STRIKE HIT GAME!

Gulzar and Janta carom clubs in Dongri are among the oldest and still the busiest in the city

RISHI MAJUMDER

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Mohammad Arif managing things at Janta Carrom Club

Mohammad Imtiyaz eyes the red puck alias ‘rani’, aims, and then changes his mind to go for a white puck instead. He’s playing defensive. His opponent Mohammad Hanif has only two pieces left and clearing the ‘rani’ would ease his route to victory. Now Hanif will have to clear the ‘rani’ and another black puck in continuation to win. Imtiyaz and Hanif are both furniture dealers, both in their 40s, and friends. They’ve been meeting since their youth to play carom in the evenings, and the routine continues.
They’re playing at Gulzar Carom Club, Dongri’s second oldest, and still running a full house. Also full is Janta Carom Club, Dongri’s oldest. Begun in 1963, it earlier had six pocket carom boards with six players. “That has changed since,” says Mohammad Arif, who runs Janta Carom Club. “Just as carom boards earlier made of sheesham wood are now made of ply.” And just as carom clubs which were once seen at most Bombay street corners, are now replaced by pool and video game parlours. Dongri’s seven clubs is one of the last ‘pockets’ for the game being played as a community ‘time pass’ in the city. Shabbir Hussain, who with his father manages Gulzar Carom Club
boasts: “Dongri is today synonymous with carom as Mumbai is with the Gateway Of India.”
Two dusty trophies bear witness to the great tournament winners who inhabited Janta once. They’re now dead. Shahwaas, a Maharashtra tournament winner, still inhabits Gulzar on some evenings. “When he does, the room is packed with people fighting to watch the game,” says Shabir. Such events serve as a hot spot for discussing and exchanging strategies and technique. While carom’s mechanics share a similarity with pool, many experts argue that the actual game is tougher, since here fingers are used instead of a linear cue, necessitating a greater degree of control. Also, pool and video games at approximately Rs 30 for half an hour, costs about ten times as much as carom where rates are stuck at Rs 3 in some clubs.
Yet, the reason for carom flourishing in this locality is simple. It’s an impoverished neighbourhood. The clubs operate in bustling Dharavi as well. The wealthier localities have given up on the game. Why? Carom club owners point out a reflection of a similar attitude in the way other indigenous Indian sports like mud wrestling, kabaddi and gulli danda are dying out. But the reflection goes beyond. The same attitude per
sists in today’s teenager being clueless about the closest Khadi Bhandaar while knowing about the Levi’s sale two months ahead. It persists in Narendra Modi, our symbol of ‘swadeshi pride’ smiling smugly not so long ago in his Bulgari glasses. Just as many of us take pride in the fact that Lakshmi Mittal lives next to the queen, and that we finally have our Mango showroom.
A nation’s sports are suggestive of its self esteem. Which is why baseball and ‘American’ football is backed by the world’s unipolar power. And why the UK, having spawned football, hockey and cricket, can get excited for either at will. Our aversion to sports we have created and our corresponding desire to compete in those others have, is no different from our craze for the latest DKNY or
Louis Vuitton. Will we have to be impoverished to retain our right of identity? Perhaps not, for even in Dongri, this attitude seeps in. Next to Gulzar Carom Club, where Imtiyaz and Hanif play, has sprung up a videogame centre without a name! Ten year olds, not to be seen at the carom centres abound here. One shouts: “Arre uska chor. Mera picture le. Apun cool hai.”

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/xf6i

Let the inks flow

The dying art of Arabic calligraphy finds a new breath of life, thanks to the efforts of its custodians in the city

RISHI MAJUMDER

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Arabic calligraphy - Sulu style


The medium is the message
— Marshall McLuhan
So said the metaphysician of media as he wrote in his Gutenberg Galaxy how the spreading of the written word meant communication among humans, a race earlier used to oral communication. The written form, in turn, reduced or elevated the alphabet to an “abstract visual code”. The visual idiom of “word” has been utilized since long before McLuhan by statesmen, artists and scientists. None, however, exploit its hynotic power as calligraphers do. But the numbers of this ancient tribe dwindle by the day. Urdu and Arabic calligraphers in Mumbai, once a force of 250 a decade ago, now stand at merely eight in such times.

