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Salon Bombay!
Text by Parmesh Shahani
Published: Volume 18, Issue 6, June, 2010

Parmesh Shahani celebrates a revival of the city’s salon and adda culture

I’ve always been a fan of literary salons and cultural addas. Given a choice between attending one of these and a Page 3 party, there’s no doubt in my mind about which I would choose. The words salon and adda both refer to a gathering of people, and attendance to both is free of cost, which enables participation from a wide range of people. The terms are often used interchangeably though they are in fact slightly different from each other.

A salon tends to be more formal. It is usually held in the home of the salon host (or another designated space). The Verve lounges that we used to have in the Mumbai office last year were examples of salons, where we attempted to bring together readers, advertisers, team members and the creative class in Mumbai, around different themes, such as pop art, or monsoon fashion. The most important criterion for a successful salon is that the host needs to be impressive and extremely well connected so that she can curate exciting line-ups constantly. Someone like Manjeet Kripalani, for instance, who you can never say no to when she picks up the phone and calls you for one of her fabulous gatherings around the iconic red sofa in her Cuffe Parade residence.

Seated on that hot seat one sweltering May evening, and surrounded by folks like Tina Tahiliani-Parikh, Dolly Thakore, Padmini Mirchandani and Nandan Maluste, is Parag Tope, the direct descendent of Tatya Tope and the author of a new book called Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Parag speaks about how important 1857 was for India because the leaders of the revolution made a call for personal, economic and political freedom for all Indians. Even though the revolution was squashed in 1857, because of Tatya’s resurgent campaign in 1858, the British were forced to make concessions that would ultimately ensure their departure from India some decades later.

The book is pretty fascinating (history told from multiple perspectives of Indians, unearthed from recently discovered archival records), but what I find even more fascinating is the collaborative approach with which it has been written by members of the extended Tope family. These include Parag’s sister Rupa and her husband Cdr. Dhananjay Joshi (Indian Navy, retd.), Parag’s brother Dr. Rajesh, a senior consultant at Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi, and his wife Nandita, an IT professional. Presiding over them all is the patriarch of the family, Parag’s father, P. K. Tope or Baba, as he is fondly called. None of the Tope family members are professional historians, but they have assembled a praiseworthy labour of love, with meticulous collaborative research and sheer dedication. I love Parag’s comments about how his father’s profession (architecture) had ensured that the family members put several dozen maps in the book to illustrate troop movements and reconstruct certain historical events including several battles won by Tatya that alternate accounts of history claim that the British had won.

I also make it a point to attend Manjeet’s soirée that she puts together through her Gateway House Foreign Policy think tank, with Navdeep Suri, Joint Secretary (public diplomacy) in the Ministry of External Affairs. Navdeep, who recently served as Indian consul general in Johannesburg, is working on an exciting new public diplomacy initiative within the foreign ministry and thinking of different ways to engage Indian youth to care about and be more involved with issues of foreign policy. I have a wonderfully stimulating evening, and along with the other young members of the Gateway House learn quite a lot about the life and work of diplomats. What I love most is seeing the collection of specially commissioned Bollywood CDs and films on elections and climate change that the foreign ministry uses to spread Indian culture abroad.

Addas are different from salons, in their relative informality and free style structure. Groups of friends spending hours together, passionately discussing a wide range of topics, would be one way of looking at them. Universities, bookstores and coffeehouses are popular places to have an adda, and traditionally, addas usually lend themselves to chai instead of wine, and fried snacks, or sweets, instead of cheese. When I started Freshlimesoda.com some ten years ago, we tried our best to transform the website and the youth community we addressed into an offline as well as an online adda. Cities like Kolkata and Delhi have always had a robust adda culture historically. In Mumbai, I know of several old-timers who try and keep their addas going, even today, but this is hard. Rashid Irani, the famous film critic, for instance, maintained a weekend adda for several decades with other avant-garde film buffs, at his family owned Irani café, Brabourne. The café’s closure in 2008 after 76 years of operation meant that Rashid’s gang no longer had a place to call its own any more. I am not sure if the group has managed to find another place or not. Still, the different events that I attend give me hope that the city may be going through a salon and adda renaissance.

The last time this kind of energy filled the air was in 1997 when author Vikram Chandra inspired his friend, the filmmaker Anuradha Tandon, to start a monthly gathering at Mahim’s Goa Portuguesa that they simply titled, guess what – Adda – even though its format and nature made it more salon-ish than adda-ish. I have fond memories of these addas. As a fresh college graduate, the experience helped expand my cultural horizons and also gave me a lot of confidence to talk to people I might have been shy of approaching before. Anuradha was a smart curator. She mixed complete unknown acts with huge stars, encouraged collaboration, and mixed up her audience as carefully as she chose her performers. This meant that at any given adda, there was a bunch of regular adda-ites like Govind Nihalani, Rahul Bose, Anupama Chopra, Jaideep Mehrotra, and not so famous folk.

The by-invitation-only nature of the gathering meant that Anuradha played a Warhol-like gatekeeper. Also, the programme was never publicised in advance so you never knew who was following who, and this added to the excitement. One evening, there could be Jeet Thayil reading from his latest book, followed by ghazal singer Vijay Chaudhary or Javed Akhtar reciting Urdu poetry. At another, there might be video screenings, and theatre and dance performances. Then the wine and conversation might flow before suddenly stopping for an art exhibition from a recently released Yerawada jail inmate. Adda also engineered all kinds of collaborations between people who would not have met each other in the course of their regular lives. So when Subhash Ghai saw dancer Mahesh Mahboobani perform, he was so impressed that he immediately offered him the opportunity to help choreograph the dance steps for Taal.

