May/Jun 2014 – Architectural Digest India
If people have one complaint about life in Mumbai – and most people have many more than that – it’s the lack of connectivity. It’s no great secret that India’s largest city is suffocating under the pressures of overpopulation, crumbling infrastructure and traffic that can turn a taxi into a torture chamber. Nor is it any great secret that Delhi has responded to Mumbai’s example by spreading like a cloud of nuclear fallout, developing a robust infrastructure of highways and metro lines to connect the sprawl of gated low-rise residential colonies.
India’s two largest metros are in many ways the paradigmatic cities of the developing world: the one impossibly dense, sprouting skyscrapers by the minute; the other sprawling, laced with broad avenues and park-fringed monuments; both loud, filthy, breathless places racing toward god knows what kind of future. Delhi’s satellite cities and Mumbai’s northern suburbs – all glass and asphalt, built around wide roads and cars and insulated compounds – represent the New India, a distorted impression of the global metropolis synthesized from imagery of America, Europe and China, and crudely modulated for aspirational, middle-class consumption.
Yet even as India giddily manufactures its own modernity, the hub of urban cool has – in a turn of events to make Jane Jacobs proud – shifted decisively to the townships and villages subsumed, over the years, in the sprawl. While global luxury brands still open in glammy malls, neighborhoods like Delhi’s Shahpur Jat, tucked behind the ruins of the 14th-century Siri fort, and the assorted villages scattered around Bandra are fit to burst with cafes, bars, design studios, art spaces and all the other paraphernalia of the global ‘creative class’.
“I think in the last few years there’s been a general boom in freelance culture,” says Ayaz Basrai, a Bandra native whose architecture firm, The Busride Studio, was among the first businesses to open in the narrow lanes of Ranwar Village, one of the 20-odd original villages that now constitute Bandra. “It takes a certain kind of person to see the potential in these places. For all practical purposes, it’s a bad decision – there are issues with parking, clients can’t find your office – but it has this strong sense of kinship with the local community.
Amrit Kumar and Mriga Kapadiya established the studio for their fashion label NorBlack NorWhite – one of Mumbai’s best homegrown brands – in Bandra’s Chuim Village in 2009 (they’ve since moved to a Bungalow carriage house near Bandra station for more space) after relocating from their native Toronto. “Giant metropolises can be exciting, inspiring – but they’re also exhausting and alienating,” Kumar says. “To find a village of your own to retreat into, to have a community around you to connect with, is intensely satisfying.”
Of the companies setting up in Bandra’s villages, probably half are, like Busride, established by locals, while the others represent a cross section of people from around the city, country and world. So while the word ‘gentrification’ gets thrown around quite a lot to describe the changes that have taken place in Bandra over the last decade, that imported word, loaded with the specific racial and socio-economic tensions of American cities, doesn’t quite apply here. Naresh Fernandes, a lifelong Bandra resident and probably Mumbai’s most ubiquitous historian, has recently set up offices for a new tablet publication, Scroll.in, in a small bungalow on graffiti-spangled Chapel Road. “All the people in this part of Bandra have relatives who live abroad. And they […] have jobs that require going back and forth, so they’ve also developed a taste for these establishments,” he says. “We’ve become the gentry ourselves.”
Basrai describes that strong local presence, as well as fairly strict zoning and development rules laid out by the municipality, as an important “normative influence” in preserving the texture of areas like Ranwar, even as new businesses begin to spring up (two cafes, one of which doubles as an art space, have popped up here in the last eight months alone). Delhi’s urban villages operate under the opposite constraint: designated by the Delhi Development Authority as Lal Dora areas, urban villages in Delhi can develop practically at will.
The first urban village in India to become fashionable was Hauz Khas. Beginning with the opening of a single boutique in 1987, Hauz Khas Village went through successive waves of gallerists, designers, artists and restaurateurs setting up and closing shop according to the whims of the smart set. In its current incarnation, Hauz Khas Village is among the most frenetic places in Delhi, with bars and restaurants stacked precariously one atop the other in the haphazard, multistory additions that have urged this old agricultural hamlet disconcertingly skyward. Lucie Salaun, whose boutique Les Parisiennes helped to initiate a boom in Shahpur Jat, just two kilometers west of here, describes Hauz Khas Village as “a food court.”
As Hauz Khas lost its creative edge, Shahpur Jat picked up the slack. “The growth has been gradual, but over the last two years, there’s just been a burst of little shops,” says Pooja Sahu, who opened a retail space here seven years ago and expanded two years back into the now-beloved Bihari joint, Potbelly Café. Today, Shahpur Jat likely has a higher density of independent design shops than any other place on the Subcontinent, and yet wandering through its back alleys, you’ll see at least as many vegetable sellers and chai wallahs. “People are changing, they like to explore,” Sahu says, “it’s nice to discover a place that way.”
While Hauz Khas Village may have lost some of its earlier luster in the prevailing bazaar-like buzz, the same principal remains in place: exploration. Joy Singh, co-founder of Raasta, a popular Hauz Khas bar, puts it well: “Delhi wants something different, not something inside a mall. People are connecting here with something self made.”
More to the point, people are connecting – not just with the neighborhoods and the cities that they live in, but with one another. When people call Bandra a village – and they do, all the time – they’re not just talking about the century-old bungalows and crosses where East Indian Catholics still say their rosaries. They’re talking about a way of life that values community, ease of movement, spontaneous interactions – all the things that make city life human, or rather, humane. Of course, many of these features are now at risk even in urban villages. As these neighborhoods become citywide, instead of local, attractions, an uptick in traffic has begun to curtail pedestrian movement and frustration on the part of long-term residents has begun to spread fractures in the prevailing sense of community. But at least these issues are still discussed in these villages; in Mumbai and Delhi’s shiny new developments, they were never even part of the conversation.
And those developments aren’t going anywhere – as Basrai put it, “There’s always going to be a lobby for the sparkling new. But I think there’s a parallel lobby […] for adaptive use.” Both in Delhi and Mumbai that ‘parallel lobby’ has already begun its own expansion. In the northern suburbs of Mumbai, the fishing village of Versova has long-since emerged as the destination of choice for the city’s young filmmakers and graphic designers. In Delhi, Lado Sarai is the city’s most prominent gallery district, and not far from there, two prestigious arts organizations, Khoj and Gati, have put ancient Khirki Village – across the street from one of India’s most expensive malls – on the creative map.
For years now the world has been busy looking for the young, creative, global New India. They may want to start by looking for the old.