Congress House in the Grant Road area of South Mumbai (Photo: Emmanual Karbhari)
BACK IN 2009, WHEN GEETA THATRA WAS conducting interviews with bar dancers from some marginalised communities in Mumbai for a research paper that explored how the ban on dance bars, enforced just a few years before, was affecting their lives, she would try to learn how they had stumbled onto this profession. Bar dancers in the city often come from different backgrounds. Yet, when Thatra asked some of the older bar dancers this question, she found that several of them had performed mujras at one exact place—Congress House.
“They would say they had performed at Congress House. And I was quite intrigued,” she recalls. “What did they mean by Congress House? Was it an actual place? Was it a euphemism?”
It wasn’t precisely Congress House. But rather a set of narrow buildings in a compound that stands across a narrow street from Congress House, which was the hub of the freedom movement in Mumbai. It is a mistake that is so frequently made—by the bar dancers themselves, by taxi drivers who ferry them and clients who come to watch their performances, and many others—that it has come to acquire legitimacy of its own.
The compound where the buildings stand might be called NB Compound (after Noor Mohammed Beg Mohammed, who had purchased this spot in 1932), and the gate adorning the entrance might state itself as Mumbai Sangeet Kalakar Mandal, but ask a cab driver to take you to Congress House, and he will invariably drop you not to the gate of the historic location of the freedom struggle and of Congress in Mumbai for a few decades after Independence, but at the gate of the bar dancers.
Congress House served as the office of Congress in Mumbai, the venue where the leaders of the freedom struggle met and held meetings for boycott movements and picketing, and from where processions were taken out into the rest of the city. Congress House is believed to have played a particularly important role during the Salt Satyagraha, Civil Disobedience and Quit India movements. Mahatma Gandhi delivered stirring speeches here.
“There would be raids here all the time. There would be seizures of property and leaders would be often arrested,” says Suhas Thakur, a descendant of Sadashiv Kanoji Patil, a prominent leader who headed the Congress’ city unit for several decades. Thakur, the managing trustee of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee (BPCC) Properties Trust which looks after Congress House today, recalls how a man once jumped from a window during a raid, fleeing with some documents that could have led to the arrest of Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Another important feature was that Congress House served as an important link between the businessmen and traders in Mumbai and the freedom struggle which needed generous donations.
The People’s Jinnah Memorial Hall, located within the Congress House compound, was built around 1918 when around `65,000 was raised, often, it is said, with citizens contributing a rupee each, to build a memorial to honour Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s stirring campaign against the development of a memorial for Lord Willingdon whose tenure as governor of Bombay was drawing to a close. Nayan Yagnik, the chairman of the BPCC Properties Trust which owns Congress House today, believes the rest of Congress House emerged just a year or two before or around the time of the establishment of Jinnah Hall in 1918.
Today, it is mostly a residential area. There are some 135 families, a majority of them descendants of people who worked at Congress House or with its leaders, who live in the six buildings within the area. Each of these buildings is named after a prominent freedom fighter. Dadabhai Naoroji Manzil, named after Dadabhai Naoroji, and Vithal Sadan (after Vithalbhai Patel) are the oldest among them. And the others—Tilak Mandir (after Bal Gangadhar Tilak), Sarojini Sadan (after Sarojini Naidu) and Kasturba Kutir (after Kasturbai Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife)—came up over time.
Nitin Thakur, Suhas’ brother who continues to reside in Congress House, stands on the balcony outside the large first-floor office of the BPCC Properties Trust, pointing out the names of the buildings in the compound. Nitin’s father had first come to Mumbai during the freedom struggle from his village in Maharashtra upon the call of his uncle, SK Patil, who would go on to serve as Union minister and become the city’s mayor several times, earning the sobriquet of “the uncrowned king of Mumbai” in the press. “My father was very active in the freedom struggle,” Nitin says. “He even got arrested during the Quit India Movement.”
Congress House remained a politically active space even after Independence. It was the office of the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee, the office of Congress in the city, and its chief SK Patil. By the 1970s, however, Patil’s political career was on the decline. He sided with Congress (Organisation) in the split within Congress in 1969. And the BPCC office was relocated close to Azad Maidan. “He formed the trust in 1963 and entrusted the Congress House property to it,” says Yagnik. Since then, the BPCC Properties Trust has remained in charge of the rent collection and maintenance of the property. In the past, the trust used to provide scholarships to children from underprivileged backgrounds. But with no source of income, and the rent collected a pittance under the Bombay Rent Control Act, Yagnik says, the scholarship was discontinued some years ago.
