Published this month on Himal – the heritage mass market
In a city where the skyline has long been defined by massive hoarding boards, there was one on Marine Drive a few years ago that captured Bombay’s ethos perfectly. Restless to get ahead, it proclaimed, and that is exactly what the much-touted spirit of this megalopolis is all about – getting on, getting ahead. Yet, in all of its hasty, focused march towards the future, Bombay remains a city that continues to look to its past with much sentimental fondness. ‘Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus’ it may be to those who decide these sorts of things, but it is still Victoria Terminus – or more correctly, VT – to those millions who walk in and out and past the iconic railway station every day. For that matter, Mumbai itself remains Bombay to many of those who live and work in it.
And so it is with Crawford Market. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market announces the arch marking the entrance to this sprawling area, but it is by the name of Arthur Crawford, who as the city’s first Municipal Commissioner established this market in 1869, that it is still known to all. But Crawford’s creation, which has been declared a Grade I heritage building and precinct, could currently be seeing its last days.
At a time when ‘foreign’ goods were banned in India’s closed market through the 1980s, this was the spot where the discerning South Bombay shopper headed to pick up tins of Kraft cheese, packs of creamy Camay soap or electronic gadgets. And so today there are giant packs of Persil from Dubai, diapers from the US, pizza sauces from Europe – Crawford Market continues to stock everything from everywhere around the globe. These days, even though most of these products, and more, are widely available in shops everywhere, the market still attracts loyal customers, who go there for the wholesale bargain prices and perhaps the sheer excitement of down-home shopping. Indeed, there is remarkably little method to the madness inside the market. Immediately next to shops selling exotic beauty products sit rows of pink and green cashews, while the next stall is occupied by a coconut vendor who moonlights in mobile-phone recharge cards. The market marches to a rhythm that only regulars seem to be able to hear and identify, even against the din of the wholesale vegetable trading.
Built in Gothic and Norman architectural styles, Crawford Market originally included three stately fountains and a central clock-tower, all of which are currently slated for demolition to make way for new development. The municipality’s idea, floated back in September 2007 and estimated to cost more than INR 1 billion, is to ‘redevelop’ the entire market area through a private developer, eventually putting up two massive towers that will offer a total of 66,000 square metres of rentable space.
In reaction, a number of citizens’ groups have sprung into action to oppose these plans. Recently, one group urged Bombay-ites who disagreed with the decision to raze the market to wear all white for two days. And, though some concerned citizens did do so, they have been unable to influence the decision in any way. The crores being made by builders and politicians in kickbacks are evidently worth much more than preserving the past. Indeed, the die seems to have been cast. But for the moment, as can be seen in the accompanying photographs, beneath the high arches of Crawford Market it is still business as usual throughout the week.