I have been sketching in my neighbourhood for a while, documenting a road full of historic buildings built during the British era. I was attempting to record the city’s crumbling heritage. As I continued sketching these dilapidated buildings filled with character, I realised it was a topic I was interested in exploring further. When I visited a historic market while preparing for the USK talks on the Colonial influence on Pune, I realised this was the best place for me to investigate the effect of colonisation on my beloved city, Pune. This market is unique, not only in terms of the historic and aesthetic values it carries but in terms of how people interact with it. How the locals have reclaimed it and repurposed it. How the British and Indian influences have reconciled and adapted to the new realities especially during the pandemic.
Mandai market is a historic structure which introduced a new idea of trade to Indian society. Through its century-long evolution it influenced the local economy and society. Sketching Mandai through these months I saw it first hand. How it also expresses its society’s interests. Through this type of storytelling I have learned to dive in deep to look for those untold stories. To spend time with the subject to appreciate and highlight the need for conservation for an ageing structure.
Within the historic market, vendors can only sell what they are licensed to as per the laws put in place by the British. But outside the market this roadside vendor is a prime example of an Indian free to adapt his wares to the ever changing festivals and societal demands.
For Diwali it’s brooms, for Ganesh festival it’s creative pedestals for the installation of the idol, for Dussehra he sat on a mountain of marigolds.
The day before Diwali, this man looked so cool sitting on his mountain of brooms with handles wrapped in bright colored plastic ribbons. It looked like he had attained nirvana there as he took his calls and handled his thronging customers in a peaceful manner. From his broom perch he even tried to see that I had a cup of hot tea, organized a chair for me to sit on despite my protests, and ensured his men directed the chaotic traffic around me just so that I could sketch.
The day before the traditional fiscal year ends, there is a tradition of sweeping the house of poverty. In some houses this is done at midnight when Laxmi, the goddess of wealth visits, seeking the cleanest house. New brooms come home to bring wealth and of course that’s why this nice guy had sold all his brooms before the day was over.
Bamboo craft changing with every festival
The historic market did not change one iota for the various festivals and events but the Eco system developed from it continues to adapt to societal needs.
For Ganesh festival the pedestal shapes for the idols changed to boats, modaks ( the pendant shape unique to this festival) fans and thrones of different shapes and sizes.
Diwali at Mandai Market
Within the historic market, vendors can only sell what they are licensed to sell as per the laws put in place by the British. That’s why it is always business as usual inside the market no matter what the occasion is. However outside the market there are no laws governing the roadside vendors. These vendors encircle the market from outside.They are free to adapt their wares according to the demand of the season. The items they sell are unique to that very season and have their own story to tell.
I sketched this roadside vendor outside Mandai market the day before Diwali.He looked so cool sitting on his mountain of brooms with handles wrapped in bright colored plastic ribbons. It looked like he had attained nirvana there as he took his calls and handled his thronging customers in a peaceful manner. From his broom perch he even tried to make me comfortable by calling for a chair and a cup of tea for me despite my protests. As I was sketching from the edge of a busy road his men even directed traffic around me just so that I could quickly complete my sketch.
The day before the traditional fiscal year ends, there is a tradition of sweeping out the poverty from one’s home at midnight. It is believed that when goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth visits, she seeks the cleanest house. That is why brooms are the fastest selling items that day.
As I sketched this market over a period of a few months it was interesting to note how this vendor’s wares changed with the ever changing festivals and societal demands. For the festival of Diwali he sold brooms. For the Ganesh festival he sold all shapes and sizes of pedestals for the idols. During the Dussehra festival he only sold marigolds.
Rangoli and Diya’s
At first it was the colors that drew me to sketch this stall. The vibrant rangoli colors, the sieves for creating rangoli patterns and all types of earthen Diyas up for sale looked so attractive.
Traditionally, Rangoli is an art of decoration drawn on the floor or the entrances of homes. It is thought to bring good luck, prosperity to the home and family. Also a great way to welcome guests. Even now beautifully decorated entrances with its Diya’s herald in Diwali.
This makeshift stall was set up by Akshay, a ninth grader and his grandmother, with bricks and overturned crates on the pavement outside Mandai market to display their Diwali ware. As they swept the pavement for the setup I had to jump around a bit to escape the dust thrown up. Even in a messy polluted area they tried to create a clean spot for their stall. Akshay then settled down to chat with me about his studies and his part time support of his grandmother just for the festive sales.