The buildings within Congress House, despite their age, haven’t shown too much weathering. “It was made by the Shapoorji Pallonji group, so they are very sturdy,” Nitin says. “Even today, you try and hit a nail in a wall, and it’s still tough to get through,” he jokes. But the condition of Jinnah Hall is ruinous. Given out for marriages and social events until some years ago, chunks of cement from the walls and pillars lie on the floor today, the walls wet with moisture and the paint long peeled off. “It’s reached that stage where you can’t do anything about it. I go to fix one thing, and something else falls off,” Nitin says.
It remained a popular venue after Independence, with film stars like Hema Malini and Raj Kapoor showing up to support charity drives but the hall is in such poor shape that nobody has approached to rent it out for several years now. Some years ago, a Shiv Sena delegation staged a protest asking the name of the hall to be changed. The members of the trust convinced the group to drop their protest, Nitin says, when they explained that the hall had been built in Jinnah’s name long before Independence. But perhaps the sight of the hall equally made the protesters feel it wasn’t worth the effort.
As we stand outside Jinnah Hall, a taxi stops a little ahead outside the gate of NB Compound. “There, she is one of them. And that taxi is one of them,” Nitin says, referring to the woman alighting from it. He had been speaking about how people often made the error—much to the displeasure of current residents of Congress House—of thinking that the NB Compound was the location of Congress House when the taxi arrived. “It started with those girls [courtesans] calling their location Congress House. Then the taxi drivers who dropped them started calling it. And soon others were also doing it,” Nitin says. “My wife, for instance, when she would take a taxi from Dadar many years ago and ask the driver to take her to Congress House, he would give a strange look,” he says.
The residents of Congress House, along with others in the neighbourhood such as the well-known Queen Mary School, would much rather not have the bar dancers living so close to them. According to Thatra, who researched the lives of the tawaifs (dancers) in the Congress House area, many from the neighbourhood frequently complained to the police in the recent past, leading to multiple police raids. “There have been various efforts to remove the presence of tawaifs from this space, either through the heightened interest of real estate players in urban gentrification or through increased surveillance by the police or the moral crusaders, which happens to be the Citizen’s Forum of the neighbourhood,” she writes in her paper titled ‘One Space, Many Stories: Tawaifs’ Kotha and the Congress House in Bombay/Mumbai during the Twentieth Century’.
But the history of the tawaifs’ kothas is really nearly as old as the Congress House opposite it.
Thatra began her research work in 2012. Renting a flat close to the locality, because she knew she would have to keep late hours while conducting her interviews with the tawaifs, most of whom performed at night, she would visit NB Compound again and again until the tawaifs relented to her pleas for access. “They would keep saying ‘Kal ana [come tomorrow].’ And I would keep showing up until they finally agreed,” Thatra recalls.
Their hesitation, Thatra says, was justifiable. After the ban on dance bars, many former dancers had returned to Congress House, and the increase in their numbers had led to complaints by residents in the neighbourhood and heightened police surveillance. Media articles that referred to the place as a “red light area” and all the women performing there as sex workers, had made them further wary. “I had to explain that I was more interested in the history of this place,” she says.
Thatra found that it could be traced to 1936 when an individual named Noor Mohammed Beg Mohammed had purchased the place. According to Thatra, Mohammed may have given this place on rent to the tawaifs who had moved mostly from northern and western India to then Bombay seeking new patrons in the city’s middle class, once the older forms of patronage by the nobility had collapsed. Or the existence of tawaifs in this locality, she says, could be even older.
THATRA MANAGED TO TRACK DOWN A daughter of Mohammed who had studied in the nearby Queen Mary School but hadn’t known that the property belonged to her father until after his death. Having wanted to sell the property for decades, the heirs, Thatra says, had only recently sold it to a real estate developer.
The presence of thriving kothas just across one of the landmarks of the freedom movement in Mumbai raises tantalising questions. What could the interaction between the tawaifs and the leaders of the freedom movement have been like? Did the tawaifs participate in the struggle? And if so, did they find themselves welcome?
