13 Questions With Sanket Avlani Of Taxi Fabric

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Sanket Avlani is the man behind Taxi Fabric, the start-up that turns cabs into canvas. Launched in April 2015, Taxi Fabric has upholstered over 100 cabs with as many different designs in Mumbai and is on to its third autorickshaw in Delhi. We caught up with Sanket to find out a little more about him and Taxi Fabric.


Q: Where did you grow up?

A: I was born in London, but soon after my birth my parents came back to Mumbai and that’s where I grew up and lived for the most part.

Q: What was school like? What did you study?

A: I was a very good student and I did really well in school. I studied science and then like a good science student, I took up engineering in college. But in the first year I realised that engineering was just not my cup of tea. So I started to teach myself graphic design software since graphic design was kind of a big deal around that time (still is).

I had to complete my engineering degree because I know that would have made my parents happy, but it was fairly clear that I wasn’t cut out for it. I wasn’t too happy and my grades weren’t that great. I made the move right after college.

I was always good at design from the get go.

Q: Tell us more about the switch.

A: Right after college I worked with a design firm and then a little while later I went to MICA and studied – right after that I worked in advertising as an art director/designer for close to five years and ended up working with Wieden+Kennedy London as a designer.

Q: Tell us about your favourite childhood memory.

A. There are so many (laughs). But the one that stands out the most is me building castles. My mother’s from Pune, and in Pune they have a tradition where you bring mud into the house, make a small mountain out of it (think about the height of a small child) and on top of that mountain you put a fort that’s made out of clay. And in that fort you have figures of Shivaji and his army. So, yeah, I used to be the commander for this mountain making process and everybody used to listen to my orders.


Q: If you could get one artist – living or dead – to design taxi fabric, who would you get?

A: Alive – Ai Wei Wei, dead – Alexander McQueen

Q: How does design in a taxi bring about change?

A: You know when we started Taxi Fabric, we deeply underestimated the reaction we would get from drivers and passengers. Taxi Fabric started out on a whim because I wanted to fuel my desire for design in a public space. Turns out, people of all strata really like or are enthused by design. Drivers told us about how people started conversations with them over the design. It led to more engagement between passenger and designer and more than being just a conversation starter, it delighted people. And that’s what design is all about, really. With Taxi Fabric we’ve brought design to people, instead of them having to go seek it out.

Q: Tell us a little more about the inception of Taxi Fabric. Was it a sudden idea or was there an evolution to a thought?

A: Oh it wasn’t a sudden idea at all. I’ve traveled by taxis all my life, and way back I decided to document taxi fabric for a blog I used to run. And really, it started with that. It took years to grow that idea into what it eventually morphed into. I changed jobs, countries and started Taxi Fabric from London.


Q: What’s your favourite taxi route in Bombay?

A: I really like the ride from Dadar to Nariman Point. There are so many flyovers, and you can really just glide past the city while seeing so much happen around you. I also quite like the whole VT – Churchgate section. At night, when it’s lit up, it’s really stunning.

Q: Are you a chatty passenger? Do you remember any conversation you may had had with a cab driver?

A: I have become now (laughs). Yeah, I remember this conversation I had with a driver once who ended up talking about couples kissing in the back seat. And he was quite upset about it. He said that people assumed that he/drivers had a problem with it because they were considered ‘backward’ or from smaller towns/villages. He said he was genuinely concerned for people’s safety. He said that it never stopped at kissing and it always went a step too far, and he was just not OK with that. And also, there’s a certain amount of disrespect towards him. He’s sitting in the same space that people are getting intimate in, and it wasn’t something he was OK with.

Q: Do you ask the driver to turn up or turn down the volume?

A: I like taxi music. I listen to whatever the driver’s listening to. Unless I’m on a phone call.

Q: How receptive are the cab drivers to Taxi Fabric?

A: They initially agree to it because they’re getting new fabric for free, but then most times, they end up really liking what we’ve done for them. We give all the designers the option to speak to the driver and design something that both agree on but it’s not something that every designer has to do.


Q: Have you had any complaints?

A: (laughs) Yeah this one time this cabbie didn’t like the purple in the fabric. He thought it was too much. And also, we’ve had a couple of instances where passengers got offended with our design though that was not our intent. Once was because the fabric had ‘chalega kya’ in Hindi with a hand gesture illustration next to it; a gentleman thought that it had a homosexual connotation and he got upset with the cab-driver. Another time we had something (completely non-offensive) written in the Urdu script, and a passenger told the driver that it was disrespectful to write that in Urdu. We don’t argue in these cases. We just alter the design. People can be really sensitive, but the last thing we want is the drivers getting into altercations. So, we tweak our design in such cases.

Q: Where is taxi fabric headed?

A: We started off TaxiFabric with a Kickstarter campaign to last us 30 fabrics. We’ve now crossed the 100 cab mark in Mumbai, and we've spent the last couple of months researching on a self-sustainable model. We want Taxi Fabric to be accessible to everyone, so we’re going to print these designs on various sorts of fabric for people to use as they want (home linen, clothing etc.). We’ve started doing shows/trade fairs and are exhibiting at the London Design Fair from September 22 to 25.

