Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The City that Never Sleeps

Prabhakar Mundkur looks back at the days when the city was Bombay and its nightlife was swinging

“I wanna wake up in the city that never sleeps,” wailed Frank Sinatra in that old jazz standard New York, New York. Although Liza Minelli first sang it in the Martin Scorsese film, New York, New York in 1977.

In many ways, those words fit old Bombay like a glove, until the administration decided to clamp down on its vibrant nightlife. Unfortunately the puritanical Morarji Desai took over as Chief Minister of Bombay in 1952, and imposed prohibition on our lovely city, but somehow even that never damped the spirit of Bombay. The 50s was the jazz age of Mumbai with Berry’s, La Bella, (Dhanraj Mahal) Venice at Astoria Hotel, The Ritz and several others. I am told by older musicians that they used to wait at a street corner at Dhobi Talao to get booked for gigs. These were the days when a large part of South Bombay was the capital of Art Deco. 

I was born in the early 50s so this was a little before my time, but as a teenager I enjoyed the Bombay of the 60s. The highlight of the morning sessions at Venice at Astoria Hotel was the Lone Trojan, or Biddu Appaya who would enthrall us with his solo act. These were innocent days because all we did was drink Cokes and eat sandwiches while we enjoyed the music. 

The word discotheque made its way into our vocabulary in the 60s. While the word itself sounded quite ‘in’ in those days, it owes it origins to French where it means a library of songs. For us it meant a place to dance to pop music with its accompaniment of dark lighting and the rotating strobe ball which was usually placed on top of the dance floor. 

While most discotheques depended on their business from the crowds who would visit them at night, there was a day discotheque at Kala Ghoda called the Bullock Cart. It was a favourite among us college students, because it offered the respite of a dark place even if it was sunny outside.

From left, Prabhakar Mundkur, Bashir Sheikh, Remo Fernandes and Ralph Pais
From left, Prabhakar Mundkur, Bashir Sheikh, Remo Fernandes and Ralph Pais

Perhaps the first discotheque to open in Mumbai and perhaps the country was the Blow Up at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. It was almost the last piece of decadence offered by the Taj as a hangover of a bygone era. I was a member of the band called the Savages at that time, and we were invited to do a month’s gig in August of 1968. A well-known Sri Lankan band called The Jetliners, in around June of the same year. I still remember the manager of the Blow Up was a swarthy moustache and went by the name of Menon. We used to play half an hour sets every night. The Blow Up attracted all of Bombay’s glitterati. Since the band stand was a raised platform I had a bird’s eye view of the celebrities dancing there with gay abandon. 

One of our next gigs was at the Talk of the Town. This had a unique atmosphere because the audience had serious diners and people who had dropped in for a drink. Talk of the Town always had a band or two in the evening. Over time, it seems to have lost its charm or it may be just that audiences have changed over time. Live music for one is not as popular as it used to be. Its transition to Jazz by the Bay was a bit of relaunch that stayed well with the spirit of the place. But its transformation to Pizza by the Bay negates all its beautiful history. 

Studio 29 on Marine Drive became the place to party in the early 80s. The crowd was eclectic. Famous models, film stars and other celebrities made their way there. It was the place to be. 

Nightlife has generally changed a lot in Mumbai. I can’t think of a place where I can have a good dinner and listen to some good live music any more. Of course the young party and dance at several nightclubs in the city. Also the centre of gravity of the city has shifted from South Mumbai to the suburbs. But I am not sure that any of them have the character of a Blue Note In New York, Salon 30 in Havana or the Lido in Berlin. Mumbai doesn’t really feature in the list of music cities anymore. Neither does it have an art deco district, barring Kala Ghoda which has again been on the decline.

It is sad that Mumbai just doesn’t have the charm of a city that once sported nightlife just like in the best cities of the world.

Prabhakar Mundkur
Prabhakar Mundkur is an advertising veteran, a lateral thinker, storyteller and musician. A coffee aficionado, husband and a father of two, he also describes himself as dogs’ best friend.

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