According to Thatra, both Congress House and the tawaifs’ kothas evolved simultaneously in harmonious coexistence. And this, she says, can be witnessed in the absence of any complaints or condemnations, or even any mention of nearby kothas by the BPCC and the Sarvodaya Movement. The tawaifs did their bit in support of the freedom movement, for instance, contributing to the Tilak Swaraj Fund, Thatra points out, but they were not always entirely welcome.
Gandhi held some strong views on tawaifs. He referred to them as the “wrecks of society”, Thatra points out, and viewed them as akin to “prostitutes”, advising them to take up spinning instead. The courtesans in the Congress House area contributed to the movement, for instance, to the Tilak Swaraj Fund, which was meant to support Congress’ activities for social amelioration. “And ironically, they were not allowed to hold office in the Provincial Congress Committees, wherein Gandhi explained to them that ‘no one could officiate at the altar of swaraj [self-rule] who did not approach it with pure hands and a pure heart’,” Thatra writes in her paper. “Gandhi constituted the ideal nationalist woman as selfless, plain-dressed, and high-minded. He saw the ‘prostitutes’ principally as symbols of men’s lust and he also confessed that their presence reminded him of his own identity as a man… Thus, the Gandhian and Sarvodaya movements carried out charitable works in rehabilitating ‘prostitutes’… however, they did not feature the courtesans or sex workers as partners in the freedom struggle. Courtesans themselves were not viewed as legitimate nationalist actors.”
The condition of Jinnah Hall is ruinous. Given out for marriages and social events until some years ago, chunks of cement from the walls and pillars lie on the floor today, the walls wet with moisture and the paint long peeled off
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When Thatra conducted some interviews with those who frequented Congress House before Independence, many of them were familiar with the kothas that existed close by. “They would talk about how they would hear music playing by, and how, when they walked on Kennedy Bridge [located adjacent to the Congress House area], would peep into the windows to see what was going on.”
At one Congress session, the presence of Gauhar Jan, India’s first recording megastar, was objected to by ‘respectable’ supporters and the singer was asked to keep away, Thatra points out. Yet, Gauhar Jan continued to raise money for the party. According to one anecdote, when Gandhi once did not show up for one of her fund-raising events and sent a representative instead, she was so irked that she donated only half of what she had promised.
But despite the tensions between these spaces, they co-existed. The two have, however, travelled in opposite directions since then. Congress House, once a place of reverence, now remains largely forgotten in public memory. And the tawaifs’ kothas just across the street are seen as a site of debauchery.
One of the reasons why kothas came up in this spot is not just because they were looking for new patrons, Thatra says, but also because this area was a thriving spot for Hindustani music and there were many music schools present nearby. Referring to the many great musicians who performed and trained other musicians in the kothas opposite Congress House such as the tabla maestros Ustad Ahmed Jan Thirakwa and Ustad Amir Hussain Khan, considered among the greatest tabla players of the last century, Thatra points out the important role of the kothas in the development of Hindustani music.
Over the years, however, this began to decline. Mujras lost their appeal, courtesans began to perform in dance bars instead, and the kothas in the Congress House area began to be seen as a place of disrepute. When Suketu Mehta published his celebrated book Maximum City in 2004, he had unsurprisingly described Congress House as “Bombay’s biggest whorehouse”. In fact, in an attempt to communicate that the performers and musicians were artists and that the activities at the compound promoted ‘performing arts’, Thatra points out, that in 1977, the courtesans and musicians living here registered themselves as an association called the “Bombay Sangeet Kalakar Mandal”.
Back in 2012, when Thatra frequented the kothas opposite Congress House, it was going through a small revival after the ban on dance bars. It was still a pale shadow of its past. The performances now took place in somewhere between 15 to 20 spaces with two narrow buildings, compared to around 84 such spaces in the 1970s and 1980s.
But whenever she visited, she would be taken in by how this staid middle-class neighbourhood so rapidly transformed itself by night. A whole economy suddenly burst out alive. There would be flower sellers bringing fragrant flowers for the dancers, hawkers who peddled cigarettes outside, and the many black-and-yellow taxis lining the lane, bringing new customers and taking old ones away.
And sometimes on the streets, when you paid attention, you could hear the sound of music filling the air.