We’ve also kicked off our Delhi chapter, and Taxi Fabric Delhi is going to launch its third rickshaw in September. Soon, we’re also going to host the first Taxi Fabric Workshop where design students will come together to design taxis. Basically, we are opening our doors to a large community of creators, and I think we’re headed towards exciting things.

Taxi Fabric, Soulpatch 14, Cama Industrial Estate, Sun Mill Compound, Lower Parel (w), Mumbai 400 013.


You Don’t Have To Go Far For Violin Lessons In Mumbai

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A septugenarian in Matunga is teaching a new generation how to make music with the violin.

Some stereotypes perpetuate themselves. If yours was a South Indian childhood, chances are you were conscripted into a classical music or dance class. I, too, was dragooned into learning the mridangam, a percussion instrument that, to my primary school eyes, resembled two tablas toppled over and tied together. I didn’t enjoy it. My palms ached from banging away on goatskin, and my ankles chafed under the barrel-shaped drum. After a year or two, I quit. I still remember the beats though: ki-ta-tha-ka-tha-ri-ki-ta thi-ku-tha-ka-tha-ri-ki-ta

Then, in my teens, I watched an indie film called Morning Raga starring Shabana Azmi as a Carnatic vocalist. Its soundtrack featured several violin interludes that left me spellbound; how could anything sound so plaintive and joyful, often simultaneously? My friends grew up playing air-guitar; I grew up playing air-violin.

In a second-floor flat of an 80-year old Matunga building lives a lady who plays and teaches the real McCoy. Her student – my friend – had mentioned she’s a septuagenarian, but Ms. Suseela Subbarayudu looks two decades younger. She was born and raised in Matunga and started learning the violin when she was 20. “Both my elder sisters were vocalists,” she says, “so my mother, a veena player, suggested I learn an instrument. I’d grown up with a background of raagam (melody) and taalam (rhythm), so I did want to learn.” She studied with her teacher for 15 years and began learning Bharatnatyam simultaneously.

Two right feet gently tap the floor, keeping time. This is a feast for the ears and the eyes.

In the late ’60s, Ms. Subbarayudu auditioned for All India Radio, that behemoth of musical repertoire, and performed regularly over two decades. “Earlier there would be frequent kutcheris (concerts) at the Bhajana Samaja temple nearby,” she says, “where I would accompany artistes such as Alamelu Mani.” Mrs. Mani is one of Mumbai’s finest teachers of Carnatic vocal music. My generation may know her only as Hariharan’s mother.

But sparsely built and sparring with words, Ms. Subbarayudu greets her student with an “After how long are you coming to class?” and smiles slightly at the sheepish “Three weeks”. Among her students are a doctor, an engineer and college kids; she does not refuse anyone who wants to learn. They sit cross-legged on the floor. Their violins emerge from two black instrument cases: the student’s is a gleaming reddish-brown, the teacher’s a muted mocha. The teacher carefully tunes both, adjusting the pegs, hazarding a few test notes, until she is satisfied with the sound. The student moistens her fingertips with a little coconut oil. They pick up their instruments, ornate scroll resting between right ankle and heel, broad base tucked under chin. This is a democratic class – the teacher asks the student which varnam (composition) she’d like to play – and music fills the room.

A horse-string bow glides diagonally across the waist of the violin, producing notes I cannot identify but wish I could. Four fingers dance upon the strings, leaping here, landing there, sliding down the neck in a graceful glide. Suddenly, the music stops, and the student wails, “I don’t remember anything!”

Ms. Subbarayudu shoulders her violin, and the deeper, richer timbre of her skill blends with the strokes of her student, transforming the music into more than the sum of its parts. The student occasionally glances at her teacher’s fingers to confirm the correctness of her technique; the latter inspects the former’s method and plays on. What little conversation there is occurs in muted, low-pitched tones: “Don’t pause there”. “Repeat that”. Two right feet gently tap the floor, keeping time. This is a feast for the ears and the eyes. My head begins to move in a complicated pattern, attempting to trace the music in the air. The traffic outside is dulled, domestic noises subdued. When the twain begin to play my favourite Carnatic piece, I cannot stifle a smile.

As we leave, two preteen girls arrive for their class. “Many students take a long break for their 10th or 12th standard Board exams,” she says. “They forget the fingering technique.” I do hope they come back.

Because, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “We must practise any art, no matter how well or badly…”, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming. To find out what’s inside us. To make our souls grow.

Ganesh Baug, Sir Bhalchandra Road, Matunga, Mumbai 400 019. Phone: 098201 14451


Savio, Our Mane Man

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My mum cut my hair well past the times of budgetary pragmatism and strayed into borderline teen-abuse. I’d tried one salon after another, each haircut Russian roulette. My fingers went blue from crossing them under the cape. It turned me religious. One Christmas I walked out of a soulless franchise with that typical “if you buy this super expensive conditioner your life will be better” tilt, hair cut like an upturned plastic-fir. My brothers sang every Van Halen song they knew.

A friend recommended Savio. An acquaintance said he gave you “life-changing hair cuts”. I had met his Mrs. recently and realised he meant “wife-changing haircuts”. Transformed! She even had a new laugh (throwing her head back, tossing her hair). I made an appointment with this magician at the salon he had started with a friend.

Savio John Pereira is built like the boxer he used to be, has a motorcycle, a rumoured temper (if he’s wearing sunglasses indoors, he’s just yelled at someone apparently) and used to be a deejay at Toto’s Garage Pub. He dresses in black, wears a massive crucifix on his chest and is very good looking. The first time I saw his gigantic hands holding sharp scissors, I was sure he was going to kill me.

