Pila House: Interview with Javed Bhai, Caretaker of Dargah in Gulshan Talkies
Director: Madhusree Dutta
Duration: 00:20:05; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 212.626; Saturation: 0.012; Lightness: 0.401; Volume: 0.158; Cuts per Minute: 0.050; Words per Minute: 116.621
Summary: This event is an interview is of Javed Bhai, who takes care of the Darga inside Gulshan Talkies, within the precinct of Pila House. His interview is one of a series of three interviews we conducted with various people to recollect the history of the area from the point of view of people who have either lived or worked there, i.e. in some way belonged to that space and were currently associated with some sort of trade in that area.
Pila House has played a significant role within the mainstream film industry of Bombay not just as a space for exhibition but also a space for production. Apart from generating popular tales related to Pila House/Kamatipura, from the legendary Rekha in Muqaddar ka Sikandar to Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay to the more recent Dukaan, Pila House, all have contributed in creating the accepted stereotypes, it has also been the home of people like Rehmaan Bhai and his ancestral practice of painted film hoardings. This trade continues to be an active player in the film publicity arena and the form has an evolved visual language which has greatly inspired adaptations in contemporary technology. But both the space and stories it has produced have generously derived from each other in creating the essence of what it is today.
The evolution of Pila House has had consistent association with forms of entertainment from the time the graveyards were decommissioned and filled up into an open field to halls for silent films and then talkies. The theatres were made on the spaces left around graves of certain important personalities, and remained in the background till the Parsis, Bohris and Anglo-Indian owners were being replaced by a primarily Islamic migration from various regions. The re-establishment of the graves as sites of a religio-spiritual gathering subsequently incorporates the common tradition of faith (religion), business and entertainment intersecting in our society. And along with the graves a new cohort or myths have populated this arena.
Along with the birth and rapid evolution of religious fundamentalism within mainstream politics, waves of migration into and out of the city Pila House has managed to retain a unique space for itself within popular visual culture through a relationship with a constant sizable audience.
Abeer (A): Let us begin with the Darga itself. Its origin?
Javed Bhai (JB): First of all I would like to thank my Sarkar (god) that you have come here and are interested to know about my sarkar. I wish and pray that sarkar's blessing is there on you and your work just progresses with great prosperity. About the place Haji sahib alias Sayeed Bhai has already told you.
Whatever he told you is very true. He has read most of them. But as far as I am concerned I have not read them. It's been 4 years that I am here. When we entered here with our people the place could not accommodate even 15-20 people here. But today this big hall that you see is the result of our hard work which includes Sayeed Bhai, theatre people and kids from our locality …all of us put together have made this place.
JB: Now to the next aspect of where did they come from? You are asking me where my sarkar came from.
When I say Sarkar am talking about Baba and Dargah. They have come from Iran from a place called Shiraz. They came with the people who were present during the reign of the Mughals. There were various mughal emperors, sepoys, good and bad people who came to this place. With them sarkar also came. After that he worked in Ajmer Sharif for sometime, served people there and then he landed here.
This place was a graveyard then as Haji saab has already mentioned. In 1815 sahab was buried here. From 1815 to 1830 this remained a graveyard. After 1830 British government said that there will be no more burial in this area. Then a place in Chota Sonapur was given for all such activities. This area was then leveled. The areas occupied by prominent people were left untouched along with this plot. The rest were sold out.
Javed bhai dwells a foggy realm of spiritualism and the complex mechanism of faith and power – has his own localized political and religious agenda. He looks and talks like one of the many people in the area whose livelihood is sort of undistinguished and slightly mysterious. They have a generic name as agents or thekedar.
Pila House, Falkland Road, Mumbai
JB: When did the theatre come? Like how 4-5 circuses are held simultaneously who keep traveling from one place to another, in the same way there were circuses organized then also. This used to be a fortnightly business and this place was a free space for all this. There were no films then. So it was during this time when lot of tamashas, songs & dance – we say madari ka khel, magic shows etc., were held in this space. Some of them were organized by Pathans, sometimes by Iranians etc., like how we see Apollo circus is always held in the cross maidan in churchgate, then it shifts to Bandra and then Ghatkopar. It has a definitive place. So there were certain areas which were occupied by few people.
So there was an area for Pathans, an area for Iranians and with time it kept changing.
Gradually people started introducing changes. They started plays, dramas etc., then for the dramas they started building sheds. Then came theatres and then came movies and films. So this is how things kept changing just the way Haji sahib has explained to you already.
Sarkar had come from Shiraz and he has helped a lot of people who reside here. If you want a proof, anybody residing here could even tear himself to prove it.
A: When we are passing through these lanes the other day you were saying that this is yehudion (jews) locality? In the past what kind of people resided here? What kind of work were they involved in? In the eras of 1850s? Tell us about it?
