I have met the best minds of my generation by gate crashing their house parties. Growing up in Kurla, a suburb in Bombay where the only celebrity was a Gladrags model, I never imagined that one day, on the same evening, I’d be crashing two house parties in Delhi’s Jungpura area, Geoff Dyer in tow. That too, barely three weeks after I had moved.
Sixteen months later, the novelty hasn’t worn off. The suburban girl in me is still overwhelmed when I bum a cigarette off Pablo Bartholomew, or am invited to a dinner by Gauri Gill. Or when I throw a party for Sarnath Banerjee and he tells me he was so excited he told his mother about it. Or when I crash a dinner at William Dalrymple’s farmhouse in Mehrauli and am serenaded to by Paban Das Baul.
The Delhi “house party” is a reflection of its buzzing cultural calendar. There’s more than one book waiting to be written about these BYOB treats. But I’ve come to know of the unspoken rule: what happens at a house party stays at the house party, so I could never tell you who said what to whom and who spent most part of the evening making out with whom (and wouldn’t you like to know).
Flash back to 2009. Mumbai Times Café in Bandra, Mumbai. An Open-Mic night. I’m covering the event for Time Out, the city-based magazine I worked for then, and I’m bored out of my mind. For the first time, I understand the meaning of the word “ennui”. I scribble a single line on a fresh page of my diary, “I’m tired of waiting for the revolution that I now know will never happen.”
A few days earlier, I’d been to yet another monthly meeting of the legendary Poetry Circle, a critique group that once featured poets like Dom Moraes and Nissim Ezekiel, to find only two other people there. I’d spent that entire week looking for something or someone to believe in and had been put off by traffic jams, exorbitant cover charges and lacklustre events. Something was amiss. The theatre scene, my beat, was frustrating; the writing scene came alive just once a year during the Kala Ghoda Festival when the city’s literati would suddenly remember their Marathi-writing kin; and music concerts were for those who could afford them. I was tired of living with my parents but couldn’t dream of managing either the deposit—between Rs60,000 to Rs1 lakh—or the outrageous rent for living in a decently sized one-BHK.
So I returned to Delhi. I’d spent two years here as a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was familiar territory. I found a barsati the size of a tennis court in Hauz Khas overlooking two tombs, the Qutub Minar standing squarely in the distance. My rent was just Rs8,500. When the landlord sought a ten per cent increase, I moved to a 3BHK in Khirki Extension, which I share with two others so my rent is a mere RS5,000.
So, what does a week in the Delhi social calendar look like? Let’s look at what happened from April 4-11. From April 4-6, most of Delhi’s intelligentsia could be found at the “Free Binayak Sen Campaign”, a three-day affair hosted by Alliance Française. From performances to film screenings, from panel discussions to poster exhibitions and Dastangoi, the atmosphere was electric. The Indigenous North-East Theatre Festival that kicked off on April 2 will continue until the end of the month. On April 9, Yodakin, an independent bookstore had young writers read extracts from works in progress in an inspired event called “Hold the Novel!” From April 8-10, Delhiites feasted on jazz at the sprawling Nehru Park. Stretched upon the grass, not having paid a paisa to get in, nine bands in three days—it was the perfect weekend treat. What made Monday (April 11) less terrifying was knowing that come 7pm, we’d be listening to Parvathy Baul, and when that wrapped up, just a few steps away musicians Hari and Sukhmani would be fusing their Punjabi folk roots with an electronic vibe. And this was actually a slow week in Delhi. A fast-paced one is when almost every other day, there’s between three to five must-attend events happening across the city. And chances are you could actually make it to all of them, a feat you could never imagine pulling off in Mumbai given the nightmarish traffic.
Delhi is a thinking city almost by default. It has two central universities to boast of, each with sprawling campuses that foster debate and protest. Cultural institutions like Sarai in the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies promote discussion around planning and development, besides nurturing art. Khoj, an artist’s collective in Khirki Village, often works with the community in which it is located and funds artist residencies. In a span of a few years, its mere presence has led to a whole sub-group of Khirki residents—writers, artists, photographers—who are enticed by the cheap rent. Informal hangouts like Yodakin, Greenhouse and Kunzum Café in Hauz Khas Village attract the young and the restless and encourage them to think beyond the mainstream. Then there are the publishing industry-funded book launches and art exhibition openings, both of which feature open bars and facilitate networking with publishing bigwigs and art enthusiasts. And there’s the music scene with a range of venues like The Living Room and the newly opened Boogaloo that promote emerging and established musicians and bands.