Without exaggeration, around the world, there is a growing Cult of Savio. Tickets to Mumbai are booked only after securing an appointment.

He didn’t. I’d come in with “old Christmas tree on the dustbin heap after Epiphany” hair, and I don’t want to brag but I walked out feeling unprecedentedly sexy. Then I lost track of him for a couple of years until someone said he’d gone solo.

Walk into Savio John Pereira’s eponymous salon and you get treated like a lady. It can be weird for macho-mamas like me, but most women lurrrve it. Everyone knows Savio is the preferred hairdresser for (discreetly) a host of Bollywood stars, models and cricketers with fat endorsements. But the salon treats everyone who walks in the door – glamourous older women, handsome middle-aged men, lurid teens, yummy mummies, models, retired models, people in town for work and me – with sophisticated grace and hospitality.

It sits like gorgeous icing atop the grungy, hipster, gluten-free granola cupcake that is the Bagel Shop. The salon is a wonderful example of how someone with intelligence and aesthetic can repurpose the tiny, old, one-storey houses of Bandra with a nod to the history of the area and incredible sensitivity to the old locals who still live there. A fate infinitely more desirable than the usual “rebuild/redevelopment” into those absolutely horrendous, mean-spirited concrete little-boxes that dot parts of the suburb. Natural light pours in from the windows through which you can see the other little houses as they stand in that familiar higgledy-piggledy huddle of the Bandra village.

Without exaggeration, around the world, there is a growing Cult of Savio. Tickets to Mumbai are booked only after securing an appointment. Closer to Mumbai’s “NRI season”, the salon is filled with alien fingernail lengths, foreign fashion-senses, Dubai blondes, Singapore keratins and someone’s sister-in-law from Ukraine. Here in India, he is well known and highly respected. Savio strides around, from one arm-chair to the next, saying hello, checking the hair, remembering some peculiar detail from your last conversation with him. He is married, has an amazing mum, comes from a family of many sisters and “gets” women. He also has the charm of the devil, the very same one in the details.

A friend recommended Savio. An acquaintance said he gave you “life-changing hair cuts”.

The salon has a rate card for a host of treatments and services, but Savio himself has a “pay what you want” for a haircut by him. It throws people off, but he is an award winning celebrity in his own right and he can cut your hair with his sunglasses on (he has, mine). I usually advise people to check senior stylist rates and then do a little mathematics.

Savio tends to go into hospital-triage mode when he sees me. “Just sit there. Don’t move,” he booms. The salon’s manicurist comes over, starts to remove the chipped varnish on my toes. Savio makes an eyebrow move at him. The manicurist takes out a razor and shaves the three weird hairs that grow on each big toe. Inside I am laughing. Outside I scowl. “I like having hairy toes,” I say. “You’re not leaving my salon looking like a hobbit,” he says. He takes your grooming personally. They all do.

I walk out feeling quite fabulous. We all do.

SJP Salon, Anand Villa, First Floor, 30, Pali Mala Road, Off Carter Road, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050. Phone: 098707 19161


Being Aishwarya Arumbakkam

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Genesia Alves talks to Aishwarya Arumbakkam about Bandra, her new project, and being a woman in Mumbai.

Aishwarya Arumbakkam comes in the door, her wispy fringe standing up from having cycled to our flat through ridiculous Bandra traffic. You’re likely to forget how young she is when you’re talking to her. This baby-faced 20-something combines the ballsy, feisty gumption of a crime reporter with the keen, intuitive eye of an artist. It is a potent combination. Her black and white photography gets under your skin. You look. You look. You can’t look away.

Her last exhibition, Items, was a series of everyday women, dressed as classic vamps, doing everyday things. Her previous exhibition, Stalked, featured victims of stalking portrayed with such delicate vulnerability that it makes you feel voyeuristic, predatory.

Aishwarya is from Chennai. She studied Film and Communication at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She finished her stint at NID with a six-month exchange program at École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Then she moved to Mumbai. Specifically, to Bandra.

As we chat during the day, I realise this young woman kowtows to no imposed gender boundaries. Where did you get your feminism from, Aishwarya?

“It’s the only place I see myself living in,” she says, “here. It’s community based. I prefer small stores to malls, walking to taxis, knowing my neighbours. It’s safe. It’s affordable. There is always something to do, someone to meet.” One of Aishwarya's hangouts is Duke's on Chapel Road - a decades old eatery with great malabari parathas, kheema, dal-fry and reliable tea, popular with the old locals and the young people from around the world who now call the area home.

But Aishwarya doesn’t just hang out in Bandra. A friend runs a football camp for underprivileged kids in a gigantic slum in Reay Road. This is no Dharavi. You don’t read about this slum in the paper. Tourist buses don’t go there. It is a parallel universe. It can be dangerous. She finds it heady and compelling. “The dominant population in the area I shot was Tamil,” she says. “Signages, advertisements, music, food, language – it was a jolt back to another time in my life. It’s funny what familiarity can do. It put me at ease. I love how edgy, dramatic yet vulnerable the whole space is. There are no facilities, terrible sanitation. It’s beyond awful. But there’s a constant buzz.”

