The Kala Ghoda Hideaway


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Slow and steady our cab moved through the traffic snarls at Haji Ali and Peddar Road. If this was Mumbai on a Saturday afternoon, I wondered how bad weekdays were.

My friends and I were running late, which is not an unusual situation in Mumbai given the constant traffic. But that day I was in a particular hurry that day to reach 145.

In any other city with a British influence, 145 would be a street name or a building number but not in Mumbai. Here it is heritage landmarks, famous shops or even incidents that define addresses. 145 was a newly launched eatery in Kala Ghoda where I was celebrating a friend’s birthday.

I knew we should have taken the J.J. Flyover and couldn’t help condemning my friends’ wrong choice of route to Kala Ghoda. I secretly take pride in my road sense, and I just couldn’t be wrong about Kala Ghoda.

Where the streets aren’t dotted with cars honking incessantly but with tall green trees that form a serene canopy overhead. Where the pavements aren’t polluted with hawkers selling Chinese goods or chaat but with artists making portraits outside Jehangir Art Gallery. Where the atmosphere doesn’t smell of carbon emissions but of freshly baked bread from The Pantry. Where the walls aren’t stained with paan spittle marks but decorated with brightly painted graffiti. Where time isn’t flying but instead passing by.

There is the Kala Ghoda I know.

When a German friend once asked me where I would go in Mumbai if I wanted solitude, I took out my phone and showed him a picture of Kala Ghoda.

Sandwiched between the docks in the east and Oval maidan in the west, this crescent shaped district – the name of which literally translates to Black Horse – is the art and culture district of Mumbai. And it also happens to be my favourite part of the city.

The hustle and bustle of Mumbai with its fast pace and crowded public areas often leaves no respite zones for those wanting to simply sit and do nothing. When a German friend once asked me where I would go in Mumbai if I wanted solitude, I took out my phone and showed him a picture of Kala Ghoda. “This is my peace precinct,” I said.

I’ve spent countless hours aimlessly wandering through its lanes and staring at the old, colonial structures. Sprinkled with cafés, heritage buildings, art galleries and libraries, Kala Ghoda has been my open-air museum since I was in college. The iconic Rhythm House, unfortunately soon to shut down, is a splendid gateway to this oasis. A stroll along the pretty Jewish Synagogue dressed in blue and the stone-clad David Sassoon Library is a walk back in time. If these aren’t enough, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (formerly known as Prince of Wales Museum) has artefacts and other relics from the past for the mind to explore.

I sometimes think Kala Ghoda evolved like an Indian joint family. All the beautiful heritage elements of the city one by one systematically found their place next to one another and sit together tightly knit even today. The world around them has changed, grown and transformed, but they continue to enjoy each other’s company, reluctant to leave their roots.

Kala Ghoda earned its name from a black stone statue of King Edward VII mounted on a horse that was built by Jewish businessman Albert Sassoon. The statue has been moved to the Byculla Zoo, but the name lives on and the district is now home to the annual Kala Ghoda Arts Festival.

Held every year in February, the festival celebrates art, culture and heritage at its heart. Over the years I’ve seen the visitors and security at this week-long festival increase multi-fold. There was a time when finding a spot on the open-air heritage bus was a breeze. But today even a 10-day pre registration is not enough, as also with the food workshops, photo walks and literary discussions. I would consider myself lucky if I found a seat on the open-air rampart to catch one of the street plays or classical performances.

Kala Ghoda is at its vibrant best through the festival, but I prefer to go there on lazy weekend afternoons when fewer people remember the old town. As if living in the British countryside, I relish spending my afternoons reading a book and sipping Darjeeling tea at the quaint Kala Ghoda Café.

Surrounded by the commercial districts of Fort and Churchgate on one side and the shopping paradise Colaba on the other, Kala Ghoda seldom gets the attention and crowds it deserves.

And I am rather glad it doesn’t.