Burud Ali or the craft bazar of Mandai is full of lanterns for sale.These bamboo lanterns are woven on site and can be customised as per demand. The children after their studies help their parents with the sales.
These life size bamboo lanterns are in great demand by politicians. Greetings of the season with a political message is printed on flex. The lanterns are draped with the flex prints and then hung high up over the streets of their constituencies.
Killas or forts
Frequentising at the Mandai market for sketching this festival I learnt something new about our culture. These ready made forts (also called killas in the local language) are unique to Diwali celebrations in Pune. They are replicas of hill forts built and captured by Shivaji Maharaj when he founded the Maratha empire.This empire existed from 1674 to 1818 in present day India. At its peak, the empire’s territories covered 250 million acres (1 million km²) or one-third of South Asia. Hill forts played a key role in Shivaji’s strategy in founding his empire. Shivaji Maharaj owned some 240–280 forts at the time of his death.
Traditionally these forts are recreated in mud by kids for Diwali. As a sign of the changing times pre-manufactured ones are also available for this festival. Identifying the different forts and playing with them is part of the Pune Diwali culture. Pride in our heritage is instilled in the children through play.
Third day of Diwali, there was a huge demand for these sugarcane stalks for the Lakshmi Pooja. Many fly by night operators descend on Mandai market lugging these stalks around. It was a sight to watch as shoppers and scooterists deftly ducked as the sugarcane porters rushed up and down the street to replenish stock. To earn an extra buck many people with regular jobs moonlight as salesmen for the festival days.
Bhai Dooj threads
Fatima, this roadside vendor on the pavements of Mandai market, came from Aurangabad to sell the threads she had been making for the past 4 months for this day of the festival. Bhai Dooj is the last day of Diwali when a sister promises to protect her brother. These threads are given to the brother to wrap round his waist. It is also given to all the male members of the family.The fruits and betel leaves are used for the Pooja performed for all days of Diwali.
Ganesh festival is celebrated with much fanfare in Pune. Lokmanya Tilak, a revered freedom fighter from Pune , turned this celebration from an individual private one, to a public one, to encourage nationalism.This fusion of religious and social fervour is most obvious in the celebration of this festival at Mandai when all communities come together to celebrate it.
Signs of the festive season
Few days before the Ganesh festival, Burud Ali, Mandai’s very own 24 hr craft bazaar started buzzing. People started coming to order and buy bamboo pedestals for the installation of the Ganesh idol. The demand from individual buyers had increased exponentially as this year there was a curb on public celebrations.
The pedestals for the Ganesh festival are created on the pavements of Mandai’s Burud Ali. The ctraftspeople work from the pavements with no protection from the weather elements, and no creature comforts.They prefer to live in their makeshift homes here though they do own houses elsewhere.
The lady in my sketch said this was a skill they never lost. She said they have cases where craftspeople continued to practise their craft despite losing their eyesight at an advanced age.
These creative bamboo pedestals ranged from Rs 300/= (approx 3 $) to Rs 3000/- ( approx 39 $) in a variety of shapes and sizes.
The festive season’s hottest selling items are then dressed up in a variety of fabrics, flowers and decorated richly by the customers who buy them before they install the idol in their home.
Another sign of the upcoming festival is the scaffolding that came up in front of the temple of Akhil Ganpati Mandal of Mandai. This was to create a skeleton for a canopy to be fitted over the busy street in front of the temple. Despite all this activity the traffic continued unabated.
In Maharashtra a social group formed to preserve the culture of its people is called Mandal. In its 129 th year the Akhil Mandai Ganpati is one of the oldest mandals in Pune. A unique papier mache Sharda Ganesh idol installed in its temple makes it one of Pune’s earliest eco-friendly idols.The mandal sees thousands of devotees thronging it every year during Ganesh Festival.
Immersion of the Ganesh idol on the tenth and last day of the festival is called Visarjan in the local language. This is to symbolize the cycle of life.
A few days before the Ganesh festival began, I saw these huge faded stage props laid out in the temple courtyard. This indicated that the festival was around the corner.These props had been used for many previous festivals and instead of spending money again on new decorations, the temple decided to recycle the old ones.