JB: After Mughals came the British. Initially they setup the East India company and they said they have come here to do business. Then for business they built small spaces. Then they built rooms to live in and then they said that we will need guards and police to safeguard their goods. Then gradually they brought arms and so gradually they expanded the East India company's base throughout India. That's how the Britishers landed here carried out their ways of life. They brought about land reforms, distributed land as per their wish. There was a majority of Jews near this area of graveyard. The kind of graveyard that existed was also for them. But later that graveyard was removed. We were allotted the grave in Chota Sonapur but it did not work out, so we were given another area in Charni Road. A family named Nakhuda donated that area to us. So now we bury the dead there and this area remained empty.
Javed Bhai gives us a glimpse of a time which is difficult to associate with but a key to the logic of how Pila House has evolved into its current form. He points not only at the multi faceted activities but the multicultural nature of the area. As the concept of entertainment changed from variety show and circus to drama to silent cinema to talkies; the entertainment houses also got more insitutionalised.
Another way to trace the demographical pattern of an area is to follow the history of graveyards.
Charni Road, Mumbai
east india company
From entertainment we shift to the businesses. The people who lived and worked there. He gives us his version on the Kamatis, but essentially we get a feel of how change and evolution which is an integral part of any society, took place around Pila House. Pila House, in some sense, always remains a place for non-mainstream people. The Chinese or Anglo Indian or Chinese communities in the beginning; then comes the Kamatis from Hyderabad and Pathans from Kanpur; and now the wage workers from UP and Bihar who are generically called Bhaiyyas.
The place that he talks about as wadis where singers and dancers lived is a settlement called Congress House. The traditional performing artists, including the Mujra dancers and the tawaifs (courtesans) were resettled in this area after the feudal patronage died resulting them migrating to the city. Congress House is different from Kamatipura, the red light district of Bombay. The area was named after the Kamati community who migrated from Hyderabad to do masonry works in the emerging city.
JB: In this area in Kamatipura the Kamatis stayed. Britishers wanted to develop areas like we see in port area. Now labourers would not be kept in those areas. For instance to trace labourers today we would have to go to Tardeo slums. There are particular areas where you get labour, in nal bazaar also we get labours in the mornings. Similarly in Kamatipura, there used to be labourers. That area was completely occupied by kamatis and so is called Kamatipura. I've shown you a temple there which was built in that era only.
This area mainly constituted the Parsees, Iranis and Pathans.
A: So what kind of work were they involved in?
JB: They were mainly involved in cloth business, hotels. They also had lot of links in market also. If you cross this wall there is an area called Armani building which is quite big. The markets that you see now are on the roads but that had a wadi comprising of dancers and prostitutes which was there inside.
When theatres existed the dancers and singers used to stay in this area too.
M: You were saying once upon a time there were a lot of Jews, so if you notice from 18 century, in every 10-20 years the community that constitutes the majority keeps changing. Now we don't find Parsees, Jews and Anglo-Indians. But in those times it was not so. Now we have people from Bihar and UP, who were not there then. Even the Chinese are not to be seen much. Now we don't even find the Kamatis. These Kamatis were originally involved in the construction of buildings, and the area was named after them. But later they became quite unpopular, as they were involved in flesh trade.
JB: One minute. Kamatis were a kind of labourers. If you see helper is different from Kadiya (masons). Kadiya will work well and do your work. Helper will lift things and give you. The Kadiyas now who are involved in marble business. So in those days Kamatis were just one kind of labourers involved in construction, they used to lift stones and pass it on because most of the construction was of stone in the past. These stone constructions are magnificent and it traces back to the Mughal art, they were made by people belonging to Mughal period. Even the Britishers were involved in the designing. So I don't really understand when you say that Kamatis have contribute to the beauty of the buildings in Bombay
commercial sex work
Javed takes a mixed path between middleclass morality and working class cliché. When it comes to the women in sex work or the neighbouring red light area Javed Bhai and other men in the area are generally very reluctant to speak. Maybe the presence of the woman director makes them more self conscious. They even refused to utter the word sex worker or prostitute. It is a strange case of social erasure.
M: Javed Bhai what I do not understand is these workers are involved with construction right? If I need a building for that I need labour, designer, artisan, are all needed. Based on that this place was called Kamathipura. Then how did these Kamatis get associated with flesh trade? This transformation is what I am curious about. The male labourers came here for construction work initially. The place is generically named on that profession, but in the later years it got linked with red light area. I carried out some research and asked a few people and came to know about their earlier profession of construction and but now lot of people just say it is linked with women. How did this change happen?
JB: Every business has a time period after which the business goes down and they switch over to something else. For instance once upon a time, passport agent business was in but now its not and they have started some other business. Similarly when you take the case of Kamatis, they had better opportunities then so they carried with construction. Now you are talking about these women again and again, talking about flesh trade, whatever people have to say they will say. You ask these women what purpose they are coming here for. Even they have their own reasons and circumstances which forced them to take up this profession. No woman will take up this profession willingly or happily. Most of the time she chooses this path in helplessness and inevitable situations only. These were poor women who slowly came to this place and were involved in prostitution. They felt more secure in this place and did not have to worry about being caught. Their number grew with time. So gradually this area was known for them. This is also because this place was accepting them. The area also had labourers. 2-4 of such families kept coming. This way it was followed here also.
