THE ADDA OF GANGA VIHAR!by Aparajita Krishna July 29 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 15 mins, 4 secs
Aparajita Krishna dives deep to the not so long history of Ganga Vihar and what it holds together as a past unimaginable and riveting.
GANGA VIHAR on the Marine Drive promenade of Bombay/Mumbai, facing the Arabian Sea, in the middle of the bay, was one of the most landmark addresses back in the decades of the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s. It was akin to being a Bombay/Mumbai heritage address. In particular the beautiful, most spacious, fourth-floor flat that had the majestic interiors open its veranda doors to Bombay’s Arabian Sea, the Queen’s Necklace and the skyline, thus providing one of the most solicited views of the island city. Personally speaking, in the early 1980s, while doing theatre in Calcutta, I had heard of it as much as I had heard of the Gateway of India. The reason was not just topographical, but because the fourth-floor flat in Ganga Vihar, residence to Rani Day Burra and family, had many theatre, art and film folk and folklores, anecdotes, inhabiting and adorning it. In the 1980s and 90s I became privy to it because one was fortunate to personally meet and know Rani Day Burra and husband Subhash Day. My last visit was on 22nd February 2008.
This address has had articles written on it. I myself had included it in my earlier article ‘PG Digging-Bombay Ishtyle’- published in thedailyeye.info dated Jan 31, 2022. Rani had generously messaged me. “Dear Aparajita, Thanx for reviving Ganga Vihar memories. Cheers, Rani’.
More notably, sometime back, a documentary got made on this iconic flat at Ganga Vihar. ‘Movings’ is directed and co-produced by Gautam Sonti (Rani’s nephew) and produced by Rani Day Burra and Chitti Prabhala. Gautam Sonti, the director’s statement says, “’Movings’ started as a home movie, mostly for family viewing - as a record of the ancestral home.
I realised that the story was not unique to one family only and expanded its frame to three stories. The central character is the apartment, which holds the reins of all three stories. Do walls make a home or is it made by memories of lives lived within the walls? Are roots embedded in relationships or does a place have something to do with it? I try to evoke these human questions that are shared across borders and cultures.”
More of it later in the article.
This Ganga Vihar flat stores stories, history and anecdotes, giving it a unique character. I could have also titled this article as The Ada (अदा)/Style of Ganga Vihar!
Bombay, particularly of the 1960s to 80s, was a cosmopolitan metropolis of its own kind in India. The adda at Rani Burra’s was like a melting-pot for the creative talents who stayed put here or frequented it. There would be a continuous inflow of guests, come for a temporary stay that stretched forever, with almost daily parties that hosted Bombay’s best artists and others. Among the guests who stayed here for a stretch or frequented it for shorter stays are theatre-film-documentary luminaries such as B. V. Karanth, Girish Karnad, Sai Paranjpye, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Jahnu Barua, Om Puri, Binod Pradhan, Venugopal Thakker, Subhash Day. Subhash and Rani Burra would eventually marry each other. Among the noted visitors would be Shyam Benegal, Nira Benegal, Pooh Sayani, Uma Da Cunha. Om Puri had shared with me that his stay at Ganga Vihar exposed him to a lot of people and influences.
Back in the 1970s and 80s this abode was akin to a commune, a cultural-social melting pot, where present and future artists, intellectuals, strugglers would live as guests, or, do routine addabaazi. Imagine a landlady not taking money for people’s stay/boarding, but only contributions for the meals. This can also read as an anthropological study of a kind.
Rani Day Burra, an alumnus of the FTII (Pune), graduating in screenplay writing in 1973, went on to becoming a veteran animation filmmaker and documentary-maker. She has edited and written for various film publications, journals, festival books including Cinema Vision (pub: Siddharth Kak), Looking Back 1896-1950 for the 1980 Festival of India held at MOMA and catalogues for the Film Festival Directorate. She was Consulting Editor on Cinema in India (pub: NFDC). Documentary ‘Movings’ produced by her is her most updated work.
The fourth floor flat in the Ganga Vihar building had been with Rani Burra’s family since 1939, when her father came to Bombay from the districts of Andhra Pradesh, with a widowed grandmother, a widowed mother, a widowed sister, and the eldest child, Lakshmi, in tow. Later four more children were born in the master bedroom. The flat remained with the tenant family for 77 years and saw five generations live and grow there. In, around 2016, with the transfer of tenancy rights, the Ganga Vihar flat saw the residents move out, leaving behind remnants of nostalgia that lives with even me, who has on occasions visited it.
I am sharing, apart from what is in the public domain, some exclusive inputs with me from related people. For a readership not familiar with Rani Burra-Subhash Day this may read new. It also throws light on a Bombay that was so cosmopolitan, avant-garde, bonded and unique on the Indian map. Some of it still stays.