As we chat during the day, I realise this young woman kowtows to no imposed gender boundaries. Where did you get your feminism from, Aishwarya? She shrugs. “I’ve always been fiercely independent. And then, your everyday experiences contradict that, oppose your instinct, your behaviour, try and force you to conform. I was always feminist, but being in such a patriarchal society just enhances it.”

In one picture in Items, a trained physiotherapist sits in the twee costume from the song “Mera Naam Hain Chin Chin Chu” in the film Howrah Bridge. A far cry from the coquettish Helen, she holds a dumbbell in one hand, perched on an exercise ball. It’s funny. But not “ha-ha” funny. “Items was the most well received and understood body of work I’ve done,” says Aishwarya. “It was fairly sharp, yet playful and that attracted a lot of people to it.”

Stalked is more disturbing. “It was a reaction to several things around me,” she says. “Our bodies, the way we view them, the issue of stalking, its portrayal in popular media, being a woman in an urban environment. Documenting this was tougher for the victims than me. They opened up, put themselves out there. The process of making the images was cathartic. It created a space to accept themselves, their bodies and take a step towards moving on.”

Aishwarya’s day job is in commercial filmmaking. She throws herself into it. “TV commercials offer me excellence in terms of budgets, aesthetics, scripts, technicians. A lot of it is very creatively satisfying. But a majority of commercial work is governed by paradigms that don’t always allow you to voice your own opinion. Hence the importance of having a parallel artistic practice.”

Her new project has begun. It deals with her environment, the body, mindset. It will make waves. What’s scary for a young woman in Mumbai in 2015, I ask her. “Living here as a woman is scary,” she says, “But what is liberating is that it’s the only city in India you can still probably live as a woman, without going absolutely crazy.”

You can find Aishwarya Arumbakkam's work on her website.


The Sum Of All Our Arts

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Nirvair Nath is no ordinary 22 year old. He was 10 when he moved to India after spending a decade in Ghana. As a child, Nirvair dreamt of being a chef, cooking up culinary dreams in his head and the breakfast table – the standard fantasies of a standard adolescent. Twelve years, a shift halfway across the world and three schools later, he finds himself an artist. “How did that happen?” I ask him.

He never decided to become an artist, he tells me, but that’s how it works. It just happens. One minute you’re applying to culinary school, the next your mind takes a full U-turn and heads elsewhere. We’re at his week-old studio, and he’s answering my questions as he draws deep, dark strokes on paper. It’s a makeshift working space in a modest-sized old apartment where the windows don’t have frames and ideas don’t have boundaries. There’s music playing in the background, soft enough not to disturb but loud enough not to blend into the white noise. It’s not distracting and he draws in tandem with the beats. Is this how he usually works?

Usually he works out sketches in his notepad before he translates it to the canvas, but there’s no set rule while creating art. And there clearly shouldn’t be.

It’s a makeshift working space in a modest-sized old apartment where the windows don’t have frames and ideas don’t have boundaries.

It took Nirvair two weeks to convert the abandoned office in an old Bandra apartment building into the makeshift studio space he works out of. It’s sparse and lacks a toilet, but for him it’s a second home. There’s a mattress and a collapsible table set up over bricks and simple curtains over rods. He sourced most of it from scraps left behind and brought the rest from home. He carries the speakers for his Mac in everyday – there’s no lock on the front door. “I try coming here for a couple of hours a day,” he says, “If I’m not working, I’m just thinking about what to do. Otherwise, there are always plants to water.” He points at the potted shrubs by the frameless window. The studio disciplines him, and setting it up has been one of the highlights of his post-college artist life. When I ask him where he sees himself in two years, he laughs.

He hopes to see the studio evolve into an artist’s collective – a space where musicians, painters and videographers come together and collaborate to create art. There’s so much potential for resonance between sound and visuals waiting to be tapped. What inspires him?

A bit of spirituality. His mother has always been an influencing factor, like most mothers are. Two and a half years of learning jazz funk helped too. The energy and dynamics involved with being a dancer only encouraged his art. The past six years have been formative, but he’s nowhere close to reaching the end. It’s a constant journey of self-discovery.

He’s currently experimenting with a series inspired by hand movements – ink on paper, oil paints and acrylic on large canvases. It’s a lot of expression on print – yoga and dance are two sides of the same coin. He traces patterns and loves the idea of reworking old pieces to give them new life. Nirvair finds it hard to consume art on digital media. There’s no semblance of colour or texture when you’re staring at your computer screen. Which is why you won’t find any of his work online. Art needs to be observed on walls, floors and ceilings, out in the open, indoors in a room. And that’s exactly where he plans to be – painting on the streets, by buildings and traffic signals. Art is everywhere, he concludes. We just have to find it. I sigh.

He gets back to his canvas. I get back to my colourless life.

Coral Apartments, 24th Road, Bandra (w), Mumbai 400 050


Michelle Rodrigues Designs Beautiful Wedding Gowns

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Mumbai girls – especially Bandra girls – check each other out. We clock the hair, the muscle tone, the quirks, the classics, the shoes, the clothes. Male attention, pshaw. That indecisive gawking like meerkats at a too-fast sushi conveyor belt; pah. We want the girls to notice. Thar be the win.

