Kala Ghoda, a crescent-shaped enclave known for its well-preserved heritage buildings, has received a second lease of life as a neighbourhood for everything cool — luxury retail stores, eateries, teahouses, high-street shopping hubs and art galleries.
‘The heritage haven as a cool neighbourhood’ is a phenomenon several old cities in the world have witnessed. Creative entrepreneurs, designers and artists have appropriated old quarters — from Amsterdam (Amsterdam Noord) to Greece (Keramikos), Cape Town (Kalk Bay), Surrey (Sydney) to Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda — to revitalise them by setting up stores, eateries and galleries to draw in people and infuse much-needed money into restoration projects.
The charming ‘hood, named after a statue of King Edward VII mounted on a black horse, has always been somewhat whimsical and quirky. Lined with cafes, clubs, elegant shops, trendy restaurants and stately buildings, Kala Ghoda, today, is the stamping ground for well-dressed dandies, young artists, photographers, adventurous tourists, intellectuals, writers, art aficionados and a generous slice of the crème of Mumbai society.
Kala Ghoda cafe
Adding sheen to this neighbourhood are the newly restored heritage icons — Flora Fountain, a British era relic and Knesset Eliyahoo, a Jewish synagogue, which were somewhat rundown because of age. Rahul Mehrotra, professor and chair - Department of Urban Planning and Design, says, “A unique collection of architectural styles come together in this precinct to form a strong urban design armature.”
Its transformation is of a more recent origin, though. One of the first to move into Kala Ghoda was Kolkata designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee, whose vintage objets d’art, rare books, textiles and lights-filled fashion store, stands on the main thoroughfare. “There is so much character in this neighbourhood,” says Mukherjee. “I also like the fact that the reconstruction is controlled by the very stringent ‘Heritage Regulations for Great Bombay Act’ and no new ugly buildings can come up in contravention of these rules.”
Kala Ghoda demands a premium as far as rents go, according to Shailesh Shah of DB Realty, who has been involved in some prestigious real estate deals across south of Mumbai. “Rents can run into a few lakhs per month and yet, there is a demand and not much inventory in the market.”
The newest creative entrepreneur to shift into this address is menswear designer Kunal Rawal, who has taken over the top level of the iconic Rhythm House. The curved building, with a cantilevered balcony, stands at one corner of the street and once housed an eponymous music store; it was the venue for several concerts. But falling footfalls in an era of digital music forced the Curmally family, which owned it, to down shutters. Fugitive jeweller Nirav Modi bought out the lower portion, which is now attached by enforcement directorate (ED) in the Punjab National Bank scam involving him.
Kunal Rawal at his flagship store in Kala Ghoda.
The once-blue building is now earth-coloured courtesy Rawal and his architect, Rooshad Shroff, who has imparted a grunge-luxe spin to the space. Rawal’s ‘Neo-Traditional’ couture finds resonance in the refurbished space, which marries form with function. The racks are suspended from the ceiling and can be moved at the touch of a button.
Rawal says he sourced military antiques from various parts of the country to store swatches, rot-iron elements for the racks and tactile indicators made of brass in the form of Morse code. “The 3,000 sq ft space, with a 25 ft high ceiling, has been converted into a retail and entertainment experience. The carousel on the first floor moves at the touch of a button and I can project images on a dropdown screen. It can function as a studio and retail space in the day, but has enough features for me to turn it into a space where I can bring in a fashion installation or host an opening,” says the fashion non-conformist.
Rawal, a Juhu boy with the fascination for Colaba and Kala Ghoda, remembers spending hours walking around the neighbourhood when it wasn’t as cool. “The main causeway is traffic-clogged and chaotic. But the moment you turn the corner into Kala Ghoda, it takes you down a couple of beats,” he says.
Radhi Parekh, designer and art promoter at Artisans.
One of the earlier creative entrepreneurs to move into the neighbourhood was Radhi Parekh, who runs ARTISANS, a studio-cum-gallery that hosts exhibitions and sells fashion, home accessories, and art. The diminutive, soft-spoken lady narrates, “This heritage property belongs to my family and we were planning to restore and sell it. But we discovered stunning architectural elements such as a wooden sloping ceiling under the concrete one, and could not muster the heart to sell it,” she says.
“It stands on Forbes Street, which has a remarkable history. It was named after a British resident, JA Forbes, president of the municipal corporation, and for the longest time housed his office. I opened ARTISANS several years ago. Now, Kala Ghoda has a lot of independent designers and chefs running businesses,” she adds.
Her neighbour is photographer Farhad Bomanjee’s Kala Ghoda Café, a modern landmark in an old area. It began as a small space with minimal, all-white, photographs-strewn interiors but has now expanded beyond its original boundaries.
Bomanjee was motivated to address a requirement—the need of an appropriate café with the right vibe for a quick coffee break in the area. That his small café would get such an overwhelming response might have surprised him too. “We have maintained the originality of the structure, which was an old barn house. In keeping with the original vibe, the menu we serve here is wholesome, nutritious and flavourful,” he says.
Just next door is the Mumbai iteration of the Delhi Art Gallery located in a century-old building that was restored by Morphogenesis architects. The building was defaced beyond recognition and they were compelled to treat it like a heritage restoration project. Also around the corner are fashion stores by designers Gaurav Gupta and Manish Arora. Gupta chose the area for “being a seamless mix of old and new. Here are century-old buildings but the crowd is young and fashionable”. Not to forget, moneyed.
The Kala Ghoda by-lanes are peppered with several such establishments that have created a new language of ‘Indian cool’ — Tushar Sethi’s art and vintage accessories e-auction house is in the area because of the proximity it offers to several art galleries.
Jeweller Bansri Mehta’s searched for the perfect location to open her flagship store and experimental gallery for months before narrowing down on the heritage precinct. “It exudes a very European vibe and you are in great company amongst the artists, restauranteurs and designers,” she says.
Jeweller Bansri Mehta
While this may never be the Times Square that the Maharashtra tourism ministry hopes to convert it to (most buildings are owned by municipal corporation and Mumbai Port Trust and cannot be touched structurally because of heritage laws), industrialist Anand Mahindra’s proposal to launch the Rhythm House Revival Project could further convert the Kala Ghoda heritage precinct into a significant player on Mumbai’s retail and travel circuit. It is ultimately the only part of Mumbai that has an annual street art festival named after it.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.