Girangaon Stories



|| ONE ||

RUKMINI AINPURE (approx. 67 years)
Supervisor, Annapurna Mahila Mandal.

I was born in a village in Pune. After my father died my uncle took my mother, my sister, and brother and me to stay with his family.

I never studied. My mother and my brother’s wife never got on. So my mother came to Bombay and started working in the mill. We were staying in someone else’s house.

I was married at 12 but continued to stay with my mother until I was older. My husband’s family were in Worli Koliwada (literally, village of the kolis or fishing community). My sister-in-law kept complaining that I was sitting at home, doing nothing. So I went back to my mother’s. There was a woman who was a mukadam (supervisor) in the mill and my mother asked her to get me a job. That woman would get me yarn, ask me to make thread out of it. And I learnt the work. Then she gave me a job. The same mill as my mother. My mother never talked to me while we were working. She would say, ‘What is there to talk about, we can talk at home. We are here to work.’ They would weigh the cotton and give it to us and we had to turn it into yarn and give it back. The naikin would keep an eye on us, see that the machines were working and everything was going smoothly. The masters would come once in the morning and once in the evening. The naikin was a mukadam. They were all women in the department. We wore aprons-cloth wrapped around us so that our saris would not get caught in the machine.

Then I went back to my husband’s home – he fetched me. That was the time when Gandhi died. I took a tram at five-thirty in the morning and came back in the evening. The shift was from seven to five. I was temporary so I was not taken every day. I grew tired of it. They did this to women particularly, not to the boys. They did not even like to employ women mainly because they did not like to give maternity benefits. I worked in the mill for five years. Finally, I left.

My husband worked in Madhusudan Mills. After I had a child we moved out and started staying separately in Worli Koliwada itself. I had five children; two died and so there are three. My husband was in the habit of drinking and he did not give money regularly. Gambled too. He did not give us any trouble, did not beat us up or anything. Sometimes there would be no money at all. It was difficult to manage so I started a khanaval. In the khanaval, there were only people from the Ghats. I sent food also to people in Crawford Market. My son would take lunch boxes from here to there.

I did that for some years, then I started selling fish. I also worked as a domestic help.

I could not educate my children. The teacher came home and asked me not to stop my daughter from going to school; she was good at her studies. But how could I? I had no money. My husband got drunk and gambled. When he got his salary he would just disappear for a week until he had finished it all. One son worked in a hotel and one worked in a shop. I took my daughter to help me with my domestic jobs. She loved music; later my grandson became a musician.

I do not remember any gate meetings or anything. My mother retired and went back to the village. She built a house there with the money she got from the service.

Later, Annapurna started. It was started by Prema Purav (Communist Party activist) and she worked hard to provide an alternative to the women. I joined her. We started by making batata wadas and selling them. We also participated in morchas against high prices. We went to Parel and stopped traffic. Prema Purav was there and so was Dange’s daughter, Roza (Deshpande, Communist Party activist). I have been to Dange’s house to meet Roza along with Prema-tai. We went to demand proper ration on the ration cards-kerosene, rice, etc. There were many people. Police vans came to pick us up. We were taken to Azad Maidan and there they let us go. First we started Annapurna in Prematai’s house, then we got a room and started sending food to various companies and offices. My son died suddenly. Of a heart attack. My other son was in the mill. He died too. He was active in the strike; he was arrested and then he lost his job. Then he did various temporary jobs. My daughter-in-law too is a millworker.

Now I am a supervisor in Annapurna.

|| TWO ||

Leads a cultural group called Amar Kalapathak.

My village is in Ahmednagar. My mother worked on the land, my father was bangle-seller in Bombay. He would send 25 rupees a month. My mother earned five annas a day. I have two brothers and a sister. I was educated up to the sixth. My schoolmaster, he talked to my mother and he said, ‘You may want to educate your son but here in the village he can study only up to the seventh and then he will have to go to high school in the town where only the rich go. So what is the point?’ And other people said to her, ‘Where do children in the Muslim community study further and go ahead in life? At the most he can become a schoolteacher.’ My mother said it was more important to live than to be educated. So she sent me to Bombay, to my uncle. My father had died in 1948.

