Byculla is on the cusp of a transformation, thanks to mega real estate and infrastructure projects, and new cultural hubs coming up.
Graphic designer Sameer Kulavoor and his sister Zeenat, a typographer, are working on an unusual project: a ‘map’ of Byculla. Not one that will mark the streets and buildings, but heritage spots, eateries and hangouts in the neighbourhood, many of which have just opened. “Most people are unaware of the locality’s rich history,” says Kulavoor, who operates out of Byculla’s neighbouring twin, Mazgaon. “There are such interesting pockets of heritage within the area. A map would bring together all of that, as well as the new cultural establishments here.
People tend to visit south Mumbai on weekends as an outing. We want them to come to Byculla instead.” Aided by heritage experts, the Kulavoors plan to have the map ready by next month. “Then, we will flood the rest of the city with it, making sure it’s available in every mall, restaurant and entertainment hotspot,” says Siddharth Somaiya, chef and owner of Goyaa, a fine-dining restaurant in Byculla, who is also collaborating on the project. “Byculla already knows how cool it is. We want the rest of Mumbai to know it too.”
That may not take long. Byculla is on the cusp of a transformation, with mega real estate and infrastructure projects, as well cultural and performance spaces coming up, that will change both its skyline and its status. Some of the city’s biggest developers have launched high-end residential projects here, with proposed 60-storey towers; as many as 1,500 apartments, in some cases; and gated communities with all the amenities. “These four or five developers will change the look and feel of Byculla,” says Gulam Zia, executive director (valuation and advisory) at Knight Frank. Zia, who grew up in the neighbourhood, remembers the Byculla of his childhood as a quaint, self-sufficient locality, full of chemical factories, industrial units and textile mills. “The air around Burhani College, where I lived, would be so heavy with fumes it made our eyes smart,” he says. “My family lived on the top floor of a six-storey building which, in those days, was considered a ‘tower’.” According to estimates, Zia believes that when these big (and some small) real estate projects are ready, they’ll add about 10,000 apartments to south-central Mumbai. And bring a phenomenon of vertical living that will be entirely new to Byculla, which is characterised by chawls and smaller, standalone apartments.
Historically, Byculla was the nerve centre of south Mumbai, says urban planner Pankaj Joshi of the Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI). “In the early 1800s, Byculla and Mazgaon were the suburbs of south Bombay, and people like Jamsetji Jeejeebhoy had their weekend homes here. At that time, the population of the city was half-British, and half Parsi and Bohri — the only Indians affluent enough to afford the Fort area — and they were drawn to Byculla because of its exclusive, eponymous club (though they weren’t allowed in).” In the 1850s, Byculla rivalled Malabar Hill in importance and snob value, says Joshi, and the only reason the mills came to be here instead of the western side, was because of the greater availability of land. But the resultant economic boom in Byculla was also its undoing. “By the 1920s and 1930s, the inner city of labourers and mill workers had moved into the neighbourhood, and chawl-living became the order of the day. This was also when Byculla turned into a bastion for minorities such as the Christians, Parsis and Muslims (the Bohris and Khojas).” This cosmopolitan character also gave Byculla its rich heritage: The David Sassoon synagogue; several mosques, temples and churches including a 150-year-old chapel inside the ‘Little Goa’ pocket of Mathar Pakadi; the Bhau Daji Lad Museum and the zoo; Masina Hospital; old textile mills and factories, and even the S-Bridge, which was considered an architectural marvel in its day.
After the 1992 riots, when the areas adjoining Byculla (Nagpada, Agripada and Dagdi Chawl) turned into the city’s Badlands, it further devalued this neighbourhood. “It was this progressive blowafter-blow which ruined Byculla,” says Joshi. “Today, places on the same geographical latitude, like Gamdevi, are considered more upscale. By the 1870s, Byculla was as good as Malabar Hill. But a century later, it had become downmarket. It’s a locality that has been ruined purely by perception.”
Builders, though, view it as a goldmine. “Byculla is the last bit of land in the Island City that hasn’t been developed, and it has tremendous potential,” says Nandan Piramal, Executive Vice Chairman of the Peninsula Group. “For us, it is the Next Big Story.” The Peninsula project, called Salsette 27 (after one of the islands that built Mumbai), will have two towers and accommodate over 500 families when it is ready in 2022. “That real-estate cliché, of ‘location, location, location’, is completely true of Byculla,” adds Piramal. “Byculla is easily accessible from BKC, Lower Parel and South Mumbai. Adds Gaurav Sawhney, president (sales and marketing) at Piramal Realty, which is working on a multi-tower project called Piramal Aranya near the zoo: “While the Eastern Freeway has boosted connectivity to the northern suburbs and Navi Mumbai, with the monorail and various Metro projects and internal flyovers, the area is likely to witness an increased demand for residential properties.”
Apartments in the new projects cost anywhere between Rs 3 crore and Rs 13 crore, and buyers are plentiful. At both Salsette and Monte South, the Marathon Realty and Adani Group collaboration, about 80 per cent of the buyers are local residents. “They have the money, but they just didn’t have the facilities, like swimming pools or multilevel parking lots, that projects in the suburbs offer. Now, they’re looking to upgrade their lifestyle,” says Mayur Shah, Managing Director, Marathon Realty. Adds Piramal: “When we developed Ashok Towers in Parel in the 2000s, we had to market the project aggressively because no one wanted to come and live here. But in Byculla, we found buyers quite easily from among people who have lived here for decades.”