RANI DAY BURRA
Documentary ‘Movings’ is a story of three families shifting to and from Bombay, including mine, which was the last to leave the Ganga Vihar flat overlooking the Marine Drive and move to Bangalore around 2015. In the 1970s Ganga Vihar was home to a Film Institute commune of new and struggling graduates, and visiting friends from other arts as well. A journey that began back in the 1940s when our father who was in government service got transferred from a cantonment town to the capital city of Bombay. At that time Ganga Vihar became home not only to our family, but was the initial stopover for several others looking to settle down in new employments in Bombay.
Ganga Vihar is very much there today in 2023, but like many others on the seafront it now looks blinded with glass windows closing off the balconies, the flowing wind and the sun and sea.
To go into a flashback recall, we used to get letters for Mithun (Chakraborty) here. People would just write and the address was Ganga Vihar. Om Puri also gave the address of here. So, he got piles of letters here. I had passed out of the FTII in 1973. My parents were not here. My father had been transferred to Delhi. So, this house was empty. Except for me. So, friends from the film institute came here and we started a kind of extension of the film institute. Subhash Day and all of us would hang here. We had a floating population also. There was another guy called Kofi Middleton from Ghana. We had Adoor Gopalakrishnan who was a friend of Paris Viswanathan. Paris Viswanathan was a friend from Madras days and Adoor was cameraman for Paris Viswanathan’s films. He came one night and the whole gang slept here. So, it became a kind of a rest house. Girish Karnad, B V Karanth would come and go, part of the floating population. So, everyday would be like a party because there would be about eight people here. Most of them to do with cinema or theatre. We were all struggling and would share.
Maybe Govind Nihalani sent Om Puri here. We went into the middle room and I said to Om, ‘Look we have so many people staying here. And then they become friends and they never go. (laughter). One thing is that don’t become a friend’. Om said ‘I promise I won’t’. Then I said ‘You can stay.’
We were fairly crowded. One needed company. I was alone. We shared costs. Though we would sometimes fight over rum. Later in the years Om would come here and point to that corner in the veranda and say ‘That’s where I signed my first film, Godhuli.’ Om’s father, Baoji, came. I told Om, ‘I think I have seen your father.’ Om looked startled as hell because his father was not meant to be here. He went charging down and found that it was his father. Father came and stayed with us for a week or so. He was thrilled. We made the bed in the corner room. And, he was not used to having white sheets. He said ‘My goodness this is exactly like a hospital’. Quite a character he was!
On Bombay’s party circuit it was Sunila Pradhan’s place in Juhu on that side and this side was ours and Shyam Benegal’s. Because we had space. So, it was quite common to have 30 people for a party. And B. V. Karanth would get drunk and sing at the top of his voice, till 2 in the morning he would be singing - ‘Govind Vithal, Hari Hari Vithal’. Facing the sea. And nobody complained luckily.
Om, more than anybody who stayed here, became a star. People would come and check if he was staying here?
I had read somewhere that the film Bombay Velvet (2015) supposedly had a shot of the building highlighting the name Ganga Vihar. Folklore has it that Amitabh Bachchan was a paying guest (on the other side of the building) when he first came to Bombay in the 1960s. So, I asked Rani if Amitabh Bachchan, during his earliest years in Bombay, was putting up somewhere there? Rani recalled, “He was staying in the opposite side at the Khaitan’s. PG or not I don’t know. One of the family members of the Khaitan’s was in the Times of India, I think. I think her name was Nina or something with N.”
Subhash Day (1974 alumni of FTII, Pune, direction course. He and Rani had got married. On 22nd Jan 2008, I had a talk with him which I share herein).
There is a hilarious incident. Once Julie Christie came and stayed in our house at Ganga Vihar for a month. It was during ‘Heat and Dust’. There was a big party at our place. Shashi Kapoor and all came. It got decided that we have to bring Ismat Chughtai! We went to get her. That day our lift was not working. Can you imagine Om Puri and Shashi Kapoor lifting her (Ismat Chughtai) up, both of them, to bring her up to our fourth floor at Ganga Vihar.
I myself was not a Bombay person. I am basically from Benaras and Delhi. Kulbhushan Kharbanda was here staying. Sai Paranjpye was here for six months, when she didn’t have a house. Jahnu Barua was here. Then Om Puri came and joined. B. V. Karanth, when in Bombay, would come and stay. Girish Karnad never stayed here as a resident-guest, but he and Karanth were such a close unit that whenever in Bombay he would spend a lot of time here. In fact when Om Puri came and stayed at Ganga Vihar, is how he met Karanth and Girish. That resulted in him getting cast in the film Godhuli.
Here in the evening, a lot of people would drop in. Shyam Benegal, Nira Benegal would. We had a tendency at Ganga Vihar to introduce people to each other. Whoever comes, meets each other. I have a very strong feeling that the stay helped Om Puri to deal with this kind of a crowd and interact. And, Om has always been extremely observant.