My uncle too was a bangle-seller and lived in Parel near Dharti Talkies, earlier known as Surya. This was after the riots of 1946-48 so Muslims lived together for security. Before that there were people of all communities in the mills, Telugu, UP. During the riots, Bombay was the worst affected, so Muslims stayed away from the city. The Muslims in the mills were mainly from UP. The Ghat Muslims were farmers. There were very few Muslim millworkers. In any case more Konkanis came to Bombay than Ghati. This is because the Ghat had more farming while in Konkan the agriculture was not good. Muslims became shopkeepers, they sold eggs, chickens, or out of desperation, they took to sealing. Among the Hindu workers, they educated their children, whereas the Muslims left their families in the village and the children too remained illiterate.

I was 13 or so. I was apprenticed to a bangle-seller near Damodar Hall. I earned 40 rupees a month, out of which 20 rupees went to the khanaval. I sent some money home. There were people of other communities also in the khanaval-Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. The food was more than enough. The khanavalwali was a Hindu from the Ghat. I ate little and she would say, ‘You may as well eat free,’ but I paid her all the same. The textile workers would all eat very well. No, there was no untouchability or casteism in the khanaval. They were all from the Ghat. I would go and see the plays in Damodar Hall. It was booked through the year by the worker’s theatre groups. I knew the doorkeepers so I was smuggled in during the interval. They were historical plays. About great people in our history. This was all amateur theatre. There was professional theatre too, the tamasha theatre was mainly Hanuman Theatre and then Bangdiwala had theatres in all the areas where workers lived. He made a lot of money. Thousands of people depended on theatre for a living here.

I was working close to Kamgar Maidan. I used to see the morchas of the communists and would wonder about them. Once there was a big morcha to Kamgar Maidan and Dange, who was underground, was to appear. Everyone was curious. I went alone. I had not made many friends here; my mother had warned me against friends in Bombay – she felt they would influence me to become a criminal. There at the meeting I saw Amar Sheikh, Annabhau Sathe, and Gavankar. They were singing without mikes to this huge crowd. The communists were powerful then; they could do whatever they wanted. All this was new to me. It was an illegal meeting, no stage, no mikes. If the police came they would have to flee. I saw Amar Shaikh in his dhoti and shirt; other two wore pants. There were some songs where the whole crowd would sing along. Dange was a small man, hardly noticeable. His name was announced, and he stood up and did namaskar and the firecrackers went off for almost half an hour. Then he started to speak. It was not a speech; it was as if a worker was speaking. Everyone was talking about his speech the next day in Girangaon. I had the songs in my head. I bought the song book for two annas. Then I thought, I am here in Bombay and I must do something different. I would take off from the shop whenever there was meeting. The shop owner realized – this chap is not ill. He is just taking off somewhere. He told me, ‘If you are not well, stay at home and get medical help.’ So I was thrown out.

I did not want to go back to the village but I did not know what to do in Bombay. Then my uncle said, ‘If you cannot survive in Bombay you cannot survive anywhere. No one starves in this city.’ I felt that was true. I picked up the songbook I had and asked my friend Hassan (who sold eggs in the area where Amar Shaikh lived). ‘That man? Everyone knows him; I know him,’ he said, ‘he buys an egg from me every day.’ So I went as I was, in my khaki half-pants and bare feet. Hasan introduced me and said I could sing. Amar Shaikh called me in and I sat on the floor. He asked me sit on the chair. We talked and I told him I used to sing the prayer in the school. My master would always ask me to be the one to sing the prayer.

The shahirs would meet every evening in the Party office-the three of them-Gavankar, Sathe and Amar Shaikh. We would all go there to meet them. IPTA people would be there too. A lot of new poetry and music came out of this movement. Narayan Surve was the first workers’ poet, and they would sing his songs. Others followed later. Amar Shaikh lived here, next door. He was married to Jyotibai. Gavankar’s wife had a job.

Annabhau Sathe had a hard life. He produced a lot of literature but he did not get due recognition. There are people who published what he wrote under their own names. He would walk barefoot anywhere. He drank a lot. If you tried to talk to him he would promise to stop but he never did. He spent whatever little he earned from his writing. He was married and had a son, who died only recently.

