This year the festival opens with a carnival. The trees that line the route are wrapped in coloured cords. Floats, cheerleaders and cultural dancers gyrate by. Multi-coloured lanterns, designed specially for the celebration, dance in the balconies and verandahs of homes. The festival is coming to the people of Bandra, instead of the people going to the festival. Come, peek into what life is like in Mumbai’s pulsating suburb of Bandra at the fortnight-long ‘Celebrate Bandra’ festival. From heritage walks around Bandra’s old churches and villages, to a sampling of her cuisine, to immersion in film, theatre and dance events, provoking reflection on the life and people, it’s all here.
Every dawn and dusk, there’s a buzz at the beachfront promenades. Using the bright yellow brochure available at eachstages, with sound-and-light facilities. The soulful rendition of ghazals wafting from these venues attracts the attention of early morning and late evening joggers. Open-air plays specially crafted for the festival are being staged, some against the backdrop of stately, heritage bungalows to create an authentic atmosphere. Teenagers are showcasing their talent through song and dance. A documentary titled Sandra from Bandra is being screened. Even the Bandra Reclamation Underpass has been creatively painted by enthusiastic collegians. At an evening organised for children, youngsters of varied age groups and schools, sing and dance their way through chart-busters. There is much vocal encouragement from friends, neighbours and families.
Even to the outside observer, a sense of community is palpable. Long after the performers and audiences have retired from the scene, the bonhomie lingers on. Mrs Pereira reminisces about a time when catching crabs in the sea by Chimbai village was the popular sport. Meanwhile, Mr Tellis is wondering where to take the party now. At most events, festival-enthusiasts co-exist amicably. But at the food stalls manned by local housewives on Mount Mary’s steps, the competition for the largest packet of guava cheese takes on a cut-throat quality. The attention of the scramblers shifts to the limited editions of Goan vindaloo and coconut ice. A customer, who arrives too late at this Neighbourhood Food Festival, looks crestfallen. He is directed by a sympathetic onlooker to the Bandra Gym, where a variety of local eateries have set up stalls to showcase their specialities. The fragrance of crépes and kebabs, biryanis and pani-puris invites him from the gates.
There’s a lively band in attendance. The beauty of the festival lies in the offering of a home-grown event for everyone. Charitably inclined, Mrs Fonseca is interested in supporting the art displays of paintings by street children. Mr Fonseca, always eager for a debate, attends a series of discussions on the changing face of the city by Mumbai connoisseurs. The teenage Fonseca taps his feet to the music at the Jazz Utsav being held in the Land’s End Amphitheatre. And the littlest Fonseca, all 10 years of her, gapes open-mouthed as residents in the ancient Pioneer Hall babble about a time when she was not even an atom: Second World War; the fishing village untouched by modernity; the paddy fields in a once quiet suburb. The next evening, the same hall witnesses a reading of poetry and prose. Some hang on to every word of the speaker. Others are lost in the wilderness of poetic speak. They seek refuge in a display of photographs on Bandra on the walls. Works on display feature artistes from Ashok Sallian to Ali Rangoonwalla. The festival’s reach and embrace extends to international performers and audiences.
At the floodlit rink football event in St Andrews High School, I encounter a bandwagon of Germans, discussing in guttural tones yesterday’s American jazz concert. Occasionally they interrupt their chatter to cheer wildly at the spectacular feats of local footballers. During this celebratory fortnight, the event sponsors and allied advertisers offer attractive discounts on the prices of their products. Entering a shop, I encounter an avid Bandraphile emerging with a sack of discounted goodies. He declares, with the zeal of a converted evangelist, “Next year we too must get involved in creating the tamasha, men.”
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Mount is one of the most popular Roman Catholic churches in Bandra. Every September, following the birthday of Mother Mary on the 8th, a weeklong celebration known as the Bandra Fair is held. Crowded, kinetic and absorbingly intense, the fair sees visitors from all faiths and all parts of the city. They come in quest of the blessings, but also for street food, joy rides and shopping. Everyone gears up for this event. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation fills the perennial potholes on the affected streets and makes special arrangements to ensure the smooth flow of traffic. Roads around the church are festooned with buntings.
The uphill slope to the Mount are lined with makeshift stalls selling religious articles — from flower garlands to wax objects shaped like hands, feet and various parts of the body. These wax objects will be offered to Mother Mary with a plea to heal the corresponding body part. A couple from distant Mira Road picks up a wax house. They tell me, “We hope that this offering will induce the Virgin Mary to grant us a home.” I see a lady nearby pick up a wax breast. I refrain from asking the reason for her offering. Instead, I head to a sweetmeat shop. The woman selling the treat assures me that it is homemade. I sample the dodol and pink guava cheese. But she points to the coconut cookies and says, “Better take these, my girl, they will run out by afternoon.”