Mehmood Ahmed Shaikh


Mehmood Ahmed Shaikh and Iqtedar Husain, whose offices lie close to one another on Tandel Street Dongri, are two of these eight. They came into the profession in very different ways, and work differently today. Shaikh, was prompted to become a calligrapher because his father was one. He began with a course in Anjuman Islam College, to work for a host of Urdu newspapers, learn further from renowned Ustads, teach in Maharashtra College and work for ten years in Saudi Arabia. His feathers include three Quran
Sharifs and an array of poetry. A knee problem has disabled him from transcribing on the floor in the traditional way, and after a year’s practice, he’s gotten used to a chair and table.
Husain sits on the floor. He claims, “It takes three years for a calligrapher to just learn ‘how to sit’.” The only family he had in the field was a distant cousin, who taught him after he expressed his interest. Then came a variety of Urdu newspapers and magazines, before branching out on his own.
The tools of these artists comprise calligraphic nibs or a piece of bamboo, both cut to shape. Inks range from Camel to water colour paint to the German Rotring. Arabic styles consist of Sulus, Naskh (further divided into the Indian, Egyptian and Arabic Naskh), Kufi, Riq’a and Diwani. Urdu is penned only in
Nastaliq. In Arabic, while Naskh is the most popular and used for scribing religious texts, Sulus is every calligrapher’s favourite. “With Sulus, one has the liberty of giving ‘shape to the beauty’,” Shaikh says, displaying a leaf of his work. A religious phrase is written so it shapes into a religious structure. The beginning of the phrase is a minaret, the name of the prophet is emphasized in the dome, and the rest of the phrase forms its base. Even, for plain writing, Sulus allows the calligrapher far more scope for improvisation.
The future of this art is symbolized in an old lithographic machine lying junked in Husain’s room. When the Urdu papers did not possess computerized font, such machines were used daily to convert the calligrapher’s work into print. Today these surviving calligraphers continue to get work that cannot be done on the computer. But for such work only an experienced hand is required, and so while they manage, youngsters in the field, bereft of a liveli
hood once provided by the newspapers have shifted professions. Yet both calligraphers point out, that no breakthrough in any art can occur on the computer, which means that with their generation’s end Indian calligraphic innovation in Urdu and Arabic will stagnate. Besides, patronage akin to that provided by governments in the Middle East (or by Hindu and Jain foundations here for Sanskrit calligraphy) remains absent. Even the meagre Rs 5000 cash prizes once handed by the Urdu Academy have been revoked. Already, in the distinct style which marks Shaikh finishing another tower in Sulus, one sees another Babel, unfinished.

Calligrapher's ink...

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/s6ze

BOMBAY BLACK

Rishi Majumder trails Mumbai’s African Community, right upto their retreat into suburbia

Photographer: Sachin Haralkar (For Dongri); Raju Shinde (For Motinagar, Bhayander)

Outside Puku, Dongri

Darren James dresses on Sundays in his Isiagwu (a shirt like top), Agwa (a wrap) and opu ogudu (a cap) — all elements of traditional Igbo (a Nigerian tribe) outfit. He then joins 20 others, dressed like him, who’ve come to his flat to offer Christian prayer, imbued with Nigerian custom. Michael Agu calls a fellow Ethiopian every week with a wish-list of African music CDs containing songs — traditional and contemporary — that he can’t procure on the web. For Danny Waage missing South Africa means missing soccer. He drowns his sorrow in egusi Soup made from pumpkin seeds or pepitas (substitutes for the traditional egusi seed). James, Agu and Waage are among thousands of other Africans settling fast to mark out ‘black buildings’ in outer Mumbai suburbs like Mira Road, Bhayander and Vasai.

BACK TO BLACK

Anthropological theorists trace the African-Indian connection racially, to the Indus Valley civilization, and the subsequent Dravidian race. In a more recent context is placed the Sidis – India’s ‘own’ African race, settled here for centuries that result in them speaking local dialects only, with only a spattering of Bantu. Most African nationals who came to the country a decade ago at most and divide their time in months between homeland and Mumbai don’t know these histories. “Nigeria, like India, has so many natural resources — but we don’t utilize them well,” says Chiderra Jel, a garments exporter, switching off from the Sunny Bobo VCD we’re watching at Oomo, one of Dongri’s two African restaurants. “That’s why we come here to manufacture items which meet the demand back home.” Getting products manufactured as per order in Mumbai and sending them to their parent country is a choice of business for most Africans. Jel even gets traditional Igbo outfits, to be exported to Nigeria, stitched in Wada, Thane.
Oomo, a shack with chairs, tables and a TV only, is popular, as is Puku, as a rendezvous spot for Africans working and living around Mohammed Ali Road, enabling them to catch up in between their work, or after it. These restaurants don’t say ‘nonon Africans allowed’, but the lack of publicity about them and wariness about Africans in the area ensures a racial exclusivity to its clientele. “But I’ll be leaving this place too, like many blacks have, and move to Mira Road,” says Jem. “Even if it means a long travel to work.” The main reason cited by many Africans for this shift is discrimination by local residents, often culminating in a violent brawl, where the Africans are outnumbered. Suburbs like Mira Road, with their new buildings and cheaper prices, enables them to rent flats in the same building complex, so they can stick together for protection, and identity.

