The Birth of Shivaji Park

One of the earliest planned neighbourhoods of Bombay with its massive playground named after the Maratha warrior king, gorgeous Art Deco buildings and the great Arabian Sea beyond, Shivaji Park in Dadar was conceived in order to decongest the mega city’s residential and commercial centre after the plague epidemic of 1896.

In Shivaji Park: Dadar 28: History, Places, People, Shanta Gokhale, author, cultural critic and longtime resident of the area, brings together key events and individuals to create a matchless portrait of the neighbourhood. Through her conversations with friends and neighbours, she relives the thrill and novelty of moving from congested chawls to flats that ensured privacy in the 1930s; the politically charged decades of the 1950s and ’60s; the illustrious people who have contributed to the cultural fabric of Shivaji Park. Gokhale also notes how, despite the best efforts of its residents, the area is threatened by rampant redevelopment, and how the sense of community that has always defined it is slowly eroding.​

The following are excerpts from the chapters "The Birth of Shivaji Park" and "Shivaji Park’s First Citizen" of the book.

Image courtesy Speaking Tiger

‘“Sahib, I’m not a doctor like you, and I should not presume to tell you what you already know. In the past month more than fifty have died in my neighbourhood. Hale men and women, every one of them. Rich ghee-fed Marwari Jains like myself, not pathetic starvelings of the bazaar. Then, there are rumours.”

‘“Rumours?”

‘“From the docks. The godowns are full of dead rats.”’

—From Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague,
Kalpish Ratna

The outbreak of plague in Bombay in 1896 throws up a complex narrative of class, caste, community, tradition, ignorance and prejudice. The steps that the British government took to control the epidemic such as forcible examination, isolation and quarantine, caused intense anger among the citizens, many of whom fled to their villages to get away as much from the cure as the disease. This is not the place to enter into that labyrinth of cause and effect. What concerns us here is that Shivaji Park owes its birth, at least partly if not wholly, to the plague epidemic of 1896–97.

The problem created by the plague was not only socially complex, but medically too. There was a great resistance within the medical fraternity to accepting the new idea that baccilli were the cause of the disease. In every culture anywhere in the world, the plague had been seen as a divine retribution for man’s sins. That superstition still clung to some medical men. Others resisted out of a sense of outrage that some whippersnappers were trying to sell them new-fangled theories. One such whippersnapper was Dr Sir Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine, whom the government had requested to help contain the epidemic. Haffkine started work in a poky corridor of the Grant Medical College in Byculla. In January 1897 he had a vaccine ready. He tested it on himself before trials were conducted on volunteers from Byculla jail. Those who were inoculated, survived the epidemic, while some members of the control group died. Haffkine arrived at the conclusion that the vaccine reduced risk by 50 per cent.

Disbelieving his findings, some officials insisted that the problem had to do entirely with the lack of sanitary conditions in the over-populated city. The belief led to the setting up of the Bombay City Improvement Trust (BCIT) on 9 December 1898. The Trust’s first task was to build avenues across the length and breadth of the city to open up its landlocked central and eastern regions to healthful sea breezes. The roads would incidentally solve another problem that had been troubling the British rulers greatly. They would reduce the dense growth of toddy palms and coconut trees on the island. Not only did they block the free flow of sea air, but, worse still, their nurture created an unhealthy miasma on account of the local tradition of burying dried fish at their roots as manure. This noisome practice was held to be at least partly responsible for the rampant ill-health among the British, cutting their lives down to the proverbial two monsoons. The BCIT’s second task was to create new areas for housing on Mahim island in order to decongest the city centre. This was to be achieved by reclaiming some land from the sea and acquiring some from the Koli, Bhandari, Suryavanshi and other landowners of the island.

The BCIT’s first plans, known as Schemes 5 and 6, were designed to develop Dadar East, Matunga and Sion as residential precincts. An important feature of the schemes was building east-west roads that would release sea air to them. This entailed acquiring land from the landowners of the west. The landowners protested angrily. Why should they give up their land to benefit people living on the other side of the railway line? The land had been theirs ‘from times immemorial’ and they paid taxes on it. This gave them clout. Their anger culminated in a meeting held on the Dr Antonio da Silva grounds in 1915. A resolution was passed making their refusal to give up land for Schemes 5 and 6 clear, and demanding that a similar scheme be planned to develop Mahim Woods instead. In time the demand was granted and ‘Shivaji Park Scheme-Mahim’ for the development of one of the first planned precincts in the city was conceived.