On the 8th day of the festival I saw some action again. The stage decorators spray painted the elephants blue and enhanced the designs on it with red. I got a chance to sketch them as they worked.
Due to Covid restrictions no processions for the immersion of the idol were allowed. Normally on the last day of the festival, the bigger than life main idol is taken with much fanfare in a procession for a symbolic immersion in the river. Instead this time a small eco-friendly idol representing the main idol was going to be immersed in a big bowl of water displayed on top of a huge stage. set up in the temple courtyard The stage was flanked by two big elephant heads, placed on either side of a staircase at the back of the stage leading to the immersion bowl. The stairs were draped in red satin. Dark cloth was draped all around the base of the stage.
Garlands of fresh marigolds were then attached to the cloth draped around the stage. Many people hired by the temple and many of the voluntary members of the mandal worked hard to get the stage ready on time.
Even little kids were part of the action as they sat chopping up flowers that were used in the flower rangoli for the pathway. This flower-strewn pathway leads to the visarjan bowl. By 6 pm everything was ready.
The celebrations were restricted to only the mandal members who were issued identity cards in conformity with Covid restrictions on the number of people allowed at a gathering. Even then it was a big crowd. After the Aarti the little Eco friendly Ganesh idol was brought to be immersed in the bowl on the stage. Phones flashed relentlessly as the idol was brought from the temple to the stage.
The immersion was accompanied with a lot of clapping, drumming and chanting and lifting friends on their shoulders as they danced. Yet unlike the previous years this was a subdued celebration that ended within 10 mins of the immersion of the idol. This was in stark contrast to the approx 12 hours it took for the immersion in yesteryears . Actually I loved this environment friendly, relatively calmer conclusion to the festival.
Platform design of stalls
The temporary market for vegetables and fruits held on open grounds during the Peshwa era was relocated to a permanent structure during British rule. After the construction of a new market named after the British governor Lord Reay in 1836, a new market system was introduced to Pune. Before this there was no storage or structure needed for selling goods. Vendors displayed their products on the ground with no clearly demarcated places for their wares.
Lord Reay market, now called Mandai, sprawls over 1.05 acres. One of the new methods of vending during the British era was to seat the vendors on a platform, at a height of 3 to 4 ft. This gave a clear view of all the products when anyone entered the market from any of its 8 entrances. The raised platforms also help in easier loading and unloading especially if the products are brought in or taken out in baskets on the porters head. The storage area with ventilation holes beneath the platforms was a new concept when the market was built 136 years ago.
The platforms were introduced to Indian vendors by the British, but it’s interesting how the Indians adapted this to their own sensibilities and utility. Strong colors are now used to distinguish the stalls. Coconut stall No 287 has turquoise coloured boxes stacked on the platforms while Stall No 288 has yellow colored boxes. These boxes are arranged on the platforms to maximise the display of the coconuts even while providing storage. The topmost box has a picture of the stall owner’s favoured deity who he prays to before starting his work. The surfaces of these boxes are also used to pin calendars or notices on. Qr code stickers for digital payments are also pasted on them.
It’s interesting to see this fourth generation coconut stall vendor sitting sideways in this arrangement. He did not face the customer as the other vendors do. He shells the coconuts continuously, collecting the husk at his feet.This arrangement makes it easy to stack the shelled coconuts as all the shelves are within reach. With one hand he can handover the coconut to the customer and with the other hand he opens the money drawer which is right in front of him to complete the cash transactions.
These potato and onion stores have graded their products in terms of quality and the place they come from. To enhance the customer experience extra stools are used to display the products closer to where the customer stands. At the end of the day the stools are also stored below the platforms.
Mandai stall owners have a very strong bond with their customers. This red chair was removed from the storage under the platform.It is used by many elderly loyal customers to rest on while shopping . The team of husband and wife store owners then pack their orders.
The storage in the platform was designed in such a way that a man could comfortably crawl around in it. That way he could reach right into the back to pull out his goods easily.
To climb to the platform above it, there is a wooden step with iron brackets at the side of each stall. These are from the colonial era and are still in good condition.
The storage spaces beneath the platforms were designed to keep the goods and personal items of the vendors safe and secure. Each storage unit can be locked.