Kala Ghoda, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Mumbai 400 001


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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

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Call Me Deepak


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Is it just an abandoned bungalow? No, it’s the Mayor’s house. Or maybe it’s an ancestral property inhabited by a stubborn old man who refuses to give in to the demands of real estate players.

Every time I walked to High Street Phoenix in the neighbourhood I couldn’t help but wonder why nobody reformed a certain old and tattered bungalow on the way. While nearly every piece of property around it had metamorphosed, or was metamorphosing, into contemporary glass buildings, this one-acre plot with an open courtyard and two white elephants still stood there calling itself Deepak Cinemas.

Half-torn posters of Telegu, Marathi and sometimes failed Hindi movies were slapped on the low, sky-blue compound walls. And a short man in uniform atop a wooden stool guarded the dilapidated metal gate. The long queues of labourers and paan-chewing taxi drivers outside was justified when I saw the chalkboard by the little ticket window that read Rs. 20, 30, 40. I could picture the scene inside. Wooden chairs with almost negligible cushioning, high ceiling fans hanging from the sloping roofs and a wide screen really far away may have livened up the cinematic experience for all the men in the queue.

Although the movie prices were tempting, it was a theatre I could never visit, I would say to myself. Why couldn’t they simply rip this down and build a fancy multiplex with recliner seats and butter-popcorn vending machines? When old mills could become fancy malls and plush offices, why not this?

There were no daunting security women to frisk me, no aroma of pizzas, nachos and brownies in the air and no pesky red lights prying from the ceiling.

Tokershi Jivraj Shah, a Kutchi landlord who owned acres of land in the Lower Parel-Elphinstone area, started Deepak Talkies as a venue for circus shows and musicals until the arrival of the talkies in 1931. In its heyday it hosted many star-studded premieres and attracted the neighbouring mill workers every evening, the man at the ticket counter told me.

But come the new millennium and many single screen cinema houses failed to keep up with the multiplex boom. The fortunes of the only theatre in Elphinstone dwindled in the past two decades, and it started showing mass movies in Bhojpuri, Telugu and Marathi to stay afloat. What it really needed was a fresh lease of life. It needed to get rid of the peeled-off walls and bug infested seats. It needed to entice a sophisticated crowd that loved the experience of watching a good film.

And February last year marked the rebirth of this 89-year-old theatre. Complete with new seats, air conditioning and state-of-the-art technology, Deepak Cinemas was renamed Deepak – Matterden CFC. What I loved about it when I saw it reborn is what I exactly hated all those years ago. The sloping, tiled roof, the open courtyard before the theatre, the small ticket window outside, the cagey gate and film posters slapped on the wall outside – only this time they were placed in special glass cases pinned on the walls – and the newly painted white elephants.

I knew, at the gate itself, this was going to be a one-of-a kind movie experience. There were no daunting security women to frisk me, no aroma of pizzas, nachos and brownies in the air and no pesky red lights prying from the ceiling. The way to the screen was simple, earthy and nostalgic of my village home. It was a place I could sit for hours discussing Rush, The Bicycle Thief or Good Will Hunting with a fellow film buff. The careful restoration of the heritage decor and the small canteen that served piping hot chai nearly distracted my ulterior motive.

A small stairway on the side led me to the balcony (executive) section from where the 70mm screen looked even more glorious. The red cushion seats may be the same, but the cinematic experience of watching a movie in a not-so-multiplex movie hall was certainly atypical.

Just when I thought single screen cinemas had no future, the refurbished Deepak opened its doors for the Matterden Centre for Films and Creations and changed the game forever. Deepak aims to be for cinema what Prithvi is for theatre. With a vintage cinematic feel and ample ground for filmy discussions and workshops, this is where all the cinema lovers and makers will want to be.

Matterden CFC, 38 N.M. Joshi Marg, Lower Parel (w), Mumbai 400 013. Phone: 022 4015 021


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