CULTURE CONNECT

Motinagar Building

‘God Is My Strength’ is the name devoutly given to a sixth floor living room converted into an African restaurant. Located in a Bhayander building complex called Motinagar which houses Africans only, it draws a mixed crowd of Nigerians, South Africans, Ghanaians and Kenyans from every corner of the area. “Suji, plantain, egusi Soup,” Fafore, who owns and runs the place rattles off the regular fare which means home to many. “But for festivals we have special preparations of Yam and Bitter Leaf.” Fafore further says that for Africans in Mumbai, comprising a diverse diaspora in religion and nationality, “naming a common festival for all blacks is difficult”. The Yam Festival, however, serves as an important connect. For this harvest fest held at the beginning of August, those who don’t fly back home come to roost at one of the four African joints in the city with special preparations of pounded yam, bitter leaf soup and a multitude of fish and goat preparations, or meet at one of the suburban building compounds they live in to celebrate continent-hood. Another draw to these plain but cozy enclaves is the African music videos constantly playing on their TV screens. From traditional Afro beats to African hip-hop, Osayo Morejoseph, Sunny Bobo and 2Face connect to their countrymen, and connect them with one another. “We would have celebrated our festivals in a bigger way,” says Adamu Okuma, a Nigerian who is earning a business degree at Mumbai university and managing his uncle’s export import business simultaneously. “But to be honest, we are a little scared to do so.”

At Motinagar Building Complex, Bhayander

WHITE IS RIGHT

Okuma’s reason for not celebrating festivals in a “bigger way” is the same as that for Africans moving to far out suburbs to stay in ‘only black’ buildings. “Why do Indians think we are after their women?” at least four African youth asked. Agu displays two stab scars he received from a fight two months ago over the fact that he “just looked at a girl in Dongri”. Waage speaks of a girl who yelled and raised an alarm because a friend was asking for her number at a bus stop. This isn’t unusual. One can imagine an Indian boy being stabbed in ultra-orthodox Dongri for “just looking at a girl”. One can also imagine an ultra-orthodox Indian girl raising an alarm over a stranger at a bus stop, whatever his
nationality, asking for her number. Okuma steps in: “That guy got stoned by the locals over that phone number and had to take stitches.” Okuma proceeded to say that girls and guys alike would have a problem talking to him politely even if he asked someone the
time.
“It’s all in the skin Babba,” Agu says. “You guys were dominated by people because you were dark. And now you’ve found someone who’s darker than you.” The 50 odd dirty looks from onlookers, counted in the time spent travelling with Agu and Waage to Mira Road station, might stand testimony to this. But prejudice isn’t so simple. A distinguishing factor among African youth, that Indians aren’t used to, is their muscular build and vibrant body language. Those not thus intimidated are perplexed at their accent. Waage, for instance, uses “Yep” and “Ahem” in nearly every statement. When he says “park the car” it sounds like “pork the cow”. Add to this the fact that the South African twang was evolved via colonial army men who barked out every statement to make even “I love you” sound like an infantry command, and it’ll be easier to fathom why a man behind the ticket counter started yelling at him when all he inquired about was a train pass price.
Quoted often to legitimize this bias is the large number of Africans (especially Nigerians) proven to be involved in the drug trade, and an ‘advance fee email fraud’ that induces you to send in small sums of money in the hope of winning millions, which is dubbed the ‘Nigerian Scam’ by crime syndicates because of the country it is mostly associated with. “But even if most of the foreigners caught for drug trafficking are Nigerians, most Nigerians are not into drug trafficking,” argues Okuma. “We comprise 60 per cent of the Mumbai’s African population. How can you generalize?”

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/45te

GIMME RED!

Paan Gully in Null and Bhendi Bazaar, has not lost any of its old spirit, despite the diminishing sales, reports Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Jaleel Paanwaala