My sisters and I have been checking Michelle Rodrigues out for ages. She wears her cheekbones, her gamine frame, her beautiful hair with an artist’s decrepit nonchalance. When, last year, my sister’s wedding-seamstress suddenly took ill, we had a panicky scramble. Seamstresses are booked sometimes a year in advance. Michelle came highly recommended, not least by a friend’s single young brother. He’d never had a wedding dress made but, “I just know.” (Pronounced: She’s hot.)

We looked her up on Facebook. Amazing: a beach wedding dress whose fluidity mirrored the waves, classic white-wedding couture, red-carpet ready gowns nodding to the trend of having one “western wear” night for big fat Indian weddings.

We called. Holy serendipity, a slot was open! (Sorry, Bride Whose Wedding Got Cancelled) As she walked into her studio and we realised who she was, we sucked our guts in and made “cool” Bandra chick talk.

I plot. Maybe I’ll renew my vows. Trick my husband into a big party. Only so I can have Michelle make me a wedding dress I can love.

Michelle grew up in Bandra and started making clothes very early. She moved to Muscat, Oman and taught fashion and design-thought at the Middle East College. Then she came back one “wedding” season, made a couple of dresses and never looked back.

“How crazy are the crazy brides, Michelle,” I inveigle, “tell me cray-cray stories!” Her voice is bourbon. “I haven’t encountered any bridezillas,” she says with a grin, “or maybe I have the amazing ability not to notice.” She puts The Crazy down to performance-anxiety. “Sometimes I see pressure at the start of the process. They’re not sure how they will look on their wedding day. There’s a need to freeze a snapshot, looking beautiful in a beautiful moment, forever.”

There’s also the problem of plenty; dress ideas barrelling out of the internet. “There are so many genres,” she says, “sexy, fun, conservative, avant-garde. One bride sent me more than 20 individual designs with almost nothing in common. She said for each one ‘this is the look I’m going for’ followed by a nervous attack. That’s the only pressure point in my timeline. Once you’ve picked the design, it’s smooth sailing.” Personally, she loves Elie Saab for effortless and fun evening gowns. “Inbal Dror is also a favourite.”

The first wedding dress she made was her own. “Two thousand five, that’s where it started,” she says. "A clean-cut taffeta strapless gown, a little trimming of sparkle. It was an easy, fun to put on ensemble.”

Has she ever had to protect a bride from a disastrous design choice? “One bride couldn’t stop adding stuff to her dress. I put on as much as I could but insisted on stopping when the canvas filled up.” Because she works with most brides on the design though, this happens very rarely. After all, she reminds me, “taste is very subjective. If someone has dreamed of a neon candy pink dress on her wedding day, I usually just give her a neon candy pink dress. My job is to make it work for her.”

What works for Michelle herself is quite another thing. “I’m a minimalist when it comes to clothing, so I love the ’20s and the ’70s,” she says. “The appeal of style for me is function. Climate sensitive fabric and a good fit that allows absolutely uninhibited movement.” She likes Victoria Beckham’s approach to style. “It’s clean, to the point. There’s also Rick Owens, not so ‘to the point’ but super!”

“I haven’t encountered any bridezillas,” she says with a grin, “or maybe I have the amazing ability not to notice.”

Michelle also designs sophisticated, playful silk dresses, which she retails at her store in Bandra. But it’s little girls’ dresses that she loves making, “I have a line of little frocks to keep that lamp alive,” she says. “I’ve designed some interesting textures for kids this year, can’t wait to see them on the dresses.”

My mother treasured her wedding dress so much she refused when I asked if I could wear it at my wedding. I regret my own. A motorcycle riding, boot-clad, green-fringed TV producer, I was too young, too embarrassed to admit I cared about how I’d look on my wedding day. I had no connection with my seamstress. I suffered an ill-fitted wedding meringue.

At my sister’s final fitting last year, I felt a pang. I’d have no excuse to meet Michelle again. But we’re back! Another sister is getting married. I watch Michelle, amongst mountains of white lace, sketching a pattern. I will eventually run out of sisters to marry off.

I plot. Maybe I’ll renew my vows. Trick my husband into a big party. Only so I can have Michelle make me a wedding dress I can love. Something the Bandra girls will check out.

Michelle Rodrigues Clothing, Nelnom II, Saint Veronica Road, Bandra (W), Mumbai 400 050


Learning The Ancient Martial Art Of Mallakhamb

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Uday Deshpande has been teaching Mallakhamb, the ancient martial art and aerial sport that improves the body, the mind, and the soul, for 40 years at Shivaji Park at the Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir. It was founded in 1923 and moved to Shivaji Park in 1949. Free Rope Mallakhamb sessions for all are conducted daily from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Anyone from 5 to 85 years old is welcome to join.

Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, Swatantrya Veer Savarkar Marg, Shivaji Park, Mumbai 400 028


“I start my day at four in the morning and end it at 10 in the night.”

That’s barely five hours of sleep, I thought, when Uday Deshpande told me about his daily routine. Dressed in black tennis shorts with his signature glasses and a humble smile on his face is the only way I remember this man who’s responsible for keeping the art of Mallakhamb alive.

Not much had changed since I last visited Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir some 15 years ago. The earthy smell of red mud, the little Hanuman idol, the grated coconut and sugar prasad every Saturday (the taste of which I still remember), students in the staple white and blue dress code loitering around the field, some practicing gymnastics, some doing Rope Mallakhamb and some warming up for their turn. The age old Institution was bustling with fun and fitness even late on a humid evening.

