As you move through the busy streets of Central and South Mumbai, overshadowed by the skyscrapers are low-rise housing units that lie almost in shambles, lining some of the most sought-after areas of the city. Chawls, or “chaalis” as they are vernacularly known, are an important part of the city’s history, and are responsible for bringing about a shift in the cultural paradigm of the city.
In the early 1900s, there was an influx of migrant workers into the city due to the establishment of abundant textile mills. While job opportunities were available in plenty, housing accommodation was tedious to seek. A low-cost, effective solution to this problem was the establishment of chawls in proximity to these textile mills. These tenements were first established in Girgaon, which means “village of the mills.” This trend soon spread to other significant localities of Mumbai such as Worli and Byculla.
Chawls have a very unique and characteristic layout- each floor consisted of 8 flats, each of which would house one family. These flats, consisting of a living space with a humble kitchen attached, were as small as 12ft by 10ft, and the families that they housed often consisted of 10 members! These units were usually not provided with a private bathroom- a toilet block on each floor would be shared by the dozens of members living on each floor. The units were provided with a loft space under the ceiling where the family’s possessions were stored. The flats were placed alongside a passageway called the gallery- which was a space of great social and cultural significance to the chawl dwellers. The gallery is in fact one of the most characteristic features of a chawl, and activities like gossip sessions and evening chai take place here. During vacation season, one might find children running around the galleries playing a game of “catch.” During festivals, the galleries are spectacularly adorned with coordinating lights and ornaments, a tradition contributed to by each and every household regardless of their religion. Certain chawls may be built around a courtyard, which also serves as an important cultural element. These courtyards were used for a wide range of activities such as washing of clothes and vessels, holding community meetings, celebrating festivals and even wedding functions were held here. Cultural activities like Tamashas and Dashavatars were also regularly performed here. The rooftops were also used by children on a daily basis to play sports and games. It is truly commendable how dozens of inhabitants effortlessly used each and every inch of space available to them.
The mere lack of space in the chawls has influenced the establishment of a powerful chaali culture. You’d imagine a housing community is supposed to be a cluster of private spaces, but the true essence of the chawl is in its public-like character. In fact, Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival that is an important aspect of Mumbai’s identity, was introduced by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the early 20th century to unite Hindus living in chawls across all classes and castes. Another great movement that originated in the chawls was the Dalit Panthers movement, an organisation that seeks to overcome discrimination based on caste.
Most chawls abut the main road and the front of the ground floor becomes an active semi-public space. Many inhabitants set up shop in the front, while behind the scenes you may find activities such as washing and cleaning take place.
While these linearly arranged, multi-storeyed chawls are known as Bar chawls, another typology that started coming up slightly later is the Baithi chawl. Baithi chawls are one-storey tenements that sit in several rows (baithi means “to sit”). The fronts of these rows are active community spaces while the back is used as service spaces. These were usually built near mills where land was abundantly available, with a network of open community spaces and grounds. In today’s scenario, it is difficult to find a baithi chawl as these have become the main targets of redevelopment because they occupy prime real estate space.
Albeit the cultural aspects of chawls are quite advantageous, sharing of spaces-especially sanitation facilities- is extremely unhygienic and accelerates the spread of diseases. Let’s consider today’s scenario, where social distancing has become mandatory due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been advised that there must be a distance of at least two metres between two people to prevent the spread of the virus. Now imagine sharing sanitation facilities with tens of people under such circumstances!
In the last decade or two the construction of new chawls in Bombay has ceased completely as the government has started funding the development of high-rise low-cost housing buildings that are sponsored by real estate giants as a more profitable and less “liveable” scheme. The redevelopment of existing chawls will also mean the construction of such housing schemes. Though it is the growing demand for affordable housing that has led to the need for such matchbox-sized homes, it is extremely disconcerting to see the loss of the remarkable cultural bond amongst the inhabitants. One can thus evidently conclude that number of storeys in a building and the strength of its inhabitant’s cultural bond are indeed inversely proportional!