Arre bhang ka rang jama ho chakachak

Phir lo paan chabaay

Arre aisa jhatka lage jiya pe

Punar janam hoi jay

– By lyricist Anjaan for the song Khaike Paan Banaaras waala

Motilal Kasam, Jaleel Paanwala and Jaffar Sonaji Tamboli open shop at around 7 am every day, save Sunday. Around twenty-five others follow suit, selling pan leaves of every possible variety on a half paved lane flanked by dilapidated market structures, dubbed Paan Gully around 150 years ago. Located in the Null and Bhendi Bazaar area, the alley was born when the British constructed markets around the area, with streets being dubbed as per the wares they traded in. But Null Bazaar wasn’t named as such because it sold taps, and Bhendi Bazaar didn’t particularly provide ladyfingers. Despite numerous other paan bazaars today then, Paan Gully has stood true to its name for well over a century.
Tamboli however bemoans the fact that their sales have plummeted: “Ever since gutkha was launched 20 years ago, our sales have gone from Rs 40,000 each to Rs 2000!” he cries. Tamboli used to hit these streets at 4 am in his heyday to meet market demand. Unable to compete with gutkha, thanks to its price and convenience, the value of paan, that has tickled fine taste buds through history, has been eroded by fine tobacco, coffee and wine.
Ironically, R M Dhariwal, chairman of the Manikchand Group and Vice Chairman of the Zafrani Zarda and Paan Masala Manufacturers’ Association, had protested – much like Tamboli – when the Maharashtra government imposed a ban on gutkha: “We feel the cigarette lobby is working against us!” So, it’s a dog eat, dog world. So paan sellers, sans industry or global marketing, are also sans teeth.
While their wares differ, most of the sellers are Maharashtrians whose families have sold paan for generations. Kasam, from Patoda sells Poona Paan at Rs 60 for a thousand leaves: “My supply comes in from
Madras. My daily turnover differs, but it goes up to Rs 1,500.” Jalil, from the same Beed zilla, does better, at up to Rs 5,000 per day, “but only during festivals and weddings!” Tamboli, who has worked here for 50 years, peddles a buffet: “Poona, Banarsi, Kalkatta Meetha, and Deshi!” While Poona lacks the sweet of Kalkatta Meetha, Deshi is for those who particularly want something bitter. Further down are a few supari shops. While shop No 35, M H Sethia sticks to its old offers with “Mangalore and Sevardhan Supari, Saada Tambaacu and Kanpuri Katta”, some shops like No 34 has included items like Mangalore Snuff and Rajni Safed Bidi on its menu to survive.
On the far end of the market, is an old paan seller who refuses an interview. Then he warms up saying, “My son is also a journalist.” His wife worked in the survey department, and his other son works for Balaji Telefilms. Yet, he comes into the gully everyday, “because it’s my khandaani profession. If I leave it, I won’t know what to do at home.” He will have to leave it soon, he says though, because there are plans to convert the dilapidated structure adjoining the gully to be converted into a mall, “whereby we will be cleared off”. Close to him is a seller of the last essential paan ingredient. “Chuna for Rs 24 a kilo,” announces Barsati Lal. The shop Barsati manages provided only chuna earlier – but today draws most of it’s earnings from cigarettes. As if to educate us, he plays the old Khaike Paan Banaras Waala on his music system. The words of a stanza from this straightforward Bollywood blockbuster acquire new meaning:
Arre Ram duhaai, kaise chakkar mein pad gayaa haye,
Kahaan jaan fansaai, main to sooli pe chadh gayaa haye,
Kaisaa seedhaa saadha main kaisaa bholaa bhaalaa,
Jaane kaun ghadi mein pad gayaa padhe likhon se paalaa.
“Meethi churi se hua halaal,”
is where he presses stop.

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/387m

Touchwood!

From Vijay Mallya to Ravi Shastri, this small shop in Lakda Market boasts of an enviable celebrity register, finds Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

lakda craft - opening doors...

Business nowadays is slow because people aren’t going for ‘recyled wood’. They want ‘custom made’,” sighs a timber mart manager while offloading a stack of large broken wooden door, window and closet pieces from a truck. Welcome to Mohammadi Timber Market, alias ‘lakda’ market – a colony of near-ancient timber shops off M S Ali Road. They scrape, chop and chisel wooden doors and windows from demolished buildings to sell them as new. “Rs 200 per square foot.” “What about Rs 150?” “Not one rupee less than 200, and you’ll pay for transport.” Meet Girish Rai, alias ‘Girish Bhai’ bargaining in his antique teakwood canopied cabin set amidst endless woodwork and raw wood in the 95-year-old Om Timber Mart. In an otherwise
floundering market, Rai makes an enviable profit providing doors, windows and staircases to some of Mumbai, Alibaug and Lonavla’s best known bungalows. How? The buildings he demolishes have “antique fittings”. “Making a Burma Teak masterpiece like I provide, will coast you Rs 600 per square feet, hai na?” Girish Bhai parades his inimitable Gujarati business sense in his inimitable Gujarati accent. “But I’ll give it to you for Rs 300 per square feet!” Saru Che…
The idea struck him when an Irish decorator bought an entire container load of French and Georgian windows. “I then contacted the Mumbai decorators and architects I knew who were doing ‘reech’ homes and sold them the idea.” His break came with Neelam Kothari’s Lonavla home. And then: “The ‘rich and famous’
move in a fixed set, hai na? So anyone who saw my stuff in another’s house, asked for it!” And since, this dingy ‘lakda’ store has furnished the homes of “Admiral Ramnath, Vijay Mallya, Ravi Shastri, Aishwarya Rai, Sushmita Sen, Alisha Chinai, Leslie Lewis, Anjali Menon… and many more. Main kitna bataoon.” The demand for such antiques that Rai claims he started, now centers around delicately curved French windows with motifs, Georgian doors and windows with arched tops, traditional Rajasthani and Gujarati house gates and Swiss spiral staircases. “We first clean them, scraping the old paint off. Then smoothen them before handing them over to an architect or interior designer,” smiles Rai proudly, caressing a white Georgian door as a child would his favourite doll, even his booming voice drops to a murmur. “And I have some of the best decorators and architects on my client list.” Indeed, for liaisons with such was this machiavellian wood seller’s next move. “Hai na?” Rai laughs in agreement. “There is Niti Merchant, Shimul Zaveri, Daras Rafat, Hafeez Contractor.” Small wonder then, that his supplies to distant Delhi and Uttaranchal grew as he got to know designers in these cities.
Enter Rai’s son Amit: “My father handled the business before me. And now Amit is already 10 years in it!” he smiles, using Amit’s help to stand up. “You see, since this accident, I can’t walk – else I’d move my stuff myself!” And what’s Amit’s most precious lesson from his father? “Frankness. Tell people who you do business with, everything you expect and know. It always saves losses,” he answers. Hai na?