Each time a student greeted Uday Sir with the traditional SSVM Namaste – right hand folded against chest and a light tip-toe movement – jolted me to the past. Vyayam Mandir (Marathi for “temple of exercises”) has always held discipline and respect in high regard, and that can be seen in Uday Sir’s outlook too. I had never been to his office when I was a student here, but years later I still felt like a teacher’s pet sitting across him. That was his persona on the field.

We looked at the future of Mallakhamb and the potential of this Institution to survive in the modern world abuzz with fitness mantras.

“So, Vyayam Mandir was not founded by you?” I asked in surprise. “It is a 91-year-old institution,” he said with a laugh. “SSVM was founded by Vyayam Maharshi Late P.L. Kale Guruji, who was the pet disciple of Rajratna Proff. Manikrao of Baroda. Manikrao’s teacher Jummadada was a freedom fighter along with Rani Laxmi Bai, Tatya Tope and many others of the league, and that is where it had its roots.”

Uday Sir came to the Vyayam Mandir courtesy of his maternal grandfather. “My grandfather lived in Pune and my mother took my siblings and me every vacation to stay with him,” he said. “My grandfather woke up at 5 a.m. daily and practiced yoga. And I would sit right in front of him and imitate his actions.” His grandfather saw that spark in him and believed he would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary Institution. He was all of three when he met the founder of Shree Samartha Vyayam Mandir, and he has been associated with it ever since.

“We lived near Byculla, through my teens, but my father was a badminton enthusiast and we made the trip to Shivaji Park every evening,” he said. “That worked best for me, and I was able to spend time at the Vyayam Mandir.” He mastered the importance of discipline early on in life. Even as a school-going teenager he trained in Mallakhamb early every morning and evening. That dedication for the martial art form and fitness persevered throughout his life and career as a Customs officer too. Barring his years as a student, he has devoted close to about 40 years at this Institution, training over lakhs of students, looking after the administrative activities and now taking Mallakhamb to the world.

His grandfather saw that spark in him and believed he would be the right person to bear the torch of this art form and the legendary Institution.

Mallakhamb, also famous as an Indian martial art, originated in Maharashtra and traces back to the period of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Legend has it that a certain Balambhatt Dada Deodhar, from the regime of Bajirao Peshwa II, accepted a challenge to beat two Nizami wrestlers, Ali and Gulab, thought to be unbeatable. The then 16-year-old Deodhar belonged to the priestly clan, and so he sought help in goddess Saptashrungi. It is believed that Lord Hanuman taught him the wrestling moves on a wooden pole in his dreams. That is how modern day Mallakhamb – “Malla” meaning wrestling and “Khamb” meaning Pole – came to life. After Deodhar’s smacking victory against the Nizami wrestler, Mallakhamb soon found its way to all the akhadas in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, Uday Sir told me as he walked me through the historic trail of this art.

My attention was drawn back to the present when a student stopped by to greet Uday Sir. There were still some men sweating it out at the Parallel Bars, and kids in gymnastic attire stretched in the lobby. We looked at the future of Mallakhamb and the potential of this Institution to survive in the modern world abuzz with fitness mantras. “Earlier there were only four states, where Mallakhamb was known,” said Uday Sir, “but now it has centers all over the country and a presence in three continents, namely Asia, Europe and North America.” Having formed the World Mallakhamb Confederation, Uday Deshpande is sure globalising it will help gain due attention to it nationally too.

Photographs by Suruchi Maira


Learning Kalaripayattu In Bandra

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I’d pass the sign on Pali Hill every day. It had a photograph of a young yogi, curly hair to his shoulders, in what I thought was a variation of the elephant pose. I was wrong. Pradeesh is a Kalari warrior. It was the Kalari Wild Boar stance.

Kalaripayattu (the u is silent) is the mother of all the martial arts. Over the centuries, movement, manner and muscle memory have permeated the membranes, differentiating dance forms, yoga, ancient medicine and the performing arts. You see ripples of the Kalari warrior’s practice in Kathakali, in yoga, in ayurvedic healing.

It is hard to think of the mild Malayali man as a fierce, fearsome warrior. But watch Kalari warriors seemingly fly through the air wielding lethal weaponry or engaged in hand-to-hand combat: it is a gravity-defying, dexterous, deadly ballet. It's easy to see why the British banned the practice of Kalari to stymie rebellion.

Pradeesh teaches yoga and kalari and moved his class from Pali Hill to the Retreat House in Bandra, an open, airy, circular hall where on some days young seminarians listen to lectures, on others engaged Catholic couples are given sex education by celibate priests and I once took a Sufi swirling workshop.

Pradeesh’s grandparents were healers, practicing yoga, kalaripayattu and Ayurveda. The families’ healing centres, Sribharat Kalari Sangam and Hindustan Kalari Sangam, still thrive today in Calicut. For Pradeesh, it was home in every way. “I was in my element,” he says. “There was so much satisfaction. Mornings to evenings, I was immersed, involved.” Even today, when he travels back home, he falls seamlessly into the routines of grinding medicines and administering to the sick, his inheritance as healer intact.

