Photo essay: The micro-economies of Bhendi Bazaar

A photo essay tracing the several micro-economies of Bhendi Bazaar, that make it what it is today and the impact of redevelopment on the community.

Bhendi Bazaar is situated between Mohammed Ali road and Khetwadi in South Mumbai. It is home to several micro-economies that cater to the needs of the communities living in the area. 

Interestingly, one of the etymological theories of the name ‘Bhendi Bazaar’ comes from the British era. According to Murtaza Sadriwala, Media Coordinator of the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust (SBUT), when the British lived on the Southern side of Crawford Market, the Northern side was referred to as ‘Behind the Bazaar’, which over time was colloquially pronounced as Bhendi Bazaar. This was phonetically similar to the Hindi word for Okra (Bhindi). Contrary to popular belief, Bhendi Bazaar is not a vegetable market, and was developed as a ‘chawl’, in a dormitory fashion.

The chawls were designed to house single men who had moved to the city to earn a livelihood in Mumbai’s booming economy, in the 1920’s. Slowly, entire families moved into the chawls. This ‘forced closeness’ resulted in a distinct community culture.

Read more: Has urban planning in Mumbai failed?

The shops here primarily serve Muslim residents, who make for a majority of the Bhendi Bazaar population. While the Dawoodi Bohras and Sunni muslims reside in a mutually exclusive manner, with separate residential complexes and separate shops, an interesting mix of culture and urbanisation is evident. The locality has historically been a foam, timber, wood and textile market, but now also hosts sweet shops, kebab shops and clothing shops that sell ‘Ridas’ for women, and ‘topis’ and ‘Saya Kurtas’ for men. Some have recently redeveloped, or are in transit to get permanent possession of their own shops.

Some of the most popular shops here are Shabbir’s Tawakkal Sweets, Taj Ice-cream, and Firoz Farsan, amongst other smaller book vendors, religious ornament vendors, etc. All of them contribute to the Bazaar’s economy in different ways, some cater to exclusive communities and, for some, the market is a bustling area with more customers and, hence, a larger footfall.

series of snack and sweet shops on a street in Bhendi Bazaar
Farsan shops in Bhendi Bazaar exist in large numbers. This culture developed when the Borah Muslims first came to Gujarat through missionaries about a thousand years ago. A Gujarati influence is evident in their food as well as their language.
Portrait of the owner of Shabbir's Tawakkal in front of his sweet shop
Moayyad Mithaiwala is the owner of Shabbir’s Tawakkal, Bhendi Bazaar’s most popular sweet shop known for its jalebis and aflatoon. “I am a little worried about where they (SBUT) will situate my new shop. A walk-in retail enterprise such as Tawakkal will only get business on the ground floor. It’s unfortunate that we don’t get a say in where our shops are located. But this corner shop that we got as transit accommodation has been working out pretty well for us.”
Man stands in the window of his newly redeveloped house with a view of the cityscape.
Saifuddin Lokhandwala, a Rida seller, got his permanent shop in the shopping complex of the redeveloped Phase 1 of Bhendi Bazaar on the first floor. “For me, it was a question of convenience and quality of life. Living in the redeveloped Bhendi Bazaar has improved our lifestyle. We live in our own homes with continuous water supply, good security personnel in the building and a great view! My shop is in the same premises too, which has made my life much easier” said Saifuddin. 
Portrait of a book shop owner, posing with his large collection of books
Saifuddin Yusuf Golwala, a bookseller, sells religious texts, school books and fictional books translated in Lisan al-Dawa, which is a language unique to Dawoodi Bohra Muslims; derived from Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Gujurati. “Living here is not the best, I could move to the Suburbs and live a much better life, but Bhendi Bazaar is where the majority of my clients are, the commute itself would take up most of my time,” he says.
A hand cart full of dates, dried figs, apricots, walnuts and sweets on bhendi Bazaar streets.
All of Mohammed Ali road and Bhendi Bazaar have an abundance of hand carts selling dried fruits; dates, figs, walnuts, apricots.
A social activist's electronic goods and stamp kiosk on a footpath.
Mohammed Lokhandwala is a social activist who helps the youth in battling substance addiction through his electronics kiosk. “The shop acts as a front, people come to me to ask for help with paying hospital bills, or school fees, and I help them in whichever way I can.”
Tailor stitches Burkhas outside a store as women watch
A large amount of Burkha and Rida shops in the area come with just as many tailors.
A big shoe cart with close to 300 pairs of shoes.
Shamsher Ahmed Shah works at a shoe stall on a street that exclusively has shoe stalls. He makes 600 rupees per day and commutes from Kurla. “Everyday we sell about 20-30 pairs of shoes. We source all footwear from nearby wholesale markets and send an inventory to our owner. We roughly make a 5000 rupee profit everyday. We have had this shop for years, and have regular customers and the largest demand for shoes is here. Why would we move elsewhere?”
A hand cart on the main road in the middle of peak traffic.
As the travelling distance for goods from the godown to the shop is only a few metres, a lot of hand carts can be seen in the area. The traffic here makes short distance travel by vehicles unfeasible.

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