Amar Sheikh and Gavankar never drank. In 1958, Kesarbai came here and joined the troupe.

We got married in 1973. On the stage. In Akola. One day my adopted brother – he is in the PWP [full form?]-he said, ‘Today you both will get married.’ So right there, in front of all those people who had bought tickets for the show, we were married. According to Hindu rites. It was on May Day. We were working together in the troupe after Amar Sheikh’s death. So we felt it would be good if we got married. We were already staying in the same house. We would be a support for each other.

My family had nothing to do with me ever since I joined the movement and also because I married a Hindu. Kesar’s mother was supportive.

|| THREE ||

Owner,  Hanuman Theatre, Lalbaug, which staged tamashas for over 40 years before closing down. Interviewed at his house adjacent to the dilapidated theatre awaiting demolition and reinvention as a marriage hall. Involved in conducting tamasha workshops for young artists, and actively trying to mobilize the shahirs in the state.

My family came to Bombay when I was baby. It was easy to get a place to stay then. My father started to sell vegetables. He would buy vegetables from the wholesale market at Byculla and sell in retail at Lalbaug. His was the only retail vegetable stall from Lalbaug to Dadar. My grandmother used to help him in the business. Our customers were mostly workers so the kind of vegetables that he sold were those that workers ate.

I could study only up to the eighth standard. There was no much money.

Mills were the hub around which the life of the community revolved. The siren told us the time and we didn’t need to look at watch. I used to wake up at 6 am and when the siren sounded at 7, I would rush to school. Once, while people were in the process of getting ready to go to work, just before the siren sounded, the Lalbaug turbine gas burst and a huge ball of fire flew up into the sky and dropped into the ocean. People immediately dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to the aid of those who were hurt. I remember had their skin burnt off. The community bonds were that close and strong.

A friend of my father’s came to him with the suggestion to organized tamasha programme on contract. Where this Hanuman Theatre stands now, there was a vegetable farm. There was only jungle around that, no industries or anything. My father took this place on rent. There were many bullock carts in those days, in 1946. We were ferry goods in them. My father didn’t have money to buy bamboo, thatch and metal sheets. So he put up a cloth tent supported by bullock carts. That was out theatre.

There were 19 tamasha theatres in Bombay, and the big contractors were Bangdiwala Seth and Abdul Rehman Seth. The cinema theatres you now see in Kamatipura (Bombay’s red light district) were all tamasha theatres in those days. Abdul Rehman Seth bought up the whole Batatyachi Chawl so that his artistes could live there. The working-class families loved tamashas. Cinema was more a middle- class medium.

Bangdiwala Seth was rich enough to take out a silver tabut during Moharram, but he was a big-hearted man. When the collections came in, all of it would be dumped into a box on which he would sit. When the artistes came to take money for their fees he would dip his hand into the box and gave out the money without even bothering to count it.

The working class like light entertainment which does not strain the mind too much, while the middle class listens to classical music, reads books, etc. Workers favoured loksangeet while middle-class people liked natyasangeet. Our theatre nothing to do with any movements-it was purely light entertainment. The audience were mostly workers; when it was performed for the middle class it would be done differently. It was called ‘baithakicha tamasha’ in which is the artist sat down and sang, while the other usual one was called ‘bahurangi tamasha’ which had more songs and dances and dialogue. This form is most popular in the rural areas. There was a lot of adlibbing, hardly any written script. For instance, it was a story of Harishchandra, the performer would know about character so he would simply improvise. So would Taramati, because the actress would know how that character would respond to what Harishandra was saying. There would be topical comments, the language and the lyrics were colloquial, the music folk. Earlier in Western Maharashtra, tamasha were performed in open spaces during religious fairs and festivals. The elite an the villages, the Brahmans, traders, government officials, hardly went to watch these tamashas. The village would give supari and a coconut to the tamasha party as advance. The contractors came in later and became middlemen, especially for the town performances.

The millworkers loved theatre. In the early days, they were mostly from Konkan. They had little land. There was no employment either, so their links with Bombay were close. Almost the whole family would be forced to migrate to the city. They formed their own groups to perform plays which focused on various issues in worker’s lives. The local Konkan form was dashavatar which was closer to theatre. It would be based on epics and other popular folklore that were part of our cultural heritage. Unlike the tamasha, the female roles were played by male artistes. It’s done that way even today. Many legendary singers in Maharashtra, like Bal Gandharva, became famous for their female impersonations. Later, after the advent of cinema and the theatre went into a slump, women came in.

What was called dashavatar in South Konkan, was called naman in the North. In Rajapur district, it was known khele, but there was very little difference in the actual form. There was a kind of tamasha in the north part of Konkan which was called gammat. They was also performed jakhadi or balya dance as it is known in Bombay, a group dance, where boys would each tie a set of ankle bells to one foot and dance in a circle. This last became most popular in the mill area.

The people of Konkan brought this forms to Bombay. Dashavatar parties would be invited to Bombay, and they would stay for a week or two during festivals like Holi and Diwali and perform every day. The forms in the Ghat which were narrative like the dashavatar were the vaghya muruli, (referring to boys and girls respectively who are ‘given’ to the popular dety Kandoba, an incarnation of Shiva), gondhal or bharood and lalit (bhajan-based devotional songs). These troupes were also invited from the villages for pujas, naming ceremonies, etc. The areas in Girangaon where the people of Konkan and Desh stayed were separate and distinct. The forms and performances were also therefore dependent on the area.

There were many bhajan mandals. There would be night-long bhajan competitions. There was no need to take police permission to put up performances then. Nor was there any danger to audiences returning home late in the night.

At Hanuman Theatre, we only held tamasha performances. The audiences consisted mostly of men from the Ghat. Some Konkani men would drop by just to see what it was like. Our tamasha would have as many as 10 or 12 groups or parties, called baris. They would be identified by the main dancer, for instance Yamunabai Vaikar or Shevantabai Jejurikar, both of whom were famous tamasha artistes. The performances would go on from eight in the evening to four in the morning when Bombay was already waking up. On holidays, workers would queue up from 6 pm onwards, sometimes even without having dinner. Or else they would eat early, by 4 pm. Our tamashas were on throughout the year, whereas dashavatar and naman would come only during festival seasons.

Women never attended the shows. One reason was that most of the men were here without their wives who would be in the villages. In the villages, a few women would attend because there were few avenues of entertainment. There would be women attending the village fairs where the performances were held. Then, there were many items in one tamasha performance. One was the sangeet bari with the system of daulatjada; members of the audience would offer a coin and request a particular song or dance. The artiste would perform that number and then take the coin from the man.

Now there are hardly any mills running and very few textile workers. So our audiences have almost become extinct. The tamasha artistes are unable to survive. This artistic tradition is likely to die out. The younger leaders of the political parties are inimical to these art forms. They have no concern. Even the maidan which were available to us are no longer so. There is no patronage either from movements or from the state, and the only live entertainment in this area is orchestra. When the Shiv Sena, which talks of Marathi culture, was in power, they should have done something but they never did. They never held tamasha or folk festivals to encourage Marathi folks forms.

We as artistes also have to adapt to new forms, keeping what is important, which appeals to people. We must also create new tastes among people, bring in expression and literary merit. Instead of filling our plates with 50 items we should restrict the number, keep only what is appetizing.

I am now organizing tamasha workshops for young people. I familiarize them with tamasha and I call well known tamasha artistes, and I am realizing that there is still so much strength in the traditional form.

At first, the millworkers, with their close links with the Konkan or the Ghat, invited troupes from the villages to perform in the city. Soon troupes sprang up in the city itself. It was inevitable that given the mixed population of the city, new forms combining elements from the different forms should develop. Proscenium theatre and classical plays were popular with the middle classes, both Maharashtrian and Gujarati. Dashavatar was a theatre-oriented form. Girangaon combined the proscenium aspect of middle-class theatre and the theatrical aspect of dashavatar in the production of their news plays. They became extremely popular and a whole new breed of playwrights came into being. Each mills had its own theatre group and the inter-mill competition was an important event for the population of Girangaon, even for the city as a whole. There were almost daily performances at the chawl and street-level pujas and theatre groups mushroomed.

|| FOUR ||

B. D. PARAB (64 years).
Supervises the printing department of CPI-affiliated Peoples’ Publishing House.

About 25-30 of us lived in the Ganesh Gully office of the CPI. In the morning, we would get up early at 6 am to go to the mill gates and collect the union dues. Each of us was given two mills to cover by Tambitkar. I had Morarji and Suparibaug (Mumbai Textile) Mills. After the first shift had gone in, we would have tea at the Irani restaurant and then rush off to work. We used to attend study classes run by Deshpande-master. Yashwant Chavan too would take classes, which I would attend after getting permission from the party. I was also active in the cultural squad. And I even helped set up one in Lalbaug. We were shown films from the Soviet Union on the building terrace.