These primal connections seem far removed from the usual suspect urban yoga classes filled with middle-aged yuppies and yummy mummies, gently ageing television personalities and young hipsters.

As a child, Pradeesh displayed incredible physical acumen and excelled at every sport he tried. He played cricket for Kerala, was a journeyman pro and played circuit tennis tournaments, represented his university in boxing and wrestling and was a national karate champion. He is fluent in 15 martial arts and has a black belt in karate and taekwondo.

He also has a Bachelor’s in English Literature, mostly because his parents insisted he get a degree and he chose the easiest one.

I tell Pradeesh about how I thought he was in the elephant pose. We start talking about how the East looks at elephants so differently from the West. We don’t treat them as clumsy, blustery, comic Colonel Haathis. Here there is a reverence for their wisdom, their strength, their intelligence. We know they acknowledge their elders and mourn their dead.

I don’t know why, but I ask him if he believes in spirit animals. “Yes,” he says and goes quiet. I’m momentarily nonplussed. “I can’t tell you what mine is. You have to keep that to yourself. But spirit animals are guardians. All ancient systems – the shamans, Native Americans, aborigines – speak of spirit animals. As you practice your arts, meditate, you find yourself most attuned to a certain spirit. Maybe your teacher will pick up on it.”

Kalari works with invocations to eight or nine animals. “You invoke their powers, their presence, their styles of fighting. It could be the leopard, the eagle, the horse. Their strength, stealth, cunning…”

These primal connections seem far removed from the usual suspect urban yoga classes filled with middle-aged yuppies and yummy mummies, gently ageing television personalities and young hipsters. Pradeesh however doesn’t see it like that. “You find that a good teacher will be able to bring something to the people,” he says. “Even if the class is somewhat aerobic, there will be a moment when the students will be privy to a small glimpse of what Samadhi is. When they experience this, their path shifts.” And their journey is surer.

Pradeesh explains the essence of the Kalari warrior. “Sound body, sound mind. Always calm, peaceful, nothing bothers you. Very caring, immense clarity and emotional stability.” Yes, I say. But could you handle yourself in a street fight?

He chuckles. “Yes, Kalari teaches you self defence, how to use your body. When I was young I used to love getting into fights. I didn’t go looking for them but when they came, oh, I was so happy. But at some point you gain so much confidence, nothing can affect you. You walk on the street with nothing to prove. To anyone. Not even to yourself.”

And maybe that is Samadhi. Nothing to prove. Not even to yourself.

Classes at Retreat House, 6 Kane Road, Bandstand, Bandra West, Mumbai 400 050. Phone: +91 9967257976

Parmesh Shahani India Culture Lab

Creating The Circuitry Of Ideas: In Conversation with Parmesh Shahani

Parmesh Shahani India Culture Lab



It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s what Parmesh Shahani tells me with a laugh when I ask him how he developed the idea for the Godrej India Culture Lab. “I was selected as a TED fellow in 2009 and went for my first TED conference,” says Parmesh. “I really enjoyed the format of mashing up people from different fields and seeing what came out of it. I’m interested in contemporary India. I wanted to use this idea of cross-pollination, but only for India and all the time. Can we be in a state of TED-ness 365 days a year? What would it mean to create a new kind of space?”

We’re at a coffee shop on the Godrej campus in Vikhroli waiting for an order of bun maska. Vikhroli isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a cultural centre for Mumbai, but Parmesh is trying to change that. “It doesn’t make sense why, in a city of our size and of our geography, everyone has to go to some southernmost tip,” he says. “Most of the city lives between Thane and Dadar or Navi Mumbai and Andheri. That’s where we are. We’re in the centre. We’re excited to create a space that serves the city and a space where some of India’s challenges can be debated in and found.”

I first met Parmesh in 1999 when he founded the youth website Fresh Lime Soda. Fresh out of school, I was part of a growing group of young men and women that was exploring this new, digital platform for communication. Two years later I left to study abroad. There were no smart phones or social media, and the Internet was still nascent in India. Parmesh and I lost touch.

Since then, Parmesh has attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enrolled in – and dropped out of – a PhD programme, written a book, founded the Godrej India Culture Lab and been a TED Fellow, Yale World Fellow and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Our paths have crossed over the years, and I asked him to meet me so I could find out how he went from Fresh Lime Soda to Godrej India Culture Lab.

"It doesn’t make sense why, in a city of our size and of our geography, everyone has to go to some southernmost tip."

That’s why we’re here having coffee and carbs. “Very randomly,” he says. He knew nothing about media, so he went to MIT to study. He thought he’d stay in academia in America, but life brought him back to India where he was back in media with Verve magazine. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania for his PhD, but dropped out and returned to India again. “I was interested in building ecosystems,” says Parmesh, “in connecting the dots between the different disciplines I’d been lucky enough to be part of. When I look back, I realise it was all about building communities around certain ideas.” I have first-hand experience of these communities. Many of the writers from Fresh Lime Soda are good friends today, even though we’ve all moved on to other things.

Through Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh is trying to create a community on a larger scale. The audiences for their events consist of students, housewives and young professionals from all over India who connect over speakers like Japanese architect Tadao Ando or economist Abhijit Banerjee. “We’re a non-intimidating space,” says Parmesh. “We don’t compromise on the seriousness of what we do. Our talks are high calibre talks. But the way we frame it, we’re welcoming and exclusive. Everything we do is followed by a reception and free food. And that’s important because you don’t just come for a cultural event. You come to hang out with each other. We haven’t just created this event space but also this hangout space. People create friendships and collaborations. It’s been beautiful.”

