As you drive along the eastern freeway in Mumbai, your eyes are automatically drawn towards the soaring residential and commercial skyscrapers, that give off a very Manhattan vibe. Au contraire, the real showstoppers of the city are the dilapidated structures that stand as high as the freeway- the beloved chawls, or chaalis as they are locally known.
Chawls are residential complexes that came into being when there was a surge of migrants into Mumbai, due to the tremendous job opportunities created by the then developing mill industries. Usually located in proximity to the mills, chawls were the most affordable means of housing that could be provided for the migrant workers. No larger than 12’x10’, each unit in a chawl often housed more than 10 family members, and even today, this continues to be the norm in some cases. Most chawls ran around a modest courtyard, which was a communal space used to clean and dry clothes and vessels, celebrate festivals, and hold wedding functions or get-togethers for the amicable residents. The corridor or gallery (as it is vernacularly known) precedes the flats and forms the façade of the structure. The gallery is also a social space and has witnessed people of all castes, creeds, religions, and races interact in utter harmony. The most unusual feature of a chawl is that sanitation facilities are shared amongst the residents of each floor, as an individual unit comes devoid of an attached toilet or a bathroom. One can only imagine the chaos that would have ensued every morning!
There is a strong influence of colonial and Marathi wada style of architecture that’s evident in the design of these chawls. The columns that support the edifices portray this influence- a simple wooden block base supports the slender trapezoid shaft, which terminates into a simple trapezoid capital. The galleries are guarded with fabricated railings that are far from ordinary, and many times adorned with beautiful jaali work. I’ve had the pleasure of walking through one such chawl gallery during dusk, and the shadows of the delicate designs that the metal railings comprise of the cast by the setting sun onto the corridor conceive an alluring scene- right out of an art film! In some structures, old collapsible gates have been repurposed as barriers, probably to make the construction economical. Occasionally, the railings were shaped in a variety of designs and colors, haphazardly arranged on each floor. The façade hence seemed almost as if it were a quilted blanket stitched together with different kinds of fabrics- reflecting the true chaotic and diverse character of the city. Today, these facades are awkwardly interrupted by aircon outlets and television satellites. The chawls are shielded with sloping roofs laid with clay tiles, which contributes to keeping the interiors cool.
Certain chawls that were set up by colonial establishments were distinctly colonial in style and predominantly built in stone. The stone façades are affixed with Romanesque balusters and are punctured with pointed arched fenestrations, into which frosted stained glass is fixed. It is also quite common to find the year of establishment of the structure engraved into a brick above or adjacent to the entrance of these chawls.
Unquestionably, chawls are highly communal spaces, and this has resulted in the conception of a very unique and robust chawl culture, and hence these habitats have witnessed an assortment of festivals being celebrated. It is common to see chawls uniformly lined with lanterns or kandils during Diwali; Christmas trees are set up in the courtyards and decorated every Christmas; during Eid, the Islamic residents distribute sweets and delicious biryani to all their neighbors. It is indeed very heartening to see people reside in such harmony- an absolute contrast to the real world outside. I don’t believe that chawls are inhabited with a large number of nuclear families- it’s actually one massive joint family that lights up these extraordinary dwellings.
Today, most chawls are hanging by a thread and are at risk to crumble down any minute. Enough attention has not been given to their maintenance in decades, and their condition is far from being called liveable- thus, the government has proposed their redevelopment. However, it would surely be a pity if their original architectural characteristics are not preserved, and are replaced with our boring modern boxy concrete buildings. While chawls have a considerable advantage when it comes to providing affordable housing and creating a sense of community, the provision of hygienic sanitation facilities continues to be a tremendous problem. Each communal lavatory is used by no less than 15 people regularly, and improper maintenance of these spaces incites the breeding of disease-causing microbes. A handful of chawls are also built-in extremely close proximity to each other, separated by a narrow alley that is often used for sanitation purposes. This, too, irks the spread of diseases as the upkeep of this area is not supervised.
This raises an important revelation for architects to design cohabitation spaces for families, which must be affordable, nominal in terms of space, encourage interaction between residents, and provide hygienic facilities. It’s time to design the Chawl 2.0!