A bag of cookies and some Kerala halwa under my arm, I visit the September Garden. Here the giant wheel and merry-go-round keep time to the music blaring from loudspeakers. Children squeal as they jump about in a bouncy Mickey Mouse house. Teenagers shoot balloons with an air gun. Parents visit the Bible bookshop for inspiration to deal with their hyperactive children. For six more days, children with candyfloss fingers will saunter along the street, blowing plastic whistles. Boys blowing soap bubbles in the face of passers-by have become the rule rather than the exception.
I find that visiting the stalls is a hectic, hyper-stimulating feat. A man selling lifesize baby dolls pushes one in my face. But the crowds don’t let me pause to admire anything. I am pushed along past shops selling trinkets, shawls, roasted grams and sticky Goan sweets. To escape the frenzy, I duck into a house of distorted mirrors. As I see myself bloated like the balloon in my hand, I’m buttonholed by an evangelist who gives me a holy picture and insists upon my following Jesus. In the words of Jan Zabinski, “Just take a deep breath and do it. Experience it. Think about it later.”
Kala Ghoda Festival
“Once upon a time, in the centre of the large node on Esplanade Road, Bombay, stood a statue of King Edward VIII astride a black horse, or a kala ghoda in Hindi. In fine disregard for the monarch, city dwellers informally named the area after his mount,” explains the website of this nationally famous, nine-day arts festival in Mumbai’s crisp February. The area is home to many galleries and museums. A wealth of colonial buildings dot its treelined streets. It seems fitting that an arts festival be held against this backdrop. Ever since 1999, the Kala Ghoda Festival has been receiving visitors from across the world. For the intellectual type, the David Sassoon Library beckons.
The streets outside are brimming with art on display. Music throbs from the amphitheatre like an amphetamine heartbeat. Food and craft stalls are under siege by shiny-happy people. Movies are being screened, performances staged, some crafted specially for the occasion. As an afficionado blogs: “Families wander around… curiosity writ large on their faces. Corporate types step out to ‘catch the fest’, ties loosened around their necks…. Tourists bustle about, wide-eyed at the colour. Teenagers mill about, their natural energy for once shared by everyone in the crowd….”
For a few days, this charming tree-lined, historical-monument-studded place turns into a cultural theme park. Street graffiti. Airbrushed bikes. Electric cars dressed to go to town. Photographs of the Kala Ghoda skyline. Murals. These are just some of the creations displayed on the area’s streets and in the galleries. But viewing the works of others is not the only way to actively be an artthrob here. There are workshops on printmaking and painting to provide that space. But I opt away from learning, for immortalisation, upon the sketch pad of an artist, who sits under a tree that waves a happy finger at the sky. The David Sassoon Library is the venue for most things literary.
Under low lights, surrounded by trees, aspiring writers rub shoulders with established journalists. I am drawn into a debate on the finer points of writing for the screen. But what really moves my pen, my heart, my soul, is the plot unfolding under my very nose. Two kittens quarrel playfully under a sign that says, ‘Little Pencils’, an upcoming writing workshop for kids. Folks who have come to participate in the live Poetry Slam Contest twitch with anticipation as the competition is about to begin. Other contests include Flash Essay, SMS Poetry and Flash Fiction. Live music and dance performances are staged at the amphitheatre every dusk. Jazz follows blues follows rock. Just as Bollywood beats follow close on the heels of an evening of Lavani, the popular Maharashtrian folk dance. Pretty music against a backdrop of night sky usually makes for a good time.
The spring air is warmed by lights, the ears deafened by the noise, and the enthusiasm in the Bazaar of Arts and Crafts is riding high. Various NGOs and folk artistes have come to display there wares in makeshift stalls on a street lined with art. I buy a terracotta elephant with his trunk in a twist for Rs 56, a metal statue of two men wrestling for INR 250, and a ‘Save the Earth’ T-shirt for Rs 350. Distracting my pursuit of stylish wrought iron furniture is a man on stilts. From experimental film to social drama, from comedy to silent film, it’s all up for viewing at various venues ranging from the Eros Preview Theatre to the Museum Gallery to Max Muller Bhavan.
These films have been drawn from a variety of regions: Africa, South- East Asia, Japan, Canada. Meanwhile, at the nearby Horniman Circle and the National Gallery of Modern Art, actors are performing full-length plays, monologues and the like to full houses. To give a true flavour to the festival, food must feature. Not far from the Crafts Bazaar, popular restaurants set up makeshift stalls. Head here after the retail therapy. Sit on a plastic chair, listen to music crooned by popular artistes in the amphitheatre and nibble happily upon the snackeroos. Pretty much like the excitement of the festival, palpable but hard to define, some of the events are unclassifiable: photography workshops, heritage walks around the Fort area, Capoeira performances, street plays by NGO kids, workshops that merge Indian classical dance and Zumba into a fitness workout. Take your pick! street corner, I promenade-hop across a variety of events happening on makeshift.
By Sonia Nazareth
Sonia Nazareth travels around the world and is lecturer at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai.