Bombay: big art and a smoggy soul

On a mission to find the artists of Bollywood, Jon Winter's brief encounter with India's brashest city left him dazed and delighted. But where was Mr Kalaparadicibic?
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At Its worst, the traffic in Bombay is total gridlock. Even using the most cunning short cuts it can take hours to weave through the tangle of trucks, taxis, cars, rickshaws, scooters, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, dogs... At its best, you wish it were worse as your taxi driver, wide-eyed and red at the mouth with betel leaf, accelerates wildly enjoying a brief moment when the streets are just partially choked. Space is a rare commodity in Bombay.

Such congestion is not the product of a bottleneck, for the city is built on a peninsula shaped more like an ice-cream cone into which over 13 million people melted to create one of the world's most densely populated cities. The most crowded slum areas house up to 150,000 people per square mile.

Bombay was the last stop in our journey through the southern states, and like most visitors, we had decided to spend a couple of days in the city before our flight.

Every tourist finds their own way to immerse themselves into such craziness. I had a name and address, a friend of a friend of a friend. I'd been given his name as someone who might be able to help me find a group of artists I hoped to meet and photograph.

The artists were sign painters, an enormous industry in India where nearly all signs, billboards and roadside hoardings are hand-painted. While many are naively rendered, some are great ambitious works, the finest of which can be found in the few small workshops of backstreet Bombay that turn out the great oil-on-canvas works for Bollywood.

With name and address in hand we emerged slightly shaken from our taxi somewhere in the middle of the city on Mahalaxmi Bridge to look for "Mr Kalaparadicibic, c/o Finance Today, Arch No6, under Mahamalaxmi Bridge, Bombay". Strangely, it wasn't obvious where the bridge was - even such large structures become lost in Bombay's dusty urban camouflage.

Once I did find the bridge all that appeared to be under it was a huge open-air laundry in full swing. Here, India's rag trade was being put through a rigorous quality control test by an army of scrawny men stood in ankle-deep grey water thrashing an assortment of garments. Remarkably, the clothes survived the beating, emerging from the murk to dry brilliant white in the smoggy heat. As other visitors in India will testify, having your laundry done in India is great, I have never seen my whites so white or so perfectly pressed, although I'm not sure how many beatings like that they could take.

Arch six turned out not to be the offices of Finance Today but a tiny print workshop. Mr Kalaparadicibic wasn't there but on explaining the reason for dropping by we were ushered in for a Coke with the proprietor and before I had finished explaining the quest he'd made a few calls and acquired the name and address of Ellora Arts. With the day's mission accomplished we hailed a cab and drove to Juhu Beach to look at the film billboards.

Along the coastal fringes where the city has not encroached right to the waters edge, Bombay has a few sandy beaches. Raw sewage has ensured that they are not somewhere that you would want to swim, but they are a bit of space where the city's residents like to go and stroll of an evening, to gaze out across the water, hold hands and eat peanuts. Juhu, like the rest of these beaches has its collection of side shows, peanut vendors, camel rides, and thieves. It also has a fine collection of billboards, great 60ft works depicting the old Bollywood narrative of "drama, action, suspense, music, dancing, romance - the Masala movie, a bit of everything".

With the sun lowering into Bombay's smoggy skyline we jumped into another taxi to crawl back to our hotel in the rush hour traffic, a two-and-a- half hour journey. For a while we followed the line of the central railway through the centre of the city past a near continuous line of slum housing. People say that Bombay is 70 per cent slums and what we were passing was just a tiny part of the problem, there are sprawling areas of slum housing all across the city.

What seems initially like utter chaos and desperation, with whole families crowded into tiny one- space shacks made of recycled plastic, tin and wood is actually a structured, organised community. The overcrowding is a growing problem - every day thousands of Indians are lured to the bright lights of the big city. Yet surprisingly nearly everyone who arrives finds some way to eke a living out of the city, whether it's in the printing trade or collecting scraps of tin and waste paper - and so they keep coming.

Bombay is an extraordinary city to watch go by. I found myself hovering between horror at the way that so many live in such conditions, and fascination at these resourceful dwellings. At the edges of the slum communities new residents had set up home by simply fixing a tarpaulin, bivouac-style against a wall and arranging their belongings on the pavement below. Some had fixed shelves and coat hooks up on the wall on which sat pots, pans, clothes, a small shrine.

Next morning we were back in another taxi heading for Ellora Arts off Grant Road God-knows-where in the middle of city. Orientation can be difficult in Bombay, as both east and west coastal stretches seem to mimic each other and there are few notable landmarks. I just remember passing an enthusiastic cricket game on a precious green space and the palatial yellow- brick Victoria Central station as we crawled through the midday traffic.

Jockeying for position among the street chaos are the equivalent of London's dispatch riders. Sinewy barefoot men charging through the traffic pulling narrow 12ft-long barrows stacked high with all manner of things from scores of chickens to a banquet worth of tables and chairs. One carried a monster blue marlin cleanly severed in two, each half must have measured about seven foot in length. It was one of the most bizarre sights I had seen in India, second only to the woman selling knitted balaclavas in the 35 degree heat of Panjim further south.

First left past the Novelty Cinema (fronted by a huge poster by Ellora Arts) took us down a narrow alleyway at the end of which were stacked a number of unfinished film billboards. A crowd began to gather as we stopped to peer down a filthy passage running off the alleyway littered with plumbing pipes, rubbish, raw sewerage and hoards of rats. In among it all a man stood feeding scraps to a gang of alley cats and mangy pigeons. In a city so overcrowded and stricken with poverty, it seemed an extraordinarily humanitarian gesture that someone would find time to feed stray animals.

Inside the workshop five or six artists worked in near silence under the watchful eye of Mr Ochavbham Mistry, the master. They were working on three versions of a hoarding for a production called Gumrah, each completed in stages performed within a strict hierarchy of apprenticeship and taking about two days to finish.

Apparently, Gumrah was a risky re-release hoping to ride the wave of publicity surrounding its central star, Singe Dhad, who had recently been released from jail. It was billed as a story of "innocence trapped in a world of crime".

Bags packed, we slid on to the vinyl seats of our last taxi for the two-hour crawl to the airport. Out of the window the city had dimmed to a 40-watt glow, leaving just the neon and fluorescent shop signs, hoardings and billboards shining like stars across the city landscape. Bombay is seeing a neon revolution, and looking at the huge cigarette and automobile advertisements I wondered how long would it be before the Novelty Cinema had such signs. Would Ellora Arts eventually fizzle out? I doubt it. Bombay may be cramped but there's always just about enough room for everybody.

FACT FILE

How to get there

Trailfinders is offering Bombay via Frankfurt with Delta Airlines for pounds 363 return plus pounds 17.20 tax, or direct with Air India for pounds 484 plus pounds 10 tax. Both flights available from now until the end of March on 0171 938 3939. STA has Lufthansa flights via Frankfurt for pounds 399 plus pounds 10 tax, until the end March - 0171 361 6262.

Where to stay

Many visitors head for the Colaba district, which has the best selection of hotels. The author stayed at the Gulf Flower Hotel in Colaba. The seedy entrance belies what is a clean, modern, mid-range hotel with rooms for around pounds 20. Others recommend the Kerawala Chambers, with sea views, and Whalley's, for the old colonial feel.

At the top end, with rooms starting around pounds 150, is the Taj Intercontinental. Although it may be outside the average traveller's budget, the extensive buffet breakfast, which is available to non-residents, is well worth pounds 6- pounds 7 per head (no shorts or vests).

What you need

UK citizens require a visa to visit India, available from the High Commission of India, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA or the Consulate-General of India, The Spencers, 19 Augustus Street, Hockley, Birmingham, B18 6DS. pounds 13 buys a tourist visa valid for up to three months.

When to go

The monsoon season lasts roughly from July to September in this part of India, so now is as good a time as any to visit Bombay.

Around Bollywood

Painted film billboards and posters can be seen all over the city, particularly outside Bombay's many cinemas and around popular public places like Juhu beach. Locations and listings for cinemas can be found in the magazine Bombay.

India's film industry is the biggest in the world, turning out on average over 800 full-length films annually. To arrange a film studio tour, the Indian Tourist Board advises film buffs to contact the Bombay Tourist Office, 123 Mkarve, Churchgate, Bombay 400 020, tel Bombay 20 32 932 or fax 20 14 96. The Rough Guide recommends that you try to contact studios directly. Among those worth a try are; Mehboob Studios, Hill Rd, Bandra West; Natraj Studios, Western Express Highway, Andheri East; Film City, Goregaon East, Bombay 65.

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