Businessman Ashok Bhimani is one of them. “Don’t be fooled by the old buildings and chawls of Byculla,” he says. “Many of the Marwari, Kutchi Gujarati and Bohri families living here have made massive fortunes in the nearby gold and scrap markets. But they continue to stay in chawls because that’s what they have done for generations, preferring to have most of their families under the same roof.” Bhimani, who lives in Parel and works in Crawford Market, had accompanied a cousin to check out Monte South, but he liked it so much he bought a flat for himself on the spot. “For all our money, we never had access to any modern housing projects. Now we do,” he says.
Despite its proximity to Parel and Lower Parel, Byculla ‘gentrification’ takes place almost two decades after these neighbourhoods. This, too, says Knight Frank’s Zia has to do with available land parcels. Lower Parel’s mills were much larger in area than Byculla, so they were less affected by Section 58 of the Development Control Regulations for Greater Bombay, which mandated that a developer buying mill land, must split it into three portions: One for low-cost housing created by MMRDA, another for green areas by the BMC, and only a third could be used by the builder. “In Lower Parel, the mills were so large that even after apportioning off two-thirds, the developer still had a considerable amount left,” says Zia. “By comparison, Byculla’s mills were smaller, so nobody wanted these until Section 58 was (eventually) done away with in the early 2000s. Once this clause was gone, even the smaller mills in Byculla became viable business ventures. Some of them were also stuck in title and ownership tangles, such as the Khatau [with the BIFR] and the Mafatlal [which had some issues with the BMC] mills. It was only after these were all cleared that the developers moved in.”
It’s not just a real estate boom. Byculla is also the setting for a cultural regeneration. In recent years, there has been a mushrooming of new arts, entertainment and hospitality spaces here. The 176-year-old Great Eastern Mills, has started hosting music festivals and art shows. Anurag Kanoria, whose family owns the mill where he also has a high-end furniture store, says: “People are looking at alternative performance spaces in the city, and they find the nooks and crannies that we have at the mill, quite interesting. We have a regular timetable of events with people we have tied up with, and we want to host a mixed-bag of cultural events, from classical music to serious theatre to stand-up comedy.” Since last year, a Bandrabased arts collective has been holding events at the mill. In November, a two-day music festival took up the hall that is also rented out for film shoots frequently. And for the last three winters, the mill has been home to Art 35, a fair that promotes budding artists but also draws larger crowds with food and fashion-related events. Kanoria is, however, planning to do many more things around art and design. “My heart is in the visual arts, but I am open to other cultural events, as long as they keep the old building footprint intact,” he says. A small portion of Great Eastern still operates as a mill.
Also in the neighbourhood, is Studio Mumbai, where well-known architect Bijoy Jain has recreated an old warehouse into uber-chic work and living space for himself and some close friends. “I fell in love with the place when I saw it, and decided to move here two years ago,” says Lawyer Naheed Carrimjee, who has spent much of her life in Breach Candy and admits she had no reason to shift from there. But Carrimjee, like many others, has certain misgivings about Byculla’s transformation. “It’s changing too fast,” she says. “All these real estate projects with their heavy-duty property prices are fuelling the change. But there’s so much diversity and depth of classes and history in Byculla. To me, any change that keeps that intact and engages with the local people, is the way to go.”
Tasneem Mehta, Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, who is credited with turning this centuries-old institution from its dilapidated state in 2003, into a beacon of cultural activity and a fora for local engagement, agrees. “The wonderful thing about Byculla is that it still retains its historic charm, even though most of it is in a decrepit condition,” says Mehta. “But the government is deteremined to only mint the real estate value of land here. They are not looking at the incredible legacy that we have. Nor does the builder juggernaut care about such things.” The museum has been conducting largescale outreach programmes: educational programmes with schoolchildren; spaces for events; and even a ‘Marathi Katha’ inviting artistes and performers “who would relate to the Maharashtrian and workingclass ethos of the Byculla neighbourhood”, adds Mehta. “That’s the development we want to see,” she says with exasperation. “Not tall buildings, tall buildings, tall buildings.”
Standing on a 10,000-sq ft plot that he owns, JAK Printers founder-director Khushru P. Patel says about 7,800 sq ft of his property “is up for grabs, but only by restaurants, services and IT companies — not industries”. Patel wants to turn his printers’ compound into a ‘mini Phoenix Mills’, a food and entertainment hub. JAK currently houses Goyaa — a place Somaiyya settled on after going on a walking tour of Byculla to see if he could open an outlet there. “We were completely bowled over by the space,” he says. “It gave us a 25-foot ceiling, which we used to our advantage when doing up the interiors. You don’t get this look and feel anywhere else in Mumbai. So we decided to create an ambience so unique that people will be drawn to the restaurant.” Somaiya says he had other choices, like opening an outlet in Kamala Mills or in Ballard Estate. “But nine out of 10 restaurants shut down there as well,” he adds. “We had a first-mover advantage in Byculla, and hopefully we will inspire others to come here too.”