Before the scheme took off, a prickly administrative issue had to be resolved. There had been growing friction between the BCIT, which had been constituted by an act of the British Parliament, and the Municipal Corporation whose councillors comprised the Indian elite of Bombay, including some landowners from Dadar West. By the end of the turf war, the BCIT was restricted to developing only the infrastructure—streets, drains, lighting—while the Municipal Corporation took charge of the development of the park and the sale of plots for housing. By 1936–37, all the plots around Shivaji Park were sold; and by 1940, plots on outlying roads which did not come under the Scheme but benefited from the infrastructure were also sold.

The layout of the Shivaji Park precinct comprises the park, covering an area of 112,937 square metres (27.907 acres), a stone and cement-concrete katta, or kerb, that encircles it fully and two roads that run around it in concentric horseshoes. What led to precisely this acreage of land being turned into a park is a matter for speculation. Two factors could have determined the specific location and area of the precinct. One, the existence of three thoroughfares that had already been constructed. Lady Jamshedji Road, bordering the eastern side of the precinct, was built in 1846. Mahim Bazaar Road on the west, once a mud track, had been widened into a proper road. It was renamed Cadell Road in 1916 after P.R. Cadell whose term as municipal commissioner had ended just then. The southern side was bounded by Ranade Road which stretched all the way from Dadar station to the beach, crossing three main roads—N.C. Kelkar Road, Gokhale Road and Cadell Road. The park along with its two horseshoe roads had to be contained within the boundaries set by these roads.

The actual area of the park was most likely determined by the grassy meadow that is said to have existed there before. Apparently, it was a commons that became squelchy and unusable in the monsoon months, but was used in the dry months as a camping site by itinerant traders, craftsmen and performers and as a meeting place for locals to celebrate festivals. Whether such a commons existed or not, the area of the park would have had to be contained within the two ring roads built for housing plots.

The park was thrown open to the public in 1925. It was first called Mahim Park. In 1927, the tercentenary year of Shivaji’s birth, there was a popular demand for its renaming after him. The Congress corporator and Gandhian freedom fighter Avantikabai Gokhale gave voice to the people’s demand and it was named Shivaji Park. This event is commemorated on a tall, wide column that stands with its back to the park and its face towards Cadell Road, renamed Veer Savarkar Marg. Currently it is in a soiled state, its base chipped and its sides plastered with the remains of handbills. A small peepal sapling has thrust itself out of a crack at the top. Our city fathers do not care very much for heritage.

[…]

What strikes you most forcibly about Shivaji Park, besides its shady roads and Art Deco buildings, is the openness of the space. By that I do not mean the obvious, as in a space that is not enclosed. I mean open as in democratic. Shivaji Park is open to all people at all times of the day and night. It is a place to relax in and fill your lungs with fresh air, to hold hands or argue, walk, jog, do asanas or stretch out for a siesta. It is open for post-prandial strolls under the stars or for indulgences like ice golas sold off carts.

The Shivaji Park katta is a beloved seating and sleeping arrangement. No recollection of the park is complete without memories of katta days flooding in. The katta is just a low kerb around the park. But what possibilities it affords for human interaction! In a blogpost reproduced in Firstpost, Mustansir Dalvi compares the snooty Oval maidan at Churchgate with Shivaji Park. The Oval, he says, ‘is fenced off with railings that put you in mind of a penitentiary no matter which side you are on…What could have been, in the absence of the railings, a positive social space, a “living room for the city”, for all those with purpose and for flaneurs in general, is now fossilized for the rather vapid pleasure of viewing from the balconies of Deco residences.’ The Shivaji Park katta on the other hand affords ‘unfiltered access from all sides, allowing an extended neighbourhood to occupy it and call it their own’.

Those who have lived in this neighbourhood but moved away still feel this sense of ownership. To come back to Shivaji Park and shoot the breeze on the katta is like returning home. Today the BMC, in its unaesthetic wisdom, has covered this home with glossy plastic chips in ugly orange, yellow and red instead of the dull green paint we were used to and which fitted better with the surroundings. The chips are already falling out. One hopes they will all be gone one day.

These are excerpts from Shivaji Park: Dadar 28: History, Places, People, written by Shanta Gokhale and published by Speaking Tiger. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Shanta Gokhale is a playwright, novelist, translator and theatre scholar. She has written two novels, a few plays and a scatter of short stories including Crowfall (2013), The Engaged Observer: The Selected Writings of Shanta Gokhale (2018) and One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told Through the Body (2019). Besides essays, short fiction, novels and autobiographies, she has translated Jerry Pinto’s novel Em and the Big Hoom from English into Marathi and several plays from Marathi into English. In 2019, Gokhale received a lifetime achievement award at the Tata Literature Live.