Leaving this place where I stay let me tell you, its 1 in the night and you cannot go alone in the streets now. But in this area if you cover your head the way you have done now and walk out nobody will dare to touch you. This is because the residents here are just not scared of all this. We have kids, grandparents who are just not bothered or affected by any of these things. People from America and Japan first come to this place. Because they are eager to know about them.
But if they are not there now then I believe it would be difficult for you also to walk tonight. This is a fact. So these are the things. If you keep asking me why did this happen? Then the only answer is "garibi ghurbat ne aadmi ko toda." (The reason is poverty; we are crushed because of that.)
commercial sex work
red- light area
In his rhetoric about poverty and sex work Javed Bhai also touches upon an important concept of livelihood oriented movement within the city. People in an urban situation are neither permanently attached to a neighbourhood or to a livelihood practice. They are always moving according to the need and opportunity. That is the difference between the urban milieu and the landlockness of rural areas.
JB: Imagine a situation where there is a husband, wife and 2 kids. The husband dies, what will the poor wife do? She has a young sister, what should she do? So may be the only alternative that they were left with was to come here, hide and carry out prostitution. Whatever happens; happens in darkness, not in front of somebody. But later it so happened, that all this was then carried out in open. Forgive me for my words, because in this place I should not speak such things but I have told you very clearly now as to how this bazaar has flourished and it became Kamatipura which later became the red-light area. Now let's take the example of Bhindi bazaar, now we won't get bhindi there but the market prevails. In nal bazaar you will not get nal, when we say Do Tanki, I told him that there are two tanks here. There are people living there. So we cannot do anything about all these. In Charnal there used to be mashak (to carry water) but now you can hardly trace them. Even there business has come down. With great difficulty we find them now.
M: The names of the places have also changed? The name of this very road has changed?
JB: Yes. For instance the Britishers named this place Play House. We don't know English and so we named it as pila house which is not much of a change if you notice. Yes this is called Bhatte Baburao Marg, but we want to name that circle after our Sarkar as Shiraji circle or Shiraji chowk. So if we see these businesses are diminishing gradually. According to me around 60-70% of this business has diminished. The remaining will also be cleared in a while. But, they will not be eliminated. They are just leaving this place and going elsewhere. They will no more be available in this area but will be distributed in small numbers in different places.
M: Are you originally from here or have you migrated from some place?
JB: Oh my forefathers were also from this place. I am purely from Bombay. Not Mumbai, but pure Bombay. Today it has become Mumbai, the name keeps changing, and everything keeps changing.
M: But your language does not say you are from Bombay?
JB: Yes my language sounds very different. Yesterday for the little while that he spoke to me over phone he said are you speaking Bangla? Well I speak good Bangla and also Kannad. Its just language, now if it's someone else they might think I am from U.P.
Do Tanki, Mumbai
commercial sex work
red- light area
JB: Talking about my Sarkar, there are lot of people who worked on my Sarkar, let me show you what a person can do on Sarkar's name. Sadru Bhai, take his name and show them Raphayee is a tradition dedicated to Dargah and to our Sarkar when we get Sandal inside, we get it from our house. Every year my younger brother spends Rs.7000 to Rs.70000 from his pocket. So when he leaves, he covers Royal cinema, Nishad cinema, Taj cinema, Alfred cinema, New Roshan and then he reaches here. Every year once we go around all these places and come here and then we pay respect to all these dargahs. We believe in these dargahs, take a lot with us and we believe that these dargahs are also very giving.
This is our Sadru Bhai who will do Raphaye. Now you see what he can do.
Sadru bhai: When our Urus happens we do the Raphayee and proceed. So I will show you a sample of what we exactly do. This is our tradition of Raphaye This is done for the Sarkar. The tongue gets cut, but it becomes okay later. This is the blessing of our forefathers. I will take it out now. The blood oozes out, (some people consider it a magic tick) This blood has come out specially to show you, baba has done this. But nothing happens. You will see it will stop now.
JB: Now we have just put one but during the occasion we have people having 150-
200 pins pierced.
Sadru bahi: Now see it is all cleared with this medicine.
Javed Bhai gets bored with the sociological discussion and suggests some religious entertainment for us. In true Pila House tradition he believes in entertaining the 'outsiders'. Javed Bhai calls other followers of the dargah who perform a traditional act showing their faith in the saint. The young boy without hesitating for a second puts the needle through his tongue, the blood which comes put is considered as a sign from the sarkar. This is just one of the examples of the mystic practices of the Dargah which draws people towards these Dargah and strengthens the faith in the saints even today.