We were always of the opinion that what we got on 15 August was not freedom. There was a big struggle on in the Party between Randive and Dange. Our Lalbaug group was known to be pro-Dange. Our local leader was Patkar. I was working in the New Age Party Press. But the Randive group was in control there and they threw me out of the job. After five-six months, when the press came back into Dange’s camp, I got my job back.

There was many attacks on each other during the differences; even physical attacks. Patkar, Tambitkar and Parvatibai Bhor were all in the movement. Naturally, they were all close. It was nothing serious, then, there was no practice of seeing men and women differently in the Party. But when the party began splitting, bad things were written about the three of them in the party periodical, Mashaal (Torch). We had a system called self-criticism. In this, we had to write about our personal issues to the Party in writing. We were taught that everything was collective, and the individual was not important. Everyone was the same, everything together, but all this spoilt many people’s lives. For instance, my brother was in love with a girl. He gave up his love for the movement. He never got married. During the Chinese Aggression he went to jail, and he died there. That was a different time. There were many who decided that they would not marry until the revolution. The girl? She got married in 1971 to a widower.

Randive was a middle-class intellectual from the student movement. He was the theoretical one when the split took place. Local worker leaders like Tambitkar were all uneducated, they could just about write and read in Marathi. Dange was a mass leader, he had the support of the grassroots, and they all stayed with him. That is why the party survived.

At that time we were taught that the lowest rungs of society should be in the leadership, they need not be educated. A person who can run a house and family can also run a country. There is nothing more to it than that. There was a chap called Raol, he was uneducated but he was loyal and committed, and now there is a road named after him. There was another comrade, a Muslim, he used to always sing that revolutionary song on the red flag. No one could sing it like he could.

When I got married in 1962, all the CPI (M) people came too. Because of this, Roza Deshpande brought a resolution against me saying I had joined the CPI (M) and I should be expelled. We never got on, Roza and I.

Our union really took off when Baburao Jagtap and Gulabrao Ganacharya who were earlier with the socialists joined us. Our main competitors were the socialists. Hajji Kasam which is near Tejukaya Mansion was there adda and Ganesh Gully was ours. I must say, we never got on. The main reason was the 1952 election. Because Ashok Mehta, Ambedkar and Dange lost. Ambedkar of the RMMS and Kajrolkar, both from the congress, they won. Totally, 40,000 votes had been scratched out. If these votes had gone to Ambedkar, he would definitely won.

Of the many debates held by the mandals, I remember one in Naigaum where Comrade Sardesai (of the CPI) was pitted against Madhu Dandavate and P. V. Gadgil, Editor, Navshakti (New Power) newspaper. Dandavate said the communists were followers of dictatorship and not democracy. He brought up the example of Hungary. Sardesai was unable to adequately defend our side. After the 1950 strike which was the first big battle the socialists took up after living the congress, the bitterness against them increased. They had thought they would win the election on the basis of that strike, but that didn’t happen.

We supported the strike of 1950 even though we were not leading it. The socialists did not have many local Maharashtrian leaders. Ashok Mehta was Hindi-speaking, as was G. G. Parikh. Then they split several times, first into the SSP and PSP and then into many more groups. They lost touch with the people.

When Gulabrao and other local leaders from the socialists joined us, they tried to help us capture the socialist union office. But we didn’t succeed. When Yashwant Chavan joined RMMS and thought he would be in a position to capture it, Ambedkar wasn’t foolish enough it allow it to happen. The Congress thought they could capture AITUC. They didn’t succeed either.

