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Requiem for a Dream

Naresh Fernandes’ 'Taj Mahal Foxtrot' is a testimonial to a Bombay that once cherished cosmopolitanism and freedom. He tells Chaya Babu about the city’s romance with jazz, and points to its increasing intellectual and cultural parochialism

CHAYA BABU  15th Jan 2012

A.B. Albuquerque plays the cello at a film recording, in early 1940s

n a balmy late summer evening, while Marine Drive was choked from the swell of people immersing their Ganapatis in the shadowy waters of Chowpatty, a friend suggested a detour to kill time. Mischievous and a little smug, he said he'd divulge a little-known Bombay secret, a hidden gem of a jazz club that even the most cultured residents would be unable to share.

Moments later, I watched a waiter crush brown sugar cubes into my Old Fashioned at the tony black-and-white Eau Bar at the Oberoi, embarrassed of my casual attire and slightly confused. While, yes, there was George at the piano and a woman in a gown with a sultry voice, this was not what I had imagined. Where I had expected something dark, smoky, and gritty-sexy, there was the gleaming, polished marble of one of Mumbai's more exclusive cocktail dens. Underground jazz haunt? A little bit of a stretch.

I figured I shouldn't be so disappointed. An American musical art form indigenous to late 19th century New Orleans and steeped in the black and Creole history of the Jim Crow south, jazz in Bombay — or in India at all — seemed a bit of a misfit. Naresh Fernandes thought so too, before he spent eight years working on Taj Mahal Foxtrot, a book released late last year about the city's three decade long love affair with jazz.

Jazz symbolised a Bombay that embraced racial, religious, and economic difference, a dismissal of boundaries which now keep people from pushing themselves to explore uncharted realms of ingenuity.

In his book, Fernandes weaves through details of the lives, talents, and performances of legends such as Leon Abbey, Ken Mac, Chic Chocolate, Rudy Cotton, Teddy Weatherford, and others. He takes the reader to the stage at The Taj, the ballroom at Green's Hotel, Mehboob Studio, and the musicians' homes where jam sessions took place.  He conjures "the feeling" — not merely the spirit of spontaneity and creativity of making music, but also the unifying energy of a passion shared by rich and poor alike.Image 2nd

"The book uses jazz as a prism to look at a certain kind of Bombay between the '30s and '60s, sort of just before Independence and just after Independence, and I was quite fascinated by the role that the city's elite played in shaping a vision of the city but also how that vision translated down," Fernandes says. "Even though jazz in the '30s was a form performed in luxury hotels, in 15 years it had already made its way to Hindi films. And so what was seen as the preserve of a few actually became familiar to millions, and I was interested in that movement up and down. I was interested in what I believe was an inclusive vision that Bombay had of itself."

The wistfulness Fernandes feels about an earlier time and what he believes was a drastically different place is palpable. Much of his work looks at the soul of cities, how citizens empathise for their destitute and demonstrate unity in moments of crisis, and the deeply democratic notion of a structure or art form appreciated publicly across the breadth of society. To him, jazz symbolised a Bombay that embraced racial, religious, and economic difference, a dismissal of boundaries which now keep people from pushing themselves to explore uncharted realms of ingenuity.Image 3rd

On New Years' Eve, Fernandes posted a photo on Facebook. There are 25 of his relatives packed into the frame. The caption reads: "Four generations of my family have gathered from as many continents. It's like the United Colours of Bandra." Similar to his view that the music and its improvisation mirrored the openness of the city, the snapshot is a reflection of the mixing of cultures and heritage that took place in the middle of the century.

His surname reveals his Portuguese roots on his father's side. His paternal lineage descends from Goa through Mozambique, Burma, and Karachi. Meanwhile his mother's side, which Fernandes refers to as 'East Indians,' a term that actually means Christians from Bombay, has little memory for any other place. His father worked for the Tatas and his mother took care of the home and three children; together they built a life in a house that was later demolished to develop the apartment complex with a French name where the writer resides today.

"When you go down, the name board is all full of Fernandeses, and this was pretty much the pattern on this street," he says, explaining the sustained kinship amongst the people whose histories are firmly ingrained in the land to the right and left of us, settled mostly in the 1930s by his neighbours' ancestors. More than this sense of community, Fernandes is nostalgic for the way his father, though one of the few in his generation who had attended college, was oblivious to how this may have granted him and his family a position of greater social privilege. "There was no real division between anybody because nobody had a great deal of money," he says. "Now as everybody has more money, all these striations of class become more apparent, and there's a desire to reaffirm that you are affluent."Image 4th

The themes of class and colour are substantial threads in Fernandes' narrative. His marker of the start of Bombay's jazz age is the 1935 arrival of the first all-black outfit, Leon Abbey's band, and he tells of how, despite colonialism's oppression of India's own brown-skinned people, these musicians rarely suffered overt discrimination. "I'm not sure if it was being American or if it was being jazz musicians," he says. "All these Goan guys wanted to 'play like negroes.' To be African-American embodied a certain sense of freedom... the jazz spirit of improvising, of being easy." To the urbane upper crust of Bombay, blackness represented an internationalism that made them feel as sophisticated as those in London and Paris, and it thus transcended hierarchical constructs. To Fernandes, this "conspicuous cosmopolitanism" is a thing of the past.

Having graduated from the Times Center for Media Studies in Delhi in 1989, Fernandes' professional drive was grounded in ambitious yet romantic ideas about the impact of journalism. "There was this sense that if you wrote about it, you changed the world, and that's what I wanted to be a part of," he says.

He began his career writing about the 1992-93 religious riots, after which he covered crime for the Times of India. Later he followed his curiosity about the closures of the textile mills, land reuse, and urban planning. He co-edited Bombay Meri Jaan, an anthology to which he contributed a piece that led to his stumbling upon the vibrant legacy of jazz and its surprising significance to Bombay. "No focus, no focus," he laughs, alluding to his 20-year-long path of jumping from one topic to another. But it's clear that he's been consistent in immersing himself in stories about his native city. In his apartment, an entire wall is covered with shelves of books on Bombay, as well as political paraphernalia like figurines and bobble-heads of Gandhi and Ambedkar.Image 5th

At the heart of Fernandes' current musings are the changes he sees in the societal value system that go against the fundamentals of a true democracy. He's harshly critical of the relatively recent development of exclusivity as an ideal to which to aspire in modern Bombay. It negates compassion as well as room for artistic experimentation, the kind that led to musical greatness in the period depicted in Foxtrot. "We've lost our empathy for people of other classes, and we're shutting ourselves behind walls, everything's happening in malls," he says. He contrasts this with the time when public spaces were celebrated — even while jazz lived primarily in Colaba's glamorous ballrooms, Bombay's most famous and recognisable feature was Marine Drive or the Gateway, not the Taj, and the music was enjoyed even on the streets.

"Contemporary Bombay, however, is not only doing its best to choke the spaces in which the quirky and the eccentric can survive, it has also lost its ability to agree on a central melody," Fernades writes in the preface of the book. He is profoundly concerned with the city's need to find its voice of freedom once again, one that leaps across our self-imposed barriers, in order to truly be a world-class metropolis.

"I have a stake in this city, right?" he says. "As Bombay rises or falls, so do I."


Naresh Fernandes's Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age has been published by Roli Books.

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