Parmesh is the author of Gay Bombay, a 2008 book that looks at the hopes, dreams and aspirations of English-speaking gay men in India. It’s partly academic and partly personal, and Parmesh wrote it using research and his memoirs. “I realised when I left India that this was a part of me I hadn’t addressed,” he says, “so research was a way to understand myself and my world better. Because it was research I did in a community in which I belong, I thought it was unfair to ask people for their stories and not share mine as well. I thought it was quite fair that I share my life with as much openness and trust as these people who have shared their lives with me. The book is richer because of it. Today, seven years after publication, I still get emails every month from scholars, students or just people who’ve read it saying, ‘Thank you so much. It’s changed our lives.’ It’s a good feeling.”

The events at Godrej India Culture Lab are free and open to the public.

Godrej India Culture Lab, Godrej Industries, Pirojshanagar, Eastern Express Highway, Vikhroli (E), Mumbai 400 079.


Piece Of Cake

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Meeting Pooja Dhingra is a treat both figuratively and literally. I’m early for our interview and her assistant very kindly puts a plate of macarons and cupcakes just for me on the table. It isn’t embarrassing at all that I’m stuffing my face with a hazelnut macaron when Pooja walks in. Or so I tell myself.

We’re at Pooja’s kitchen in Elphinstone where the Le15 Pâtisserie magic happens. Next door is Studio Fifteen, the culinary studio she set up in September 2013. For three years before that, the space in her kitchen started as proxy studio where she taught classes on the weekend to people who’d fly in from all over India. “Sharing knowledge is a big part of who I am and what I do,” says Pooja. “There was nothing in the city that was actually teaching you anything where you could learn from a chef hands on. The idea was that it deserves its own space.” Studio Fifteen opened its doors with a macaron class, which still remains one of its most popular classes.

The idea of learning how to make macarons is intimidating to me, someone whose idea of cooking is making instant noodles well. I confess my lack of culinary skills to Pooja who has a solution. “Join a class,” she says with a laugh. “People are afraid of baking because you have to be so precise. I find comfort in the precision because you have the recipe and everything is measured. So what I try to do is make everything extremely simple so it’s not scary. You need to know nothing. You come with zero knowledge and that’s the whole point. We’re here to teach you and to make it easy for you.”

"It’s nice to have really unbelievable dreams. That’s the only way you’ll ever come close to really achieving them."

There’s no typical student at Studio Fifteen. The youngest student so far has been an 11-year-old girl and the oldest a 93-year-old man from Bangalore whose granddaughter gifted him a class for his birthday because he loved cooking. “In the beginning of every class I ask the students to introduce themselves,” says Pooja, “and one lady said she was there to learn how to make desserts because her husband had mouth cancer and couldn’t chew anything at all and he loves dessert. She wanted to learn how to make dessert so she could make things for him that were soft and he could eat. You become part of people’s lives, in a way, and help them. That’s the biggest compliment for me.”

Forbes has dubbed Pooja the “Dessert Queen” of Mumbai, but what’s more impressive than the delectable desserts is the empire she’s built. She’s 20-something years old, and she’s opened multiple stores around Mumbai, written one book (and is currently writing her second), opened a successful culinary studio, and won numerous awards. But Pooja lets me in on an ambition that might be the hardest one to achieve. “One day I will be on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.” That catches me off guard, and I laugh. On a 2014 trip to New York, Pooja was in the audience for Seth Meyers’s show because her friends couldn’t get tickets for Fallon, but they promised they would for her next trip. “And I just looked at them,” she tells me, “and I’m like, ‘The next time I come to New York, I’m going to be on the Jimmy Fallon Show’.” She drinks her morning chai from a Tonight Show mug – a daily reminder and motivation to make it happen.

It may be tough, but Pooja’s tenacious. “Much before Le15 I had a book, I called it my vision book,” she says. “I had images of everything that I ever wanted to do. I put in the awards that I wanted to win, the customers that I wanted to have, the places that I wanted to have my store.” She’s achieved everything. “I work by this principle that your thoughts become things. Obviously you have to work towards them. I always set my goals and I’ll work really hard towards them. It’s nice to have really unbelievable dreams. That’s the only way you’ll ever come close to really achieving them. Because if it’s within your reach it’s not going to motivate you.”

I visit a macaron class, and it’s comprised entirely of women. Some are local; some have come from other cities just for a few hours. All of them are excited about being here. In just a few minutes, it’s easy to see why the classes are so popular. Years of practice means Pooja makes macaron-making look effortless, but she makes the effort to explain the process step-by-step and answer every question. My eyes widen when I see the amount of sugar that goes into the macarons, and I’m thankful I didn’t know during the hazelnut macaron incident. I tell myself I haven’t seen what goes into a cupcake, so I eat a red velvet one instead. It’s just as delicious.

Classes taught at Studio Fifteen range from baking breads, cookies and cupcakes to making pasta, dumplings and salads.

Studio Fifteen, Shop No. 4, Rajgruha Co-op Society, B Wing, BM Marg, Elphinstone West, Mumbai 400 013. Phone: 08454 046544