a shop worker

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/rikv

THE WEIGHT OF WATER

Rishi Majumder exposes the nerve ends of a caste system that refuses to thaw

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Bhistis Sarif Ahmad and Anwar Mia await work at Char Null, Dongri while Mubarak Ali, having secured a customer, fills up his leather bag.
“It was “Din! Din! Din! You ‘eathen, where the mischief ‘ave you been?
You put some juldee in it, Or I’ll marrow you this minute, If you don’t fill up my helmet, Gunga Din!”

Rudyard Kipling’s spirited depiction of “regimental bhisti” Gunga Din comes with a sad parody of the derogatory gaze in which colonials held an Indian labourer. One wonders though if the Raj’s disappearance has made any difference to the ancient water carrying tribe: known as Pakhalis in Marathi, and Mashakwaalas or Bishtis in Urdu and Hindi. Fifty-year-old bishti Sarif Ahmad at Char Null Dongri flashes a cheap painkiller the doctor’s prescribed for him: “This eases the pain, but doesn’t heal anything.” His knees and hipbone have all but crumbled, he says, from carrying 30 litres of water across streets and up buildings for over 30 years. Three of the bishtis who work with him ask us for a job through the course of our meeting. They are dying to cast aside the burden of history which is bearing
them down.
Ahmad is a “khandaani bhishti”, whose forefathers served the badshahs in Haryana from time immemorial. “When changes came, like the purdah being relaxed and women going to wells by themselves, we had to migrate for work,” he remembers. Thirty-six-year-old Sagir Ali from UP, however, is a second generation bhishti: “My father came here and became a bhishti and so have I.” Sagir Alaudddin Bhisti is another “khandaani bhishti” from Rajasthan. While Anwar Mia and Mubarak Ali, in their early 20s, have left low paying restaurant jobs to be bhishtis for the first time.
Bhishti groups operate in demarcated areas, with tacit agreements not to encroach upon each other’s field of operation. Bhendi Bazaar, Null Bazaar, Madanpura, Pila Haus, Foras Road, Kamathipura and Pydhonie vary in their bhishti populations according to demand. Hence the total number of bhishtis, quoted at anything from 70 to 150, is unascertained. They charge four to six rupees to deliver water to ground floor locations and eight to ten rupees for higher floors. The monthly earning of each varies from Rs 700 to 1,200. Rs 1200 has to be invested in a new 30 litre leather (goat or buffalo skin) bag or ‘mashak’ every six months. “But the advantage over other jobs is that you get instant cash, and that you’re not a ‘servant’,” most claim.
One reason many want out, still, is because business has been dropping steadily since residents installed motor pumps. “We only deliver if someone oversleeps — and forgets to fill water, needs extra water for house guests or if their motor stops working,” Alauddin Bhisti sums up. Also, their leather bags make them inauspicious for Hindu localities. But the overwhelming bane is the toll this manual labour takes on their body: “We are like thelawaalas. No one chooses such professions.”
The Bhishti Mohalla near JJ Hospital was named such when residential areas were compartmentalised according to the profession of the people from select communities in old Bombay. “But no one living in these houses is a bhishti anymore, though they have ‘bhisti’ as their surname,” Meherdin Bhisti who operates with Ab
dul Rehman and Naviser Bhisti from Bhishti Mohalla (pavement dwellers, all) says. Rehman, 57, and too old to work as a bhisti anymore, makes the ‘mashaks’ he once bore: “I sell only 15 to 20 bags a year.” But recent buys by exporters, marketing such pouches in Karballa in Iraq, might improve matters. “He is lucky to be alive,” remarks 50-year-old Ahmad, pointing to his colleague. “I sometimes feel when I sleep after a day’s work… I won’t get up.” Which brings us back to Kipling:
“So I’ll meet ‘im later on, At the place where ‘e is gone — Where it’s always double drill and no canteen; ‘E’ll be squattin’ on the coals, Givin’ drink to poor damned souls, An’ I’ll get a swig in hell from Gunga Din! Though I’ve belted you and flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!”