Somewhere in the early 2000s (after a wild millennium adda, that had Badmarsh and Shri flying down from London, a six-year-old shaayar from Mulund, a clarinet player and hot water bottles blown up all over the place), Adda stopped happening. When I went off to the US, I lost track of Anuradha. Meanwhile, the city went through a conspicuous consumption binge, with Page 3 parties and brash-brandedness overshadowing everything else.

When I begin working on this column, I decide to track Anuradha down and see what she’s up to. I have another hidden agenda. I want her to kick-start Adda again. When I land up at her funky Bandra pad, she greets me like the eight-year gap between seeing each other was only eight days, and guess what, there’s an informal darbar going on already. (Why am I not surprised?) I am handed a plate of chicken curry and rice and a glass of wine and urged to get comfortable on a plush armchair. Film critic Meenakshi Shedde is talking animatedly about Cannes. Singer Mohit Chauhan recounts his time in the hills; he tells me that he is finding this new round of fame as hard to deal with as his Silk Route days.

I have heard that Anuradha now makes some phenomenal shaadi videos with a difference and beg her to show us examples of these. I am blown away by what I see. She is cleverly appropriating contemporary TV trends (the Bollywood awards show, the nightly soap opera) and utilising family members as actors, to create fiction films that not only satisfy her clients (which include families like the Agarwals of the Vedanta group) but also serve as an important social and cultural archive of our collective mediated desires. This is powerful documentary material.

She tells me that she tried to empower other people to organise Adda when she was unavailable, but it didn’t work. “Doing something like this is a passion project, and completely based on the personality of the founder. I met Karan Grover, the architect, and thought his work was like poetry so we set up several screens and projectors and showcased it. Someone else might think, architecture, how will that be interesting. Or I had heard of Ash Chandler who had come to India to become a singer, but when I spoke to him I found him funny and asked him to do stand up comedy.” As I leave she tells me that she’s very encouraging of all the new events that are taking place, but adds tongue-in-cheek, “I haven’t seen anyone else do what we were doing! Maybe it’s time we got back. Let’s see....” While she makes up her mind, I continue to attend as many of the other Adda-like experiments sprouting all over the city.

One of these is the Bombay Elektrik Project. I first encountered founder Kenneth Lobo at a British Council Creative Entrepreneurs event two years ago, and have watched with pride as he and his partners (DJ Pramod Sippy and restaurateur Sudeip Nair) have helped add a much-needed facet to Mumbai’s nightlife scene. The collective puts together live bands, film screenings, and stand-up comedy acts at different Mumbai restaurants, bars and clubs. Some of their popular projects are Audio Kanvas, where musicians jam while an artist paints live to the music; talking about Old Records, where participants dig out favourite old records and share stories about them and Show & Tell where travellers and locals meet to trade stories. But my absolute favourite is Monday Night slam – a poetry reading that they organise on the first Monday of every month at Bandra’s Café Goa.

I am now quite a regular. I usually arrive early and get a chair in front before the session begins. Sometimes I order a cappuccino, or if I haven’t eaten yet, some Goan prawn curry and rice. The poets wander in slowly, many, directly from work, with crumpled shirts, kurtas, laptop bags, and sheaves of paper. The regulars are treated like gods, and they soon get surrounded by other regulars and their fans. The new ones are always a little shy of reading their work out to an unfamiliar audience. A few rounds of jelly vodka shots usually take care of that. Sometimes, out of town visitors like writer Advaita Kala pop in, and feel inspired to read their work, from their BlackBerry screens. Radio jockey Rohini Ramanathan plays event host, with her irreverent Mumbai attitude and bawdy sense of humour.

A good evening has about 70 people. Even on the bad ones, at least 40 show up and about 30 poems are read. These could be Urdu ghazals, Punjabi sonnets, cell phone haikus or Bihar-style English hip-hop lyrics. This is very different from the Chauraha gatherings that used to take place at NCPA in the 1990s. Monday Night Slam’s poets might not always come up to the calibre of an Arundhati Subramanium, or a Jerry Pinto, but to me, they are equally captivating and beautiful, as they construct their own urban histories with their words and voices, month after month.

Turning Tables by Mansi Poddar and Kanika Parab, the hip Brown Paper Bag girls is another pleasurable experiment in social networking that I have enjoyed. I’ve been a fan of the website every since it launched, and when they started holding monthly dinners in December last year, I jumped. Their concept is simple. For one night every month, a private home is converted into a family-style restaurant, complete with a celebrity chef and patrons, all of whom are strangers. Over the course of the night, connections form, and these are hopefully sustained in the future so that an alternate social network is shaped. So far, they’ve worked with chefs like Kshama Prabhu from The Tasting Room, Ashutosh Nirlekar from Olio Novotel, and Vicky Ratnani of Aurus. The dinner I attend has Mrigank Singh from Blue Frog, cooking up a storm in the art-filled Altamount Road home of Srila Chatterjee. The shamiana covered, candle-lit table is set on a terrace that offers a starlit view of the city’s high-rises all around, while Srila’s three dogs loll about lazily nearby. All around me are people I don’t know, but soon will – editors and expats, foodies and film-makers, doctors and business managers. Good food, interesting people, a clear sky…what more does a city-weary soul need to be recharged?

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