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A Madh Island state of mind

How do you create and sustain an accidental community of artists? Take cues from Madh Island

A view of the Madh Island creek and Versova Village from the Versova jetty. Photos: Natasha Hemrajani/Mint
A view of the Madh Island creek and Versova Village from the Versova jetty. Photos: Natasha Hemrajani/Mint

Depending on the way you look at it, your first visit to Madh Island could be stressful or adventurous, but unforgettable either way. You could, like most people who live there, take the boat from the Versova jetty. If you prefer the overland route and feel more daring, you could also traverse the long road through Malad, tracing squiggles on the map. Keep aside a few hours and calm nerves for this journey.

You should know that Madh Island is not really an island but a neglected peninsula, drooping off Mumbai’s western coastline like a stubby twig on a branch. It is a piece of land heavily guarded by the Koli community as its last bastion. Every attempt to improve access to the region, such as building a bridge over the creek, has been thwarted. Madh also finds itself on the right side of Mumbai’s coastal regulations. Coupled with the Koli community’s grass-roots fishery business and a heavy naval presence, it offers sanctuary to its mangroves and relatively unsullied beaches.

The Madh Jetty is one of the oldest jetty in Mumbai. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

This combination of inaccessibility, natural beauty and openness has led to a few enterprising housing projects that have attracted a wholly unexpected demographic. Over the course of one day, you could bump into a Japanese cinematographer, a Colombian flamenco dancer, a Kazakh model and a local indie musician.

Welcome to this accidental community of artistes and creative entrepreneurs.

Spacious two- and three-room apartments here can typically be rented for 25,000-40,000, and offer the best sea views in Mumbai. Just across the creek, flats go for twice as much, increasing exponentially up the coast towards south Mumbai. This makes Madh Island suitable for creative professionals who don’t earn corporate-grade salaries or work strict nine-to-five jobs.

There’s a growing community of artists here, and the quality of life is very good as Madh has an inherent charm. You just don’t feel like getting out of here- Danish Husain, actor and poet

“There’s a growing community of artists here, and the quality of life is very good as Madh has an inherent charm. You just don’t feel like getting out of here," says actor and poet Danish Husain.

The long commute

But if Madh, away from Mumbai’s hustle and bustle, is a breath of fresh air, getting there can be quite the opposite. If you decide to take the boat from Versova, normalcy will dissipate steadily as your rickshaw sputters through the narrow alleyways of Versova Village. There are only five days in the year without festivities, so expect to disrupt local celebrations. People will clear their chairs and tables for your vehicle to drive through, and you should be grateful for that. Chickens and footballs have right of way.

The Madh ferry from the Versova jetty. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There are two public ferry services that ply across the 150m-odd stretch of polluted and rank-smelling seawater separating Madh from Versova. The locally run larger commercial ferry can accommodate over 100 people, livestock and two-wheelers. The Raheja builders used to run the smaller boat as an exclusive service for the residents of their gated community in Madh Island. But this too is now run by the local fishing community.

Veer Singh Parmar, an assistant film director, prefers to use the commercial service as it’s a great way to get to know people, especially the locals. It’s also the only way to ferry his Royal Enfield motorcycle—even though it may mean patiently enduring the hour-long motorcycle line, since only five-six bikes can be transported at a time. “Back in the day, everyone would use this boat as there was no other service, so I’ve made a lot of friends," he says.

There’s a stray dog that takes the ferry quite regularly too. It just waits for everyone to enter and then it goes in. The boat staff don’t seem to mind. I also see them help drunk people across all the time- Veer Singh Parmar, an assistant film director

The boat ride can be chaotic but Parmar says it helps him beat the city’s stress. “There’s a stray dog that takes the ferry quite regularly too. It just waits for everyone to enter and then it goes in. The boat staff don’t seem to mind. I also see them help drunk people across all the time," he laughs.

Parmar is just one of the many creative professionals who have moved to Madh, disillusioned by the island city’s soaring rentals and poor quality of life. This growing community also includes film-makers, photographers, actors, cultural entrepreneurs, models and artists. According to Bharat Raghavan, a local real estate broker, 80% of the apartments are rented by people from creative backgrounds.

Raghavan bought an apartment in a gated community here in 2006, for a paltry 2,700 per sq. ft. Today, properties in Madh fetch anything from 12,000-15,000 per sq. ft. Buyers are typically investors and non-resident Indians. “Now, just the floor-rise rate—that is the difference in price between a higher and a lower floor—in Mumbai apartments is 3,000 per sq. ft," he explains.

Mahesh Dattani (left) and Danish Husain at the former’s Madh Island house.

Raghavan moved here with his family in 2008, but still drives to his office, 15km away in a family bungalow in Malad, every day. “I’d barely encounter cars on the road when I first moved here. I could drive around as if the whole region was my private property. Now, there’s a car every hundred or so metres; even overtaking is a problem," he adds.