Rapid growth has left little dhanda for the traditional bhisti. Bhisti Bags, costing Rs 1200 each, and lasting for only six months, strung over a fence

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/vati

CIRCA CHOR BAZAAR

Posters, paintings, photographs, signage, Chor Bazaar has it all, genuine or as you like it, says Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

madhubala

Madhubala smiles, characteristically coy, and teasing at the same time. The caption: “Masking her pain”. A jolly white-bearded man in red top hat and black overcoat grins and raises an overflowing ale mug to advertise ‘Schwabhauer Bier’. A 1930s Hollywood horror release screams in graphic black and white: “Return of the Terror! John Halliday…” Closeby lies an ’80s Bollywood horror, spouting B-grade glory—”Jalte Badan”. And by this, a head-to-toe picture of His Highness (ex), the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, with moustache and sword—drawn taut and sized extra large. Then there is a 1950s family portrait of the Rangwallas—their anonymity recycled as ethnic mystique. A large lithographed photograph from 1911, records the historic Coronation Durbar at New Delhi where George V announced transfer of the government seat from Calcutta to New Delhi. An original Pyaasa poster records Guru Dutt’s angst as filmmaker and poet as a Mughal miniature replica simultaneously depicts Aurangzeb’s lack of such. As Bombay’s biggest punter of signage, paintings, photographs, postcards and posters from shops (named or merely numbered), Chor Bazaar markets its images as it markets itself: stolen from time, date unknown.

nargis
Afzal Mansoor at shop number 141 —selling signage over a century old, has taken over from his father: “The signage was available freely post independence—when foreign companies leaving town rendered their advertisements useless.” Recently, with Indian décor veering towards the adventurous, antique metal boards with a ‘His Master’s Voice’ next to a gramophone and a dog, or a ‘Horlicks Malted’ next to a cheery-picked kid have become
fashionable acquisitions. Noorubhai at shop number 115 draws his photographs from the feriwaalas who turn up during the ‘Friday sale’ and these feriwaalas, in turn, pick them up at a pittance from old Parsi and Muslim homes. A striking piece is an ancient casual group photo with a Maharashtrian Hindu, a Muslim, a Parsi and a Christian smiling jointly in their traditional attire as a goodwill gesture – beckoning back business the area has never regained since the riots. Mughal Bazaar owner Abdul Wahid possesses the antique Coronation Durbar photograph, “not for sale, but as a kind of heirloom – since my family is traditionally from Delhi.” For sale, though, are antique maps and more photographs – one of a steamer, no longer in plying, bound from Bombay to Jedda. Which brings us to Bollywood and Shahid Mansoori’s three shops: Mini Market, Bollywood Bazaar and Super Sale (holding “original movie posters of over 3000 titles and their replica prints in varying sizes” if you please.)

invitation to the Coronation Durbar
A primary research source behind famous books on the Hindi film industry such as Living Pictures and The Man of Many Moods, Mansoori spells
the reason for the sudden popularity posters enjoy: “Hand painted posters are history today—none of today’s computer generated promotions can be categorized as art in the traditional sense.” Then there’s shop number 3, that despite being labelled ‘Mansoori’, has among its framed images Hindu gods drawn as per tantric geometry, astrological alphabet interspersed.
The dichotomy continues. While shops at Chor Bazaar Mutton Street are often accused of pulling off replicas as fakes, one can’t help but wonder if they sometimes store originals…calling them replicas instead. A passage next to shop number 67, for instance, leads to a room with packed paintings lying around. The same gentlemen who smiled benignly while spotting a potential customer, however, frowned on us upon hearing the word ‘press’. Hurriedly he muttered, “Sorry. No paintings. All gone.”

Royal Art - painting store at Chor Bazaar

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/dcfj

GIMME RED!

Paan Gully in Null and Bhendi Bazaar, has not lost any of its old spirit, despite the diminishing sales, reports Rishi Majumder

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Arre bhang ka rang jama ho chakachak

