Monday, October 15, 2007

Down the city's history lane

The beauty of a city lies in its history. History has a lot to explain about the character of the city, the way it lived the way it developed. It also throws light on interesting facts that one cannot imagine. For e.g., the Charni Road station (a railway station on Western Railway in Mumbai) got its name from the fact that there were large tracts of land where cattle belonging to the natives used to graze on. The name "charni" is derived from the Marathi word "charne", which means grazing. Or that the entire Girgaum area was once nothing but a swamp filled with plantations. Life was so much functional then. In Girgaum, most streets or areas are named after the type of trade or plantation that existed in the area. For e.g. Phanaswadi meant that it had plantations of jack fruit around the homes, Kandewadi dealt with onions and so on.

The past Sunday, I set out to learn something about the city's history. Thanks to the people at Bombay Heritage Walks, I undertook a tour of a small hamlet in Girgaum known as Khotachiwadi. Two wadis- Khotachiwadi and Angrewadi- are the only wadis in Girgaum, that are not named after any trade or plantation. The Khotachiwadi is named after Dadoba Waman Khot, a revenue officer who worked for the British. When we started, our guide Ms. Brinda Gaitonde told us that the Girgaum area is situated between two hill-stations of the yester-yester years!!! Hard to believe, but true. On one side was the Malabar Hill and on the other was Dongri. Now, none of these bear the looks of a hill station at all. Neither has Girgaum remained the same.

So, as I walked along with the entire group, listening to the history of Girgaum, I realised that this area has been responsible for the birth of a lot of cultural activities that go on in Maharashtra. The chawls of Girgaum provided a platform for various social activists, freedom fighters and reformists. The Majestic theatre hosted a still on-going series of Marathi talks known as Majestic Gappa (discussions at Majestic). This provided a forum for socialists and freedom fighters to put their views across to the general public that attended the show. The Majestic Gappa still runs at Vile Parle. The Majestic theatre, however, no more exists. It has been torn down and a new sky-rise has come up in its place.

Opposite the erstwhile Majestic theatre, is a you-blink-and-you-miss board that points towards Khotachiwadi. Enter the lane and there is a feeling that you have stepped out of the city and entered a village. The hamlet, whose residents are East Indians and Maharashtrians, was established over the later half of the 19th century. All the houses are single or at the most double storey. Most of them are over one hundred fifty years old and the construction is mostly of wood or cast iron and built to meet the requirements of traditional Indian homes. For e.g. most homes have an inner courtyard, a small balcony in the front and extensive ventilation to allow ample light and air circulation. The roofs too are designed in a sloping manner, which is de facto in places that receive heavy rains. All this was accomplished without the help of an architect, the person who knows best, how to design a livable house.

The hamlet of Khotachiwadi has not as yet been declared a heritage structure. Individual homes have, however, been given heritage status. This means that the powerful builder-lobby can force residents to sell their homes, so that high rises can take their place. The area of Girgaum is a prime area in terms of real estate, where the ongoing rates are more than Rs. 20000 per sq. ft. The houses in Khotachiwadi are very old and therefore require a lot of maintenance, which costs. Also, most families residing in Khotachiwadi are senior citizens, whose children have moved to other cities to pursue their career or into their own homes. Thus, many houses get sold off, because the owners are themselves not interested in residing there.

The residents of Khotachiwadi have come together to form an association (The Khotachiwadi Heritage Trust) that works to preserve the identity of Khotachiwadi. The association functions from the Ferrera house, which acts a headquarter for the association. The Ferreras have also preserved many antiques from the yester years. The association has been organising the Khotachiwadi festival every year, since 2005. The festival is The festival aims at bringing awareness about the Khotachiwadi and introducing the new generation to this fabulous heritage of ours.

The Khotachiwadi needs the support of the citizens of the nation in order to preserve itself. We need to rise to the occasion and thwart every attempt of erosion of the Khotachiwadi. However, nothing much can be done against the will of individuals. If an individual decides to sell the house based on his/her free will, we cannot interfere. But the society can support the attempts of those individuals who intend to preserve the heritage. The hamlet can serve as a good model for functional existence as well as building houses that give a sense of living. It keeps reminding us about co-existence with nature and the ability of our forefathers to build communities that are social, but still provide for the requisite privacy of the individual.

Photos of Khotachiwadi can be found over here.
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