The height of the platforms in the fresh vegetables section are almost a foot lower than the fruit stall platforms. This may have been as customers like to choose their veggies from up close.The storage space in the fresh greens section is in a very dilapidated condition. Their poor design, materials and construction, indicate that these are extensions hacked together by the vendors many years later.
The weights used in the weighing scales are checked by the municipal authorities every month, to make sure they are accurate. Outside the market, the fruits and vegetables are available at a cheaper rate but there is a possibility the customers can be cheated there on two fronts, the quality and the weight. In the market, the quality checks ensure the customer will never be cheated.
Here one can identify the platform on the left as a later addition. The woodwork pattern is more contemporary, unlike the old platforms on the right. The icon on the money collection box on the top of the counter is called Mahakal nazar battu. The purpose of this icon is to ward off the evil eye.
In 2018 India demonetised currency notes of Rs 1000/- and Rs 500/-. This pushed a lot of people to start using digital payment platforms. It was fascinating to see even the uneducated vendors in Mandai, displaying the QR code prominently for digital payments. This is the new age digital platform used in Mandai.
Repurposed Stall platforms
The old colonial platform design was repurposed for this Vada pav stall to support an electric glass case to keep the Vadas ( batter fried spicy potato mix) hot and store the bread. The platform also works as casual seating for some favoured customers or friends. Most customers stood and ate this fast food item, drank water and washed their hands from the filter can kept at the side . Not having comfortable seating actually ensured a constant flow of customers who ate while standing and left quickly to make place for more customers.
Instead of horses that were used during the colonial times, scooters and motorcycles are now used to ferry the products directly to the stall within the market. Sometimes these vehicles even serve as an extra storage space for the stall.
Mandai stalls are well spaced out and have broad pathways between the stalls. It’s quite common to see the stall owners park their vehicles within the market. At first I thought this bike belonged to one of the vendors, but was surprised to learn this area was used as a free parking spot by someone who knew the market well.
Due to many factors certain areas of the market look abandoned or have very little footfall. The owners of these stalls now prefer to sell their wares on the curb outside the market and use their stalls in the market as a storage space only. The migrant labour in the market use the platforms of these stalls for rest, sleep and a place to eat their meagre meals peacefully.
Vintage signs of Mandai
These vintage signs tell a compelling story of a bygone era. While the new signs share the same basic information like name, number and address as the old ones, they are missing a very unique piece – an image The beautiful hand lettered creative fonts have also been replaced by standardised fonts taking away some of the charm and creating a much more cookie cutter experience.
Stall No 229
An elaborate still life painting used as a sign for a fruit stall fascinated me. One of the vendors told me that the owner of this stall had passed on. He said the deceased owner had been, both a businessman and a passionate painter. The late owner had painted his own signage that reflected his aesthetics and interests.
In this signage all the little details like the dress of the little girl, the telephone, the curtains, the layout of the fruits, clearly indicated the era this work was done in. In this painting the little girl is seen holding a rotary telephone receiver to her ear that most probably did not come to Pune till the early 1900’s.
Stall No 230
This fruit stall sign too was done by the same businessman/artist.The painting depicts Dr Ambedkar, who was the architect of our Indian constitution, handing over the constitution to the first president of independent India, Dr Rajendra Prasad.
In this work on the right of our president are three men. Their uniforms are from the three sections of the newly independent Indian armed forces. Whereas on the left hand are two men representing the colonial armed forces.
Funnily enough, one vendor in the market who was giving me some information about the paintings, described them as “Simon“. I had only read this nickname for the British forces in school textbooks. A famous cry of the Indian independence movement was “Simon go home!”. It was odd that he should choose to call them by this nickname 75 years after independence.
This fruit stall signage was a unique testament to the patriotism of the artist. It showed so much personal character of the owner of the stall and made this signage so striking.
A Ganesh idol in front of a sign that had his mythological father Lord Shiva painted behind him, looked like a perfect composition for my sketch. While the idol looked freshly made for the Ganesh festival, the painting of Lord Shiva in the signage looked like it had been done in the mid 1900’s.
At first it seemed like a random choice of subjects in this sign with a painting of a banana tree on the left and a painting of Lord Shiva on the right. There seemed to be no connection between the two. It was only after reading the stall name, that it made sense. The name of the stall Vishwanath Bholanath Yadav was most probably the owner’s name and Bholanath was also a synonym for Lord Shiva. The banana tree on the left represented the fruits sold there.