Borkar-dada had a gymnasium, so did Patkar. There would be a strike would every month. S. K. Patil of the Congress, considered the Emperor of Bombay, would send Borkar-dada to break the strikes and attack us. There were lots of dadas in Lalbaug then, they were never interfered with us. But there was nothing of the sort then, of giving contracts to kill opponents as it is now. Most of them were not into politics. S. K. Patil made use of goonadas, but the left never paid attention to those things.

When Stalin died in 1953, we hung his photo around our necks and took out a morcha in Lalbaug. Then Minoo Masani and S.K. Patil of the congress held a meeting in Vanmali Hall of the issue, ‘After Stalin, what?’ We, Tara Reddy, all of us disrupted the meeting by throwing eggs and tomatoes.

There was great closeness and warmth among us. One of our Central Committee members, Adhikari, was once suspended and sent to the Lalbaug cell to work with us. He used to come with us to put up posters.

|| FIVE ||

BAL KHAVNEKAR (50 years).
General Secretary of the Girni Kamgar Sena, a worker in India United Mills No.1.

My father was a freedom fighter. I joined India United Mills No.1 after being retrenched from China Mills (Standard Mills) in 1968. When I joined the labour movement in the 1970s, the communists were leading it. Krishna Desai was our leader. I was attracted to activities like demonstrations and morchas.

When we were out of work, we were also attending meetings of the Shiv Sena. Workers of the Bhabha Atomic Energy Commission told us how the Sena had helped find jobs for unemployed Marathi youth. Then, Marathi people were held in contempt in Mumbai. It was Balasaheb who took up the issue of the Marathi people through Marmik. Through the lists of the people in public and government organizations that it published, we could see that all the jobs were going to non Maharashtrians. That is why people were attracted to Balasaheb. There was a spontaneous response to his first public meeting in Shavaji Park. He told us that when the states in India were reorganized on a linguistic basis, the Marathi people got Bombay but there were still no jobs for Maharashtrians here. This is how we were mobilized.

Balasaheb was interested in art and sports and developed contact with the vyayamshalas. I remember one name, Pappi Patil. Balasaheb was confident that the movement would grow through activities in the cultural field. That is why he concentrated on capturing the vyayamshalas and with their help, he held local meetings in the chawls, in small halls and the maidans of Girangaon where he propagated his views. He held a meeting in Ganesh Gully Maidan at Parel on the eve of the Shavaji Park meeting where the Shiv Sena was launched. That and its press coverage were responsible for the huge response to the Shivaji Park meeting.

My father was a Congress supporter. So naturally, he opposed the thinking of the Sena. He was initially opposed to my involvement with the Sena but when I got a job through them, he too began to see their point of view. All the people of Lalbaug were with the communists at first, then they began to support the Shiv Sena. I joined the left when I was young, but I did not provide jobs. This was their drawback. No political party except the Sena bothers about providing a livelihood. That is the difference between the left and the right. And what’s wrong with setting up batata-wada carts? Some people make fun of them, but how many families survived because of that! Balasaheb was not saying we should invoive ourselves only in the batata-wada trade. He wanted Marathi people to enter mainstream businesses and professions. I was among the sainiks who took the oath in Shiv Sena Bhavan. I don’t remember the other points, just that we swore that we would buy only from Maharashtrians.

Festival likes Ganeshostav and Shiv Jayanti were being celebrated, but it was the Sena which gave them a social content and made them more grand and colourful. The Sena opened shakhas in every area, and their work was 80 percent social and 20 percent political.

The activities included health camps, vocational guidance camps and eye camps. Local people would also bring their grievances to the shakhas. In fact, the first shakha was established in Lalbaug. The communists had a base there, then the Congress and then the PSP. But it was the Sena which identified with the Marathi manus and his problems, which shared his joys and sorrows. The Sena corporators and MLAs had a deep bond with the Marathi sections. Managements in offices and factories were asked to provide employment to Maharashtrians. This and the social programmes won the confidence of the local people.

Image Courtesy: Sudhir Patwardhan, Lower Parel, 2011

Acknowledgement: One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices: The Millworkers of Girangaon: An Oral History, Neera Adarkar, Meena Menon, Seagull Books: Calcutta & New Delhi, 2004.

Typing: Nagesh Potdar. Nagesh Potdar is a drama artist and art enthusiast.

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