Phir lo paan chabaay

Arre aisa jhatka lage jiya pe

Punar janam hoi jay

– By lyricist Anjaan for the song Khaike Paan Banaaras waala

Motilal Kasam, Jaleel Paanwala and Jaffar Sonaji Tamboli open shop at around 7 am every day, save Sunday. Around twenty-five others follow suit, selling pan leaves of every possible variety on a half paved lane flanked by dilapidated market structures, dubbed Paan Gully around 150 years ago. Located in the Null and Bhendi Bazaar area, the alley was born when the British constructed markets around the area, with streets being dubbed as per the wares they traded in. But Null Bazaar wasn’t named as such because it sold taps, and Bhendi Bazaar didn’t particularly provide ladyfingers. Despite numerous other paan bazaars today then, Paan Gully has stood true to its name for well over a century.
Tamboli however bemoans the fact that their sales have plummeted: “Ever since gutkha was launched 20 years ago, our sales have gone from Rs 40,000 each to Rs 2000!” he cries. Tamboli used to hit these streets at 4 am in his heyday to meet market demand. Unable to compete with gutkha, thanks to its price and convenience, the value of paan, that has tickled fine taste buds through history, has been eroded by fine tobacco, coffee and wine.
Ironically, R M Dhariwal, chairman of the Manikchand Group and Vice Chairman of the Zafrani Zarda and Paan Masala Manufacturers’ Association, had protested – much like Tamboli – when the Maharashtra government imposed a ban on gutkha: “We feel the cigarette lobby is working against us!” So, it’s a dog eat, dog world. So paan sellers, sans industry or global marketing, are also sans teeth.
While their wares differ, most of the sellers are Maharashtrians whose families have sold paan for generations. Kasam, from Patoda sells Poona Paan at Rs 60 for a thousand leaves: “My supply comes in from
Madras. My daily turnover differs, but it goes up to Rs 1,500.” Jalil, from the same Beed zilla, does better, at up to Rs 5,000 per day, “but only during festivals and weddings!” Tamboli, who has worked here for 50 years, peddles a buffet: “Poona, Banarsi, Kalkatta Meetha, and Deshi!” While Poona lacks the sweet of Kalkatta Meetha, Deshi is for those who particularly want something bitter. Further down are a few supari shops. While shop No 35, M H Sethia sticks to its old offers with “Mangalore and Sevardhan Supari, Saada Tambaacu and Kanpuri Katta”, some shops like No 34 has included items like Mangalore Snuff and Rajni Safed Bidi on its menu to survive.
On the far end of the market, is an old paan seller who refuses an interview. Then he warms up saying, “My son is also a journalist.” His wife worked in the survey department, and his other son works for Balaji Telefilms. Yet, he comes into the gully everyday, “because it’s my khandaani profession. If I leave it, I won’t know what to do at home.” He will have to leave it soon, he says though, because there are plans to convert the dilapidated structure adjoining the gully to be converted into a mall, “whereby we will be cleared off”. Close to him is a seller of the last essential paan ingredient. “Chuna for Rs 24 a kilo,” announces Barsati Lal. The shop Barsati manages provided only chuna earlier – but today draws most of it’s earnings from cigarettes. As if to educate us, he plays the old Khaike Paan Banaras Waala on his music system. The words of a stanza from this straightforward Bollywood blockbuster acquire new meaning:
Arre Ram duhaai, kaise chakkar mein pad gayaa haye,
Kahaan jaan fansaai, main to sooli pe chadh gayaa haye,
Kaisaa seedhaa saadha main kaisaa bholaa bhaalaa,
Jaane kaun ghadi mein pad gayaa padhe likhon se paalaa.
“Meethi churi se hua halaal,” is where he presses stop.

Jaleel Paanwala

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/8xr5

THAT PERFUMED STREET

Rishi Majumder noses around Loban Gully to get consumed by its many scents

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Singapur Loban

Bolo behen churi?” “T-shirt?” “Gaari ka part — naya?” “Aam Chahiye?” “Kebab? Sherbet? Bolo bhai?” Lit like a carnival by 200 watt bulbs and cheap tube-lights at every stall, Null Bazaar, doling out the middle class consumer’s every need at lowest bargainable prices, could be Mumbai’s oldest mall. In which case Loban Gully, located at its far end, would be its thrust towards super-specialisation. The lane, flanked by wellweathered two storey buildings, comprises stalls spilling onto the road, leaving a four feet gap for pedestrians and two wheelers. Begun around a century ago with stalls leased from the British at Rs 2 per month for a one by
one metre stall, the grandchildren of those leasers, now paying Rs 750 a month to the BMC, continue providing loban, an incense, in greater variety and cheaper price than elsewhere in the city.
“First chemicals and natural elementsm taken from specific trees, are mixed, then heated and crystallized,” gesticulates Rafiq Agarbattiwaala, holding a loban crystal. “Then you heat, it evaporates, goes up… and comes back down as rain!” he ends, laughing at his take on chain reaction. The crystals then find their way to
homes for fumigation and perfuming, religious places, where they’re considered auspicious, and clay charcoal pots of fakirs, who roam streets, begging alms in exchange for a scented aarti. An important ingredient for rituals across religious faiths such as, Hinduism, Islam and Zoroastrianism, sales shoot up during festivals of each community.

Yusuf Bhai, one of the gully's biggest incense sellers
“The prices go from Rs 40 to Rs 400 per kilo,” states Deepak Merude, of Trimurti Kum Kum Bhandaar. “And we sell as little as 50 gm if the customer asks for it.” Each shop provides
30 to 35 kinds of the incense, as against the maximum of 10 types a regular shop elsewhere may provide. The incense is differentiated in grade and brand. An interesting controversy hangs over the most expensive loban: Singapur. Merude maintains, “Singapur, if original, has to be imported”. Yet those at Yusuf Bhai’s shop, Zam Zam Perfuming, contest: “Can you imagine the duty on such a product? It’s always been made in India, but just called Singapur. And thus priced only at Rs 400 per kilo.” Yet others say that Singapur is both a grade and a brand, and that while Singapur the ‘grade’ comprises Flying Eagle, Aerobrand and TT which are from the far-east, the ‘brand’ is an Indian replica. For the regular buyer however, who opts for the local 786 (the most popular) or Mayur or Tiger… or loosely sold ‘kauri loban’ (Rs 40 per kilo), such debates are irrelevant.
A peculiar characteristic of Loban incense is that while it pleases the senses from afar, coming closer to the source swamps one with smoke, making the scent indistinguishable. “Much like our business,” claims Irshad Bhai Agarbattiwaala, who has been running his shop for over 50 years. He highlights the future threats posed to this seemingly prosperous market: “While the middle and lower class still use loban frequently, the hassle of burning this on a stove and using it in an air conditioned room, is forcing many to opt for agarbattis or room fresheners.” This in turn is making these loban sellers digress to stock an assortment of agarbattis.
Even as we speak, Merude makes Fahad Ahmed, a regular customer, sample a variety of loban scents on a charcoal sigdi, kept there for the purpose. Ahmed buys a different scent every week for his mother and grandmother. “While electric stoves are available for those who can’t use charcoal… they don’t create the same effect,” Merude explains. “It has to burn gradually, not melt.” Ahmed pointing to the smoke adds, “ Khushbu dikhta hai!” This was better expressed by famous Urdu poet Bashir Badr…