I will tell you a very interesting story here. At that time Om was a very settled part of Ganga Vihar. He was doing his play Udhwastha Dharamshala. They were going to perform at Bhopal or somewhere. Raina, Raja Bundela, Kavita Chowdhary, the whole gang came to Ganga Vihar. I think about 25 people. And from here they went to VT station at 11.30 p.m. at night. Around 12 midnight Om comes back to Ganga Vihar with the whole gang. There was some problem about reservation or they missed the train. Om said, ‘Boss ye poori team hai yaar, inko raat thehrana hai.’ I said, ‘Yaar itne saare gadde kahan se laye? Bistar kahan se aayege? Anyway, dekhta hoon.’
I started getting the mattresses out. Bedrooms, drawing room, this room, that all filled up. Somehow, they slept in the night and then in the morning left for the station. That is the time I realized this man Om has a very good leadership capacity. That was the one point I realized how brilliantly Om could manage. Every day at Ganga Vihar Om would sit in the morning and plan out the things to be done through the day. What time, where to meet and whom? On a small paper he would work out all these. ‘Aaj ke din kisko milna hai? Kya karna hai?’
Jahnu Barua was also staying alongside. Kulbhushan Kharbanda had moved out much earlier. I remember once we were sitting together in the evening. Toh kya karte hain? Chalo shaam ko Oberoi mein beer peete hain. Jahnu Barua, Om, me went to the Oberoi around 9.30-10pm. We sat and drank beer. Then the bill came. A heavy one. More than 2500. We did not have that amount in our pockets. Ganga Vihar was nearby. I had some money lying there. Om said, ‘Mere paas bhi kuch chota sa signing-amount pada hai ghar pe. Toh tum log ek aur round beer ka bolo. Main ghar se leke aata hoon.’ Om went to get the money and I and Jahnu kept sitting. When Om returned with the money we again ordered for a round of beer and added chicken tikka to it. Then at night around 2.30 midnight we started our walk from there for Ganga Vihar, singing our heart out. It was very nice.
One day suddenly Om’s father landed up. It was a surprise for me and Rani that he has come to stay. Anyway, theek hai. He is a friend’s father.
Dharam Gulati (FTII alumni, noted cinematographer)
In 2022 I saw the documentary, ‘Movings’, as the chairman of the international jury at MIFF. Both Rani and Subhash are from the FTII. Subhash has expired. Rani is now in Bangalore. ‘Movings’ is about Rani and family moving out of the residence and a new family who bought the house moving in. Rani’s cook who stayed there for years migrated back to Orissa. Rani shifted to Bangalore. When the family had decided to sell the Ganga Vihar flat, Rani asked Gautam Soni to make the documentary. If you are a documentary buff you will enjoy it. It is about the emotion and attachment you have with your home wherein you have spent so many years with family and friends. It covers everything, from family issues and friends from the FTII who spent months staying there during the struggle period. Lots of the FTII guys stayed there. It became a FTII adda. Binod Pradhan asked for a week, or so, but stayed for months. It has some nice moments. Very personal kind of a film. Both Rani and Subhash were big-hearted to accommodate so many of them for so long.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda (recalled on 22th July, 2023)
That was another Bombay. Tab Bambai alag tha. Chinna ka kamaal ka itna bada dil tha -- Chinna (Rani Burra Day) had a very large heart. I then became a friend. Initially I had gone to stay at Ganga Vihar for 6 or 7 days. And I stayed there for 4 years. Then we became friends. I had come to Ganga Vihar in 1975 and it was in 1979 that I shifted out to another place. Ganga Vihar was not a PG, paying guest, as is commonly practiced. They would take no money from us for boarding-lodging. We would only contribute towards food. Phone bhi free. Bahut bada dil. A big heart! It became an extension and culture of Pune Film Institute. Zyaat-ti thi Rani par. It was unfair to Rani. She did not earn a penny from me, us. Om Puri came to stay when I left.
I have kept in touch. I met Rani two months back. In today’s times who would accommodate people like she did?
For the shooting of ‘Movings’ Rani invited us all home at Ganga Vihar. We all met.
Writing this piece in the present, experiencing in words the nostalgic personal accounts of the Ganga Vihar group, also reminds one of a world we have collectively lost. The community living within decent means, better dreams, less greed, was a happier world to inhabit. India, Mumbai, the world of 2023, too rich in consumerism and kind of isolated in living, too dependent on growing Artificial-Intelligence, will one day again yearn for the lost past and would want to go back to that simpler-commune-collective way of life. When all is gained and lost in the world of wealth, Sensex, shares, the market of achievements, we will look back to the Ganga Vihar way of life!
I smile and laugh at Rani’s recall of having forewarned the struggler Om Puri who had come to live at Ganga Vihar, ‘Look we have so many people staying here. And then they become friends and they never go. One thing is that don’t become a friend’.
Om promised, ‘I promise I won’t’.
And, Rani then allowed him to stay.
The memories of Ganga Vihar remained forever embedded in all those who visited or had lived in there. Memories never Moved-Out.