This sign still has a faded six digit contact number on it with a rotary phone sign on the bottom left hand side reminiscent of Pune in the 1940’s whereas now the telephone landline numbers have 8 digits. Even these landline numbers are now being replaced with mobile numbers. A sign of how the city has changed with time.
The next sign depicts a farmer’s family in rural India working hard to grow the best fruits. This stall is where the family comes to sell the fruits directly to its customers straight from the farm. Besides the stall owners’ names, the text and visuals emphasize the fresh produce and its health benefits.
Stall No 234
Farex is a popular food for babies and infants and was introduced in India in the early 1900’s by Glaxo, a British company.
Stall No 234 had this baby as part of its signage. Again the choice of a baby that represented baby food in a fruit stall sign was perplexing. Maybe the iconic Farex baby was used to equate the stall products too with good health.
I also realised this was a rare sign, as this stall was the only one whose name was in both Marathi and English. Due to colonisation, signages were in English as per the requirements of the rulers. After India got its independence, people wanted to show they were proud of their heritage and freedom. This sign reflects the gradual shift from colonisation to an independent India by having the stall name in both the languages.
Ripple effect of a historic market
Sketching these vintage signs made me think about how our society is evolving. These signs speak of our history and contrast it with our today. When we were kids, we used to speak both in English and Marathi but now people have moved back to primarily speaking their own local language. Not knowing the language would really make it hard to read the signs of today.
Stall signs now
The signage now is dry with nothing appealing or unique about it. The vintage signs also played with the fonts. Some hand lettered fonts had outlines or shadows, Some were stretched, shortened and creatively adapted to the layout by the artist.
In a way this is a parallel to how we advanced as a society. It is individualism vs mass production. Yet in the present environment with no additional time to spend on handcrafted work, we still have these remnants of a bygone era hanging over everyone walking through the market. Maybe giving joy to people like me who enjoy seeing snippets of the past. I want to, through this work, bring it to a larger audience so that we can once again have appreciation for these individualised personal expressions.
The changing skyline of Mandai Market
Gate No 1
Digging the road to build the Pune metro has just started. I sketched this while doing a balancing act on a pile of rubble as Pune marked a new milestone. Chaotic traffic continues to flow around as people quickly adjust to new realities.
Before this area of the market got cordoned off, huge pipes were brought in for the Pune metro work.
Gate No 8
Access to this dairy shop in Mandai market was restricted due to the metro work. The gate that led to this shop had been closed but business continued as usual. The owners put planks near both sides of the fenced wall. This helped to elevate them on the side of the wall near their shop to pass the product parcel over the wall and to take the money from the customers on the other side of the wall.
As the market gets cordoned off with construction sheets less and less can be seen, except for the tops of the cranes.
Gate No 3
The cranes poking their heads above the rooftops and locked gates looked like modern age dinosaurs.
Gate No 2
As these cranes started positioning themselves around the market, we knew some things will never be the same again.
Ripple effect of a historic market
Mandai’s majestic structure can be seen from every approach road around it despite the rising skyline of Pune. With an underground metro station planned underneath Mandai market, a skywalk has been proposed around the market. We may never see Mandai again in all its glory from the roads, but we may see it up close from the skywalk.
As I sketch here, every month I see something different. Some changes are temporary and some have far reaching effects. This market is 136 years old and it has created its own ecosystem which continues to attract new development. Adapting and evolving continuously from the pre-independence era, yet again the Pune metro demands change. This place is the economic centre of the city and thousands of people flow through it for their daily needs. It’s location being chosen as an important metro station is a testament to its influence on society. Will it continue to retain its beauty and influence or will the march of time and new age development diminish it, is yet to be seen.
When the Covid lockdown ended I was shocked to see how the areas around the market had been cleared for the metro. It looked like the street vendors would disappear but they just found new ways to display their wares. I thought people would stop coming to the market but the crowds never diminished and the people found a way to work around the obstructions. I expected the vendors in the market to resist the change but surprisingly they look forward to the changes the Pune metro would bring them. As for me I document the changes and hope for a better future with Mandai still holding court.