“Talkin-e-ibaadat kee hai mujhein yun teri muqaddas ankhon ne, Mandir ke darichon se jaise loban ki khushbu aati hai. Kuch aur bhi saansen lene par majbur sa main ho jaata hoon, Jab itne bare jangal mein kisi insaan ki khushbhu aati hai.”

This article originally appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/9ztb

A Firecracker Family

Rishi Majumder sheds some light on Mumbai’s biggest firecracker supplier, Essabhai Fireworks

Photographer: Rana Chakraborty

Mohammadbhai Salebhai

Salebhai Essabhai’s father was also a fireworks supplier. After his father’s death however, he branched out, leaving the Jama Masjid shop to his brother, and setting up his own on Mohammed Ali Road in 1938. His sons Mohammadbhai Salebhai and Yusufbhai Salebhai took over after him. Since Yusufbhai’s death in 1992, his two sons, with Mohammadbhai and his sons own Mumbai’s largest fireworks outlet.
“Quality and safety,” Abdullah Ghia states simply as the only reasons for Essabhai Fireworks’s success. “We obtain our stock from a select five factories out of Sivakasi’s 500, and are strict with our suppliers about both.” Ghia, the aged but agile main manager and spokesperson at this concern, has been with it for over a quarter of a century. While an approximately 400 square feet area in the shop front is used for display, a far larger area behind stocks it’s vast and varied supply. “This includes fuljharis, anars, chakris, atom bombs, ladis, the
‘multishot’ (setting off balls of fire into the air),” Ghia lists. “But in the last 10 years aerial fireworks make up maximum sales.”
Besides the urban Indian’s increased purchasing power, Ghia gives the crackdown on noisy firecrackers as a reason for this trend shift. Another change is the same sparklers, flower pedals and chakris being made bigger, and their light flowing in diverse shades of green, red and blue. Fireworks manufacturers use interesting names and packaging to market their products. While names range from bizarre labels like Paradise 250 and Ulta Pulta to politically concerned ones like Euro 2 and Tehelka.com, packaging has for long been based on a popular cinema star’s image, depending on where the product will be sold. “But even this is changing,” Ghia tells us. “Earlier a heroine’s image was the rage. Today it’s cartoon characters and international film posters.” Sivakasi hosts India’s most prolific fireworks and printing industries side by side, facilitating such digital (mis?)representation.

“Many prosperous families send their children abroad for education, but Essabhai’s doesn’t,” says Ghia. “So they can learn and carry on the traditional business.” While choosing to remain silent on Essabhai’s true turnover, he complains about the crores attributed to them in profit being a gross mis-estimate: “Our prices range from Rs 1500 to just Rs 10 per item. While the inflation rate increases yearly, you’ll see the prices of our basic products have increased only minimally over the last 20 years.” He adds that there are many shops now selling fire works around the year, in their own area, thus cutting into their demand. “But we have no expansion plans. This shop was and is our focus.”
Ghia, due to his position, has often found himself in the hot seat, fending off attacks on the fireworks industry. “To celebrate with sound is a uniform Indian custom,” he says when talking on the ban on firecrackers after 10, and points to the Mohammad Ali Road flyover outside. “That flyover traps all traffic noise in

the streets—whereas earlier it used to escape into the air. You’ll find such instances all over the city. And this noise pollution is continuous. Why not look there?” On the extravagant expenditure fireworks have caused, he says, “Boxes of mithai are expenditure —because you don’t really need them.” So are foreign brands, he adds, and atleast expenditure on fireworks translates into employment for Indians. On Sivakasi thus becoming a hub for exploitation of the poor, he reasons, “Would you rather have them starve?” On the immense pollution aerial fireworks cause, he retorts that cars in the city are causing more. When we ask him why for every problem, he’s only provided a starker counterpart, Ghia ends the conversation as he self proclaimedly does most: “Fireworks make the young and old, the rich and poor very happy. Be it Diwali, Eid, a cricket match victory or a wedding, people will always look to celebrate their happiness with something beyond regular life.” He then asks us if we have a better option.

One of Essabhai's firecrackers

This article first appeared in Mumbai Mirror, Times Of India: http://alturl.com/bxar