Back in the summer of 2017, when the fifth year of architecture was about to begin for this group of five architecture graduates, the looming question of ‘What is your thesis topic?’ was haunting us. Thus, we decided to explore the city (while also exploring books). We walked through the lanes of villages, tried to look for the Mahim Fort, and discovered some great food in Central Mumbai. We decided that we definitely need to explore more, and instead of just sitting in cafes and visiting those dying malls we must immerse ourselves into the hidden gems. Through the year, while we worked on our respective theses, we kept talking about how we should sketch and make maps of the cities, of various heritage trails, food trails, architecture trails and so on. After graduating, some of us moved away but we kept on talking about creating an online archive for experiences of culture.
And thus, one day, began The Culture Project. It was triggered by a discussion on the culture inside the local trains of Mumbai — Bhajans, colorful decorations, birthday celebrations — all occuring in the crowded tiny metal boxes that transports millions everyday to their workplaces. So many blogs exist about Mumbai — we were definitely worried about that, but in the end it was decided that this needs to be done, it needs to be an archive (but also low-key a motivation for us to get back in sketching). The intention is to make people aware about the things that exist in the city, but also outside the city. The definition of this blog is ever-changing, but we intend to keep it light, colourful and filled with graphics and sketches for people to enjoy. In conclusion, lets say that this is a catalogue of experiences, memories and explorations.
Because one of us studied the mills during architecture school, we decided we could start with a heritage trail from here. So many people of our age (the ‘millenials’ and ‘Gen X’) are unaware about the modern history of Mumbai. How many people really know about the city’s industrial past? The new era of movies have stopped having references to the mills and the mill workers protests. Once in a while, there is an article in the newspaper which gives a rather negative view of them because of the atrocious things that have happened here. And then there is the general neglect due to which the buildings just sit there, everyday being overshadowed by the expensive high rises (which I hear sit empty due to exorbitant prices). The history of the mills, in brief, is as follows: Due to the industrial revolution, it became increasingly cheaper to produce goods. Bombay, at that time, was already a very popular port. The first mill was opened in 1856, and soon many popped up, demanding labour. This caused a huge migratory shift towards Mumbai, due to which the British devised the ‘Chawl’ system to house the migrants. This resulted in a different culture; a melting pot of traditions from differents parts of Maharashtra and other states. The living condition of the workers were inhuman; they worked in shifted and cramped upto 10 people in tiny rooms. The wages were low, the chawls became overcrowded. This culminated into years and years of protests. Meanwhile, other industries became lucrative and the mills were a dying business. After the protest of 1982, when 250,000 workers came out to demand fair wages, the mills shut down. The land went under dispute, and now lies vacant, while nature has taken over.
Many movies, books and plays were written about this. Many students also choose this as their thesis topics. But still, the coming generation needs to know more about it.
Our process to document the mills was to walk around the area of Kalachowky and Ghodapdeo, observing the mills from the outside while also looking at the life surrounding these empty buildings. A few chawls still exist, but so do the tall buildings all around. This area is prime property, so one cannot even expect high rises to not be here. We took pictures of both, the mills and the culture around it. The walk began from Byculla station, crossing the Bhau Daji Lad museum and into the eastern lanes of Byculla. It’s so peaceful and quiet in these lanes, it is difficult to believe that this is a part of the city that has 28 million people. Through these, we walked to the Cotton Green station. Its quite interesting how the distance between the Western and Harbour line of the local train system is around a kilometer. But then again, the island city itself is only 4–5 km wide. The area that was covered can be drawn by connecting the dots from Byculla Station to Reay Road to Cotton Green to Chinchpokli Station. This area contains about 7–8 mills. Before reclamation, this area was actually two islands: Mazagaon (from the marathi words ‘Maza-gaon’ which means ‘my village’) and Bombay. The Byculla station was built because so many mills were springing up in this area.
We walked for hours, trying to figure out proper routes and taking pictures. We were also looking for food. Standing there and discussing what to do next, while also googling about the histories of the Byculla and Mazgaon, we saw the scene change from the serene, slow moving life in the afternoon, to a traffic struck bustling market scene in Kalachowky. There are no foothpaths on the road, so it is a(involuntarily) shared street between cars and people. There were lights, there was color, there was noise. Looking up and back at the chimeys, we were able to capture some pictures before heading out of Byculla. Incidentally, we ended up in another mill, in Parel, which has been developed. High-Street Pheonix as everyone knows it, was one of the first developments in the mill lands. It now houses some of the most luxurious brands and restaurants. The white chimney here, painted with the name and logo, has been conserved and acts as a marker of the new times…
Look forward to our heritage trail map of the mills of Byculla in the coming weeks! We feel that the method of archiving through sketches is important as these help in highlighting and bringing out certain elements, architectural or cultural, in different places. We have distinct styles of sketching, which show the things that we individually notice in our surroundings. This form of recording history really appeals to us, and we do hope that you enjoy it and spread the word. We also hope that you are encouraged to explore!