Having visited over 80 countries, the purpose behind Ansoo Gupta’s travels is understanding every destination a little bit more. Through engaging with local culture, immersing herself in local history, supporting local businesses, and experiencing local cuisines and lifestyles, she enjoys learning about the different ways people inhabit their lives. “There are billions of us on this planet. So many countries and cultures and we all have our own unique way of living and they’re all so beautiful. That’s my primary motive of travelling, to go and see how people live,” she told Firstpost in a recent conversation.
This is also the mindset she promotes through her initiative One Shoe Trust, conducting workshops about mindful and sustainable travel. “You only want to go to the top 10 places. So that’s one of the things [we cover], to tell people not to fall for the fad of travel, and to travel in a way that really connects with your soul.”
This type of travel, that focuses on exploration and connection instead of only ticking places off a bucket list, means one doesn’t necessarily have to travel thousands of kilometres. “You can be a traveller in your own neighbourhood,” she says, calling it “backyard tourism” — an experience that might gain even more relevance in a world whose fight against the coronavirus pandemic is still far from over.
The curiosity and sense of wonder in discovering the unfamiliar within the familiar led Gupta to explore her own neighbourhood, and about four years ago, she founded the Bandra Neighbourhood Project, as part of which she’s been photographing bungalows and other historic sites of the suburb.
In Bandra’s winding history, from its time as a fishing village inhabited by the Kolis to the Portuguese settlers and then the British East India Company taking over, these bungalows, most constructed during the Portuguese time, serve as small portals to its historic eras. “We all know that Bandra was a part of the Portuguese colony, but there were these bungalows that are historical symbols of a time gone by,” she says. “I would always feel like it was transporting me to a very old time.”
She decided to start recording these bungalows’ existence through photographing them, since despite their historical value they aren’t considered heritage sites, and consequently are not cared for or given governmental attention. “I keep joking about this with my friends, that 20 years from now when the government is looking for historical pictures of Bandra, my album will be the only one they will have!” Gupta says.
Besides the bungalows, Gupta has also been piecing together other evidence of Bandra’s history. Though information on the subject is scarce, she’s been speaking with old families in the vicinity and looking at internet sources. And through losing herself in Bandra’s many small lanes and residential areas, Gupta has identified pockets in the now-cosmopolitan suburb that still reflect its history. Though none of the early villages are marked for instance, she’s located several original hamlets of Bandra, including Sherly, Rajan, Boran, and Chuim. “You can actually make out that yes, this was a small little village square where people used to congregate.”
Applying this historical lens, she also organises walks which help Bandra come alive in the mind as a buzzing, ever-changing landscape. From the Pali Hill area being a British club to St. Andrew’s being one of the first churches the Portuguese established and the Holy Family Hospital area being a horse stable, Gupta narrates the changes that fascinate her, noting: “There are so many stories. Because in history, layers upon layers keep building.”
Post-colonialism, Bandra has continued to change. Gupta, who’s been a resident there for 15 years, has noticed a massive shift in the vibe and mood of the area in just the past five-odd years. “The whole vibe was very laid back and European, if I can use the word. Not too much noise, the pace of life was slow, there were nice small eateries… Now there’s so much happening all the time. Bandra is always jammed. There are so many more people, vehicles, so much more noise, activity, commercialisation.” What used to be a quaint abode for artists and hipsters is today another hub of commercialisation, the vibe essentially shifting, rapidly, from peaceful, artistic village to loud and traffic-jammed urban city.
But like its older histories, Bandra has also found space for this more recent history, with pockets boasting street art and quirky little stores in narrow by-lanes. Like Veronica street, for instance. “The moment you step into those areas you are immediately transported somewhere else," Gupta points out.
While today Bandra is touted as a cosmopolitan area with enticing real estate, and as an area which is home to several celebrities, “in the midst of all this glitz and glamour, there are these small pockets which actually retain their old charm.”
And the element that’s intrinsic to this charm is that “it’s still quite green.” Even as some of the bungalows Gupta has clicked have been razed to make space for high rises, and the fibre of the area keeps changing, Bandra’s trees — among the area's oldest residents — stand testimony to it all. And as most of the Bandra Neighbourhood Project’s photos reflect, Bandra’s greenery is ever-present and closely tied in with its identity, uniquely defining this "Queen of the Suburbs".
— All photos are part of the Bandra Neighbourhood Project. Courtesy Ansoo Gupta.