It’s hard to find a parallel for some of these spaces in Mumbai. Is there anything like Yodakin that promotes independent publishers and filmmakers and hosts events every other week? For instance, on April 30, owner Arpita Das has enlisted The Pleasure Project, a group that promotes safe sex, to host an event titled “Share Your Pleasure”, an evening where people will share their fantasies. A few steps away in Hauz Khas Village, Greenhouse, a studio-like set-up supported by the Goethe Institute, calls itself a “community space for creative practitioners”. Part gallery, part store, part school and part canteen, the agenda is to support multiple disciplines and ideas. At the moment they’re hosting “Your Flyer Here: The Indian Music Flyer Project” that hopes to “reflect and define emerging cultures of music, art, design, communication and activism”. Kunzum Café is a two-minute walk away, but once you enter, its easy to feel as though you’re in a cottage somewhere along the foothills of the Himalayas. The hand-painted walls recreate scenes from Ladakh and Leh, the photographs that line the wall highlight the place’s “traveller” theme. There’s free wi-fi, you can make yourself a cup of coffee, grab a few biscuits, or bring your own dabba if you so desire. The price? Whatever suits you? Just drop in some cash in the wooden chest on your way out.
The Bagel Shop and Gloria Jean’s in Bandra come to mind as I look for equivalents in Mumbai. But each time I visit I find myself surrounded by Bollywood scriptwriters and cinematographers working out strategies to convince some hotshot producer to finance their hatke film venture. The bagels at Bagel Shop aren’t half as enticing as those you get at The Bagel Café in Hauz Khas Village, where apart from the free-wifi, the café also allows artists to exhibit their work on the walls. And then there’s Zenzi, the place in Bombay where everybody used to know your name. I’m not sure they do anymore, since the place seems to shut down periodically and in its new avatar is infinitely less charming. Café Goa, in Bandra, was perhaps the one place with a genuinely creative vibe, especially so during events hosted by the Bombay Elektrik Project. But just this morning I learned it was shutting down.
Samovar and Prithvi Café you say? Those are institutions steeped in nostalgia about their heyday. Samovar closes by 6pm and forever lives with the fear of being shut down, and let’s face it, ever since Prithvi Café was taken over by Mocha, it’s never quite been the same.
Over the last decade, Mumbai has lost out not just to other metropolitan cities like Delhi and Bangalore, it has faded in comparison with its own avatar as a cultural hub. Waves of migration have put serious pressures on space. The result—escalating rent rates, congested streets and commercial success at the loss of its cultural lifeline. Although the city is still home to a few of the country’s finest writers like Kiran Nagarkar, Vikram Chandra, Arundhati Subramaniam, and artists like Akbar Padamsee, Sudhir Patwardhan and Jitish Kallat, to name a few, it has lost its lure and can no longer provide refuge to future generations of bohemians who can’t afford to make a living there and yet be true to their art, unless of course, they have aspirations to Bollywood stardom.
“In Madras, if you say you’re a writer they say, which police station? In Bombay, if you say you’re a writer they say, ‘which movie’? In Delhi, you don’t need to say you’re a writer. They already know,” said Jeet Thayil, the poet, musician and novelist who only recently shifted from Mumbai to Delhi.
Vijay Nair, a music entrepreneur, festival organiser and director of the indie music company Only Much Louder, who splits his time between Delhi and Mumbai, has similar reservations. “I will never do a festival in a place which doesn’t feel like one,” he said when asked if he would consider hosting a music festival in Mumbai. “Delhi has more indoor venues that support live music.” This, he believes, sets the scene for an assured, critical audience. “Check out nh7.in,” he said. “You’ll find there are always more gigs happening in Delhi than there are in Mumbai.” He had a point. Apart from the gigs listed on the website, there are regular open-air concerts featuring some of the best Indian classical musicians in the country, courtesy the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth (Spic Macay), as well as Sufi and qawwali festivals, and occasionally, productions like Roysten Abel’s “The Manganiyar Seduction” an outstanding concert featuring the Manganiyar tribe of musicians at Delhi’s Purana Quila.
Does Mumbai share the same fate as Greenwich Village, the hamlet in New York that once attracted some of the most phenomenal artists who were drawn by its promise of cheap rent and the presence of like-minded individuals? The Village, which was at one point in time known as the Bohemian capital of the world and the birthplace of the Beat movement, is now an affluent suburb that is home to the upper-middle class. Is the story of Mumbai’s cultural glory a thing of the past, another example of the familiar plotline of the rise and fall of cities?
The British built Mumbai as a commercial city. It still has the Midas touch. It’s a city custom-designed for visionaries and entrepreneurs. But over time, the visions have become shortsighted and the quality of ambition is limited to the pursuit of money. Where are the dreamers? Where are the drifters? Where are the thinkers, the “angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night?”
Rosalyn D’Mello is a Delhi-based freelance writer. She is currently editing an anthology of women’s erotica for Zubaan.