the repository of devotees’ mannats, or wishes.
“One story about the origin of the name ‘Lalbaug’ goes that it was called after this dargah,” Tyagi says. But concrete evidence is difficult to find. Tyagi says it is equally plausible that “Lal Baug” was the local name for a sprawling estate owned by an old Wadia, from the shipbuilding family which built what is now the Parsi colony of Nowroz Baug. Both Nowroz Baug and Tavripada currently stand in the shadows of residential complexes (“towers”, as everyone in Lalbaug calls them), closing in on their skyline. Even these are not as homogenous as they look from the road: the 20-storey Hilla Towers is built in the compound of the MJ Wadia Fire Temple.
The towers might yet achieve ubiquity. “The mill areas further up north were what you might call ‘islands of opulence,’” Adarkar says. “Taking them over was much more dramatic because they were mill lands rebuilt completely. Lalbaug has always been a more residential area, so change is slower to manifest. Many people in the chawls think redevelopment is inevitable—some will welcome it, others object. But in one way or another, everyone is engaged in the process of transformation.”
Some older houses have already crumbled: One of the small residences bordering the Ganesh Gully Maidan, home to another famous local idol, is being pulled down for a tower even as the art directors of Ganesh Gallichya Raja construct a replica of Karnataka’s Mallikarjuna temple to install their divine guest.
The site of the old Hanuman Theatre, once Maharashtra’s prime destination for its thriving Tamasha troupes, is a community function hall these days. It undergoes another change during the monsoon, when it becomes a workshop for makhars, elaborate thrones for idols built out of thermocol. In the humid afternoons, the scent of roses from the open windows of the Chand Shah Vali Dargah next door, still drifts in.
In other buildings, transition occurs visibly in stages. The developers who bought over the dilapidated Ganesh Talkies on Sane Guruji Road in 1997 have begun, of late, to rent out premises in the old theatre to Ganesh workshops. The murtikars (idol makers) raise the musty shutters of the main gate and square off their portions with marquee cloth, the kind used for weddings, when they move in. The heavy wooden doors, some of which still have brass handles labelled “PULL”, are heaved open. Red carpets are laid down, and the theatre is filled with fluorescent light from bulbs strung low along the corridors. In the former cinema hall, now recognizable only because of the massive wooden doors with cracked EXIT signs dangling above them, hundreds of Ganesh idols made by the Vaikars of Satara sit encased in plastic, silently facing a non-existent screen.
Business starts slowly on weekdays, when Mumbai rushes past to work in the mornings. On the newly opened Lalbaug flyover, a 2.1km-long feat of public engineering that snakes above the locality, the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has recently affixed showerheads. The flyover is so high above the street that the rains pour off it on to the neighbourhood below in torrents; bad for vehicles, worse for business. The engineers are hoping the sprinklers will minimize damage. In the evenings, traffic flows slowly back past the workshops, and people stop to place orders.
Shree Siddhi Vallabha Arts, two pillars down from the Vaikar Bandhu, have already sold their initial batch of 2,500 idols, transported in from Pen in western Maharashtra. But the orders keep coming at this late stage, no different from last-minute festival shopping anywhere in the world.
Shree Siddhi Vallabha Arts is new to the business. “I’m not the murtikar,” says Kiran Jadhav, whose name is on the workshop’s card as “proprietor murtikar”. “I’m from here,” he says, indicating the neighbourhood around him. “This is just something I have wanted to do for years.”
With six friends from the area, Jadhav rented out an L-shaped passage at Ganesh Talkies’ main gate, at Rs 1.5 lakh for the quarter, and started small. They are learning on the job, Jadhav says; maybe next year they will make more idols for last-minute sales, the way more established murtikars do.
“Pivlet chamki aahe (Can we get the yellow in sparkles)?”. Customers weave through the large steel bookshelves, looking for styles (seated, standing, reclining, Krishna-hued—even, at the nearby Siddhesh Shilpakala Mandir, holding the Cricket World Cup). They take pictures on their cameraphones; mothers call back after seeing the messages, and tell them which one to reserve.
Their idol makers in Pen began work after Dussehra last year: When the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court passed an order this February banning the use of plaster-of-Paris in idol making (because of environmental damage), it was too late to do anything; almost every big murtikar was 70% through with the year’s work.
“I’ll put yours near the door if I can,” Jadhav assures one buyer. “But it’s each man for himself on Ganesh Chaturthi; you’ll be in the middle of a big rush.”
Outside, the food stalls have fired up their stoves. Others are more quotidian, but still delicious. In the mornings, the batata-wada sellers set up their carts; in the afternoons, the sour-battered dosa makers; in the evenings, the purveyors of the fiery cabbage-in-Szechuan-sauce entrée known as Chinese bhel; at all times, the tea sellers with the tang of ginger rising from their saucepans.
At this time of the year, Lalbaug might be Mumbai’s best-smelling workplace. Some aromas, like the kesari sheera made under the winding staircase of the Lalbaugcha Raja Mandal offices, are sanctified. Local legends Laadusamrat (literally, the Emperor of Laddoos) Stores and Restaurant, diagonally opposite Bharatmata, are turning out the first modaks of the season. And on Sunday mornings, the smells of flour and coconut from open kitchen windows have begun to mingle in the air with the chalky smell of rained-on timber and delicately flaking plaster.
“It comes down to how tenants negotiate when they get together,” Adarkar says, of the buildings redolent with these Old Bombay smells. “If there is even a little organization, it’s possible for people to come together and raise the finances to develop their buildings themselves.” She says it is difficult. Most cooperatives may have the wherewithal to negotiate, “but not everyone in the largely working-class population here is entrepreneurial, or willing to take risks.”
Meanwhile, the people slow the towers down; Ganesh holds on to Lalbaug as it is for a little longer. Perhaps Ganesh Talkies will even be here next year, and the year after, for Shree Siddhi Vallabha, and the Vaikar brothers, and Tanvi Arts and the others, to return to.
“Who knows when this redevelopment is going to happen, or even if it’s going to happen?” Jadhav says.
“You want to talk about change? But what in the world doesn’t change?”