It all started in the most unlikely place. A barren warehouse echoing with memories of fishwife voices, sharp as shards of ice from the ice factory next door. Outside, a wall full of smiling portraits of fishermen and women looked at their real selves labouring on the boats and the jetty. The Koli community are the original residents of Mumbai and they are the central point around which the Sassoon Dock Art Project evolved. As it should be.
The docks are 142 years old but this year winds of change have brought a fresh twist to the place. In Sassoon Dock. In a warehouse. In a cutting-edge art project. In sync with the art community across the world that celebrates the hyper local with sensibilities that are increasingly global. Breath-taking murals, thought-provoking installations and a quirky sense of humour lacing the entire space almost as pervasively as the ripe Parfum de Sassoon hung heavy around us. The giant fishbone with hints of Art Deco accents above our heads only served to orient us even deeper to where we were. In Bombay.
It was not just the outpouring of art that was exciting, I was also thrilled with the fact that I was invited to attend one of those legendary secret suppers that have made a landmark of Jude Bakery in Bandra, in yet another surprising space.
After that and the murals in and around Bandra's Waroda Road, this is the second such project in Mumbai, spearheaded by the St+art India Foundation, a not-for-profit urban art festival that brings together Indian and international street artists. Founded in 2014, by bright sparks Arjun Bahl, Hanif Kureshi, Giulia Ambrogi, Akshat Nauriyal and Thanish Thomas, the foundation has successfully completed six other highly acclaimed festivals across Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad and Bengaluru over the last three years. The latest one in Mumbai has the work of 27 Indian and international artists, as well as urban designers and close to 10 emerging artists showcasing their stellar work.
Besides Sassoon Dock, other areas of Mumbai are also part of the Urban Art Festival 2017. The mural featuring Mahatma Gandhi by legendary Brazilian street artist Eduardo already adorns the facade of Churchgate Station; Mahim East is being rejigged as an art district with more colourful common spaces; designer Manish Arora's creative installation festooning Jindal Mansion on Peddar Road; and French artist JR's large‐format paste-up Inside Out Project, which greeted us with the koli portraits lining the warehouse facades at the Sassoon Dock.
From under these evocative faces, thirty of us did a walk through with Guilia Ambrogi, curator of the St+art Urban Art Festival. After that immersive experience, we followed her en masse like a school of migrating fish to where a team from Impresario (the people behind Social) waited to make the big reveal – the secret venue for our sensational supper!
I was stunned when I realised that the dinner venue was going to be inside the Sassoon Dock Gate House, a place I had last visited more than 15 years ago to interview the family that lived in the dingy but quirky house. Now, the restored rooms decked in white paint and dark polished wood literally glowed with a new lease of life. The red theme, replete with matching carnations, scattered rose petals, barware and banners added drama to an already rich canvas.
Drinks and delightful conversations ensued. Until it was time to be ushered into yet another room where the tables were set to welcome us to a meal that promised to be unusual, at the very least. That's because Chef Gresham Fernandes, Impresario's Culinary Director, had joined forces with the unpredictable Chef Bjorn Shen from Singapore to create a special menu for the night!
That night the Singapore Tourism Board and their associates were out in full force. Right from CEO Lionel Yeo to GB Srithar, the Regional Director for South Asia, Middle East and Africa, and Ajit Singh, Consul General of Singapore in India, to a variety of their top artists, DJs, dancers. Everyone was enthusiastic about expressing how Singapore and Mumbai could be considered sister cities in their relationship with the sea, their colonial past, their cultural diversity and their sheer vibrancy. St+art India collaborated with them as well as a host of others (Bonjour India, Institut Français, the JSW Group, cultural institutions and embassies as well as support from Asian Paints and an association with the Mumbai Port Trust, Western Railway, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, etc) on this project. Open to anyone until December 30, it's emphatic about its 'Art for All' premise and encourages everyone to experience the installations.
Served as sharing portions, which we all dug into with gusto, were an assortment of rather radical pairings. Shen's Uncle William's crab curry dip with fried kale and crisp wanton chips was spectacular in the way it balanced umami with zing. And while you wouldn't normally touch charred cabbage with a ten-foot pole, I was quite enamoured by the way they had teamed it with tahini and a very creamy caramelised yoghurt. The varied textures of the grilled halloumi, with the accompanying burnt honeyed carrots and walnuts were pleasing, while the strong flavours of za'atar and basil brought the dish close enough to the Indian palate. Those of you who wished you'd been there, can still get a taste of this terrific fare from the Singapore X menu at a Social closest to you.
Yashodhan Wanage, Deputy Chairman of the Mumbai Port Trust, divulged some rather exciting plans with restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani and his company Impresario. "Apart from this Gate House area, which will now be a venue for similar events, we've also given them four warehouses to transform into unique dining spaces," he shared, while talking about the sea changes proposed for the cruise terminal and other spots with potential. At the inauguration a week before the secret dinner, Sanjay Bhatia, Chairman of the Mumbai Port Trust had announced, "The art project at Sassoon Dock is the first phase of redeveloping the area into a modern fishing harbour by streamlining fishing activities replicating global practices. This initiative is part of the fourth pillar of the Sagarmala project to upgrade all fishing harbours across the country and modernise them. Sassoon Dock is the first step in this direction and will be developed over four phases that will lead to better sanitation and cleanliness along with promoting fish tourism and excursion. The master plan for redevelopment also includes air-conditioned fish market, creche and healthcare facility, open exhibition space and multi-cuisine restaurants."
It's a way to bring Sassoon Dock back into the mindspace of Mumbai and for Mumbaikars to reclaim a part of the city that had (largely) remained forgotten for a long time except by residents nearby.
(The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.)