The other day I happened to come across a write-up on the Kala Ghoda Art Festival in Mumbai. During my four years in Mumbai from 1984 to 1988 I had several occasions to pass by Kala Ghoda but do not remember to have come across any art festival in the area. Kala Ghoda is located in South Mumbai and it is in South Mumbai that I had my office in a heritage building, the massive General Post Office, virtually next door to the Victoria Terminus, now renamed as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.
Unable to recall any festival ever organized in the Kala Ghoda area I got curious and read through the piece. It seems, the festival has become a “red letter” event in Mumbai’s calendar and is celebrated with tremendous exuberance and gaiety. It is a nine-day long festival that commences on first Saturday of February and concludes on second Sunday of the month. Commencing in 1998 with the modest objective of preserving the heritage and art district of South Mumbai the Festival is now seemingly bursting at its seams.
Kala Ghoda literally means a black horse. Probably the place took the name from a statue of King Edward the VII which once used to dominate it but, having been removed, is now languishing in Byculla zoo. The statue had a horse that was black on which the figure of King Edward was mounted. Though there is no kala ghoda in the area, the name has stuck to the area due to usage over several pre-independence decades. The area has numerous art institutions, museums and educational institutions. Famous art galleries like Jehangir Art Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art, Prince of Wales Museum etc. are all located in this area. Close to Regal Cinema in the south, the dock area in the east, the Flora Fountain in the north and the Oval in the west the area is feast for heritage lovers. The historic Army & Navy building, the Watson Hotel and many such historic buildings can be found in Kala Ghoda.
No longer able to accommodate itself within the confines of the Kala Ghoda, the Festival has spread itself far and wide including, inter alia, auditorium of the National Gallery of Modern Art, lawns and auditorium of what was earlier known as the Prince of Wales Museum and now Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrhalaya, garden of David Sassoon Library, The Museum, Mumbai, the garden of the Horniman Circle, a picturesque circle earlier known as the Elphinston Circle bounded by grand and beautiful 19th Century buildings. It is not Mumbai alone that sends participants to the Festival, they come from all over the country, entry to the Festival being free and restricted only by the size of the venues. Sustained by corporate contributions, it is a cultural festival that encompasses virtually every kind of visual and performing arts - from dance, music, theatre, cinema as also literature, urban design, architecture, the works. The Festival has a heavy slant on environmental conservation. Side by side, various matters of children’s interests are also lavishly served. It has fostered other cultural festivals in different areas of Mumbai more or less during the same period of the year.
Sitting almost a thousand miles away ruminating over all that I am missing I kept wondering how all the good things happen when we, my wife and I, are removed from the scene. When we were there in Mumbai we used to move around quite a bit in our newly acquired Maruti 800, then a curiosity even in Mumbai. But Kala Ghoda was not there and nor was there any festival at Bandra or any street art there. Even the Bandra-Kurla Complex and the new development in Lower Parel with their modern sky-scraping architecture were yet to come up. Everything seems to have blossomed soon after we left.
This is not the only time it has happened. I spent virtually two years at Nagpur in early 1960s when the town was sarcastically called the biggest village in Asia. There was nothing in it to attract people. It was a sleepy town except when the winter session of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly would be held there. The place would liven up a bit infused with a little political life and cause the resultant political heat. Otherwise it was quiet, unassuming town of mostly lower middle class Maharashtrians in the backwaters of the country. Even the good old CP Club was quiet and demure like clubs in the district towns of central India.
About forty years later when I went there again it had sprung up as a lively town with roads spruced up having a number of flyovers and business and industry flourishing. A number of starred hotels have come up and that ubiquitous phenomenon of modern life – the mall – is busy promoting consumerism. The quiet middle class area where we used to reside is now a bustling business centre and the arterial road cleaving the old and the newer developments in the town has a few kilometers long flyover that takes one without any hindrance to the airport from the heart of the town. The place is now considered among the more livable cities of the country.
Among such instances, another place that vastly improved after we moved out is Shillong. I did a regulation two-year term from 1988 to 1990 with headquarters located there looking after the postal operations in the entire North-East (minus Assam) comprising the well-known “Seven Sisters” – Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura and Mizoram. I had heard so much about Shillong and its club-life from my seniors but in the late 1980s the naturally well-endowed town appeared to be well past its prime. Purno Sangma was the chief minister and he not only was re-building the decrepit roads but was also trying to infuse some excitement and life into the town by organizing football tournaments. Khasis are generally good at football. Nonetheless, it remained quiet and pretty run-down. Like Nagpur, despite having been a capital of a much larger political entity at one time, it seemed to have collapsed into a stupor.
But the reports that I get now of Shillong are those of a vibrant town. Trade and business are flourishing, always known for quality education, its colleges and schools are attracting more and more pupils, a large number of eateries have come up where young people provide live music and above all the Shillong Chamber Choir, a fantastic multi-genre choir, came together at the turn of the new Millennium and has since swept away a large number awards, also winning accolades in several countries. The place, however, still does not have any night life, mostly because of safety issues of both, tribal and non-tribal people. Nonetheless, it has become a great place for tourism with scenic beauty, salubrious climate and a lot of modernity imbibed by it over the last few years. All this happened after we had moved out.
Another instance is of Kolkata. When I happened to have a good look at it in mid 1990s during my posting as the head of the postal circle that included West Bengal, Sikkim and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, it was not much different from what it was a couple of decades earlier, only it had become more congested with more people and more dirty – one might even be tempted to call it filthy. Vehicles would generally move at snails place unless held up by slogan-shouting demonstrators. Even otherwise, the roads had been narrowed down by encroachers and the traffic would more often go haywire. It was torturous to travel even a couple of kilometers in that hot and humid weather cooped up in a vehicle. While street food stalls were galore there was hardly any decent eatery offering Bengal’s own delectable cuisine. Only one had just opened around 1993 named “Aaheli” at the Peerless Inn on Esplanade. But Nandan, the government sponsored film and cultural centre, was going strong as it is till this day.
A recent visit in December 2015 was an eye-opener. The city has a number of flyovers crisscrossing it. The flyover from the airport lands one up in the town in a jiffy. The one over the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass is profusely lit in multicoloured lights. A new secretariat building has come up across the Hoogly and the second (Hoogly) bridge that was earlier languishing in disuse is now throbbing with life. Howrah itself has improved tremendously and negotiating its narrow roads is not much of a problem. The Howrah Railway Station presents a curiously uncluttered appearance - cleared of all messy encroachments. While numerous malls have come up, the great Bengali fare is on offer in various outlets from Ballygunge to Salt Lake. The New Town is yet to be completely occupied but it has given a new direction to the city for development. Its cleanliness has rubbed off on Kolkata (or is it the other way round?) and even the lanes and by lanes are spotlessly clean. Nevertheless, what a change!
So, that’s it. From all evidences our generation was born a little too early and so led what can be called a ‘deprived’ life. Urbanism today is much different from what we were witness to a few decades ago. Things are happening now in the lifescape at a rather fast clip – much beyond our imagination. Life is much richer and more exciting. Even Bhopal, earlier a quiet official town where we have withdrawn to for the home stretch, is now a happening place with some festival or the other every week, more so during springs and winters. And yet, unfortunately, due to age and its accompanying problems we have to keep away from most of them. The upshot seems to be that we were never destined enjoy the modern urban life. Nonetheless, it is a big consolation to see youngsters enjoying what we all missed in our prime time.