You can have the Madh life any way you want, by mixing and matching. If you are like theatre playwright and Sahitya Akademi award-winner Mahesh Dattani, you will own a home on Madh Island, where you spend the quiet weekdays, then retreat to your rented apartment on Marine Drive for the weekends. However, if you are National-Award-winning film director Sudhir Mishra, you will rent a flat on Madh Island and fall back on your Versova apartment when you miss the last boat home.

To really enjoy the best of both worlds, you must run your own cultural venue and collaborative workspace in Versova—like Karan Talwar and Michaela Strobel, who run Harkat Studios—and head back every night to your duplex condominium with 20ft-high ceilings and a hypnotizing view of the city’s entire western coastline.

Sudhir Mishra waiting for the small ferry for Madh Island at the Versova jetty.

With people comes the laundry list of essential doorstep services, such as delivery of household utility items, groceries and shopping, and cab rides. Until recently, it was impossible to find an Ola or Uber cab on Madh Island, not to mention drivers cancelling bookings when they realized what the destination was. Film-maker couple Pia Sukanya and Michael E. Ward learnt this the hard way in 2015, while shooting their independent film Bombairiya, which will release later this year. “Drivers would regularly cancel our bookings when they called to ask about the drop-off location. Now, they don’t even complain," Sukanya says.

The couple moved to Madh Island in 2016, after what Sukanya describes as an “allergic response" to the city. “Mumbai can seem very charming, but it can get to you. We wanted nature, light, the sea and clean air. There was simply no other affordable option," Ward says, adding, “When we told our friends we were moving to Madh Island, they said, ‘We’ll miss you.’"

When we told our friends we were moving to Madh Island, they said, ‘We’ll miss you.’- Filmmaker Michael E. Ward

Island life

It’s the small things that give Madh its bohemian charm. Pollution levels are visibly lower than Worli or Bandra. Even in the afternoons, the temperature is lower by 2-3 degrees Celsius, and the nights can get nippy. There are no fancy restaurants, departmental stores or malls nearby, so there is no question of shopping or eating out on an impulse. “The quality of life here has exceeded our expectations. We now live almost completely organically," Sukanya says.

Mishra heads to his office in Versova every day, working there from noon till midnight. “This shift suits me well as I can take a walk around Madh Island in the mornings. The beach is quite nice. What’s the point of living here if you don’t appreciate nature?" he says.

For Dattani, the past few years have seen such an influx of people that it now gets a bit too busy on weekends. “There’s always something happening on the weekends, such as (local) festivities and general loud music. So I now stay here through the week, and head back to south Mumbai on the weekends," he says.

Versova Village at night.

Dattani has a point when he says that the weekends are picking up in this quiet neighbourhood. In just the past few months, a film screenwriter and a former IT professional have got together to start their own pop-up restaurant; and a group of theatre professionals, Block Labs, has revived a local open-air amphitheatre.

Alistair Lethorn and Atika Chohan did their first pay-what-you-want cookout, called Aal’s Kitchen, on 8 January in his two-bedroom apartment. Lethorn, who moved recently to Madh Island, had just quit his Gurugram-based IT job to pursue culinary art. Chohan, a screenwriter who wrote the dialogue for films such as Margarita With A Straw (2015) and Waiting (2016), helped him put the show together, and came up with the branding, marketing and publicity.

Having spent his formative years in the North-East, Lethorn decided to focus on Naga cuisine. WhatsApp invitations were sent out, and 10 people attended the dinner. Within a few weeks, the pop-up kitchen was getting 25-30 people, and then 60. Another couple of weeks later, Aal’s Kitchen was invited to the clubhouse restaurant within the complex; 100 people turned up.

Lethorn found out about Madh, and moved there, on Chohan’s recommendation. It was the same for her too—she first visited the neighbourhood for a house party. “I also noticed many Instagram posts of people living in beautiful homes here. I wondered how working-class folk could afford houses like these in Mumbai," she says, adding, “I was fed up of paying through the nose for my Bandra apartment."

The Versova village at night.

This case reflects how Madh Island has become the new home for a growing community of like-minded people: word of mouth. The Japanese cinematographer Keiko Nakahara moved in because of Ward and Sukanya. “They kept telling me how beautiful it was. I fell in love with the place the first time I saw it," says Nakahara, who has shot Bollywood films such as Mary Kom (2014) and Indu Sarkar (2017). For Sukanya, a defining image of Madh Island, early on during her house-hunting days, was of actor Priyanka Bose sitting in the sunlight, playing with her daughter, at the community clubhouse. “I’d like to raise my child here too," Sukanya says.

The resulting environment is almost insular, creating an atmosphere where opportunities and collaborations become possible within this commune. “Mumbai is all about micro-communities. Parsis, Gujaratis, Jains and so on. Now, artists can have their own too," says Talwar.

Some of these people are acutely aware, though, that what they have is wonderful, but delicate and ultimately transient. An indie film-maker, for instance, refused to even be interviewed for this story, unwilling to play any part in publicizing or promoting Madh Island. “I’m happy that it’s a lesser-known place."

But gentrification is imminent, believes Talwar—this artistic bubble is temporary, given how quickly Mumbai’s voracious real estate world moves. “How long can this subculture last?" he wonders.

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