Kolis are amongst the oldest communities living in our ever changing, ever diversifying and all-accepting city. But in the recent years the community has sensed a threat to their sustenance mainly due to excessive fishing by large trawlers reducing the catch of the smaller fishermen and competition in terms of delivery of the fish from the new players in the market.
No wonder then that Pravin Bhave of the Koli Festival Sanstha says, “The festival is a lever for the community to reassert itself and its value to the city”. Being held for the third year in a row, the Koli Sea Food festival is a part of the larger Mumbai festival, albeit with its own characteristics and USP.
Enter Versova village and follow the road to the community ground, and you get surprised at the scale of the festivities. The festival was spread out over an entire football field with another ground just for adequate parking. Bhave acknowledges the crowds and mentions, “Yes, there have been some issues with traffic management. But the crowds this year have been phenomenal, with around 10,000 people attending everyday. In fact we have people coming in from as far as Thane.”
Now, to get to the food: with over two dozen stalls cooking every possible fish found in the waters around Mumbai, there was no way anyone could have left the festival feeling hungry. There were prawns, surmai, lobsters, crabs, bombil, shellfish etc and even packets of dry fish was on sale. But, if you still felt like being a veggie, then there was a reasonable choice of sabjis with rotis, dahi-wadas and multiple sweet dishes on the menu.
Says Ajeeta Bhatia, a resident of Yari Road, “After an evening walk, dinner was supposed to be just soup and salad. But a slight deviation into the festival grounds and I am now going back home with parcels of fish pakodas, prawns biryani, surmai fry and even a sample of Bombay duck with garlic chutney!”
If the crowds and the number of dishes weren’t enough, the innovativeness of some items on the menu brought astounded looks on most of the faces. Where else would you get to sample prawns pizza and shark kheema! Rajhans Tapke, also from the Koli Festival Sansha explains, “We have to learn to move with the times. If Mac Donald’s can introduce burgers to us, then we can also fuse pizzas with prawns. It is necessary for us to do this to popularise fish as a cuisine and to encourage people to explore the multiple options possible.”
The stall owners couldn’t agree more. Almost all the women of each extended family that were managing their family stalls were dressed impeccably, often in colour coordinated silk sarees, with layers of gold necklaces and green bangles. Mandar Patil, while drawing people in with his perfect English to his family’s stall number 5 says, “Our earnings do go up during the three days of the festival. But we also put in a lot of effort for the same. All the fish here is fresh catch of today morning, most from the coast off Versova village, and almost all my family members are here to help me in order to run the stall.” However unlike Bhave and Tapke, who are aiming to hold the Festival biannually from next year, Mandar feels once a year is just fine. “I work in the hotel industry, and have had to take the weekend off to help around here,” he adds with a smile!
Along with the food, the highlight of the last day was the Koli dance competition, with participation from Koli communities in Versova, Bandra, Cuffe Parade, Vashi and Thane. Enjoying the gyrating, hip swinging dances were David Houston and his family from Perth, Australia. On a three week vacation in India, David who is a prawns and lobster fisherman by profession, was tucking into a spicy Bombay Duck and appreciating the concept. Finding a similarity he says, “Even back home, at the beginning of the fishing season we have a feast wherein a priest blesses our boats with holy water, praying for a good catch in the days to come.”
When communities and cultures depend upon nature for their livelihood, then the word globalisation doesn’t seem to be alien, even if they are situated half way across the globe, separated by the same magnificent seas on which they all depend! Barobar na?
The Koli Sea Food Festival was held at Versova from January 18-21 and will move on to Cuffe Parade from January 26-28