The Kolis of Bombay

-Saachi D'Souza


Source: Suraj Katra

In 2017, 30 artists came together to revive South Mumbai's 142-year-old Sassoon Docks with art installations celebrating its heritage and history. One of the largest fish markets in the city, Sassoon Docks was the first commercial wet dock in western India that helped establish the cotton trade. St+art India Foundation, in collaboration with noted artists, helped reimagine the homes and lives of the fishermen that inhabit the areas surrounding the Docks as heritage sites - significant to the city of Mumbai. The first installation in this series, by artist Hanif Qureshi, explored the idea of smell associated with the city. Whether one has grown up in Mumbai or has visited it briefly, there is a history here unimaginable without the smell of fish, the sea, or the way the city stands still after it has rained. One cannot experience Mumbai without experiencing its close relationship, of multitudes - social, political, economic - with water, nor without the community that makes for most of the city's history - the Son Kolis.


The Son Kolis are a fishing community spread across the country, but in Mumbai, are the city's earliest inhabitants, and in fact, when Mumbai was ‘Bombay’, Kolis helped develop the coastlines and harbours. The impression of them that has lingered over the years is that, along with their animosity, they are resistant to the urban landscape of the city. Contrary to this belief, Kolis are well-influenced by urbanisation but are distinguished from the rest of Mumbai in their traditions and social life. From when the city was Heptanesia - seven islands - Koli settlements were found on each island, and most of these have left their traces still. From the seven islands that were Kolaba, Old Woman's Island, Bombay, Mazagaon, Sion, Worli and Mahim, Koli settlements today are little pockets across Mumbai, since the advent of British development reclaimed and relocated the Kolis. These settlements are now Koliwadis or Koliwadas in the heart of the city. 

The complicated imbalance between the Kolis - the history and tradition of Mumbai - and the rapid urbanisation in the city is visible from a simple drive through the Worli sea-link. On the left, almost immediately, one views the city as skyscrapers, surrounded by water, and right below the large buildings is a visibly small but significant Koliwada, almost shadowed by development. These Koli settlements are symbolic of the colour that the community brings with it, with many houses coloured in mustard, purple, red, and other hues. While these lives are seemingly smaller than the industrial developments the city is currently perceived as, it is rather difficult to ignore the vitality of the Kolis. 


Fishing is the primary occupation of the Kolis, and while they are inhabited in a city that prides itself as metropolitan, the Kolis for centuries have sustained their traditional livelihoods that are largely driven by their dependency to fishing. The community distinguishes itself from the developing, cosmopolitan side of Mumbai - in religious and social ways - but over the years has embraced modernity in a manner that is balanced and not exploitative to the Koli history. Kolis engage with the urban population everyday, while also remaining largely detached and isolated from its development. The continuity of the city everyday, however, is a natural - albeit complicated - juxtaposition of urbanisation and Koli history.


Gendered Cultures

If one spends enough time in Mumbai, one understands well the aggressiveness of the Koli women. Morning travels in the local trains are usually marked by loud chatters, sometimes quarrels while entering, between fisherwomen, all carrying their daily stock. Amidst the maddening hustles in the trains, commuters remain unbothered by the seafood that accompanies their daily travels, and those who are vegetarian eaters - some even staunch -  manage to surrender themselves to the smells and sights of fish everyday. One might argue that this is social conditioning, but it is important to note the women that make for this profession, who for centuries have refused to lay their guards down. In a typical Koli household, the women - the kolins - hold positions of power. While the men catch the fish, it is the women who sell the catch and bring home the daily earnings. In a regular Koli marriage, the woman’s importance is in the economic productivity she brings to the family; a remarkable practice even today.


Source: Suraj Katra

The relationship that the Kolis share with the sea is multifold; it is one of economic dependency, religious significance, and it is cultural. Apart from fishing, which is their primary occupation, Kolis practice religious and social rituals with the sea that visualise their history built around water. Narali Punaw, or Purnima, is a festival observed on the day that marks the new business. Kolis believe that on this day, the wind strength and directions favour fishing. Coconut is offered to sea with processions filled with music and dance, and the first person to immerse the coconut in the water is the Police Patil - the headman of the community. In recent times, Kolis have started sharing their traditional recipes with the rest of the city by organising a seafood festival following Purnima, in an attempt to assert their history in the urban population. 


Sustainable Fishing 

The Son Kolis are well known for their sustainable fishing practices, or ‘artisanal’ fishing that attributes itself to a long history of agency and democratic practices. Ancient fishing techniques practiced by the Kolis consist of spear fishing, angling, trapping, netting, and bow and arrow. Each technique and fishing net is used depending on the size and type of fish; wisdom that is pertinent to the traditional significance of the Kolis, but also, that ensures the health of fish and the sea. The current discourse on meat-eating practices concerns itself with pollution and exploitation of animals/natural resources, however, it erases the reality that these communities have, from the beginning, lived within and around nature in a symbiotic relationship with it. 

This urban narrative is in every way an attempt to replace these histories with machine-driven labour, without addressing cultures and traditions that have found peace with nature. The Kolis of Mumbai are struggling to communicate with the rapid development in the city, and during the coronavirus lockdown in the country, had found themselves unable to sustain their occupation. Non-artisanal fishing that is designed for meeting mass consumer demands has wasted more fish than it has collected, and once the fish markets were shut earlier this year, at least 5,000 tonnes of fish was wasted and sent back into the ocean. The biggest demand from fishing is that of ‘big fish’, that need time to grow. Today these fish are harvested before they grow, and because consumer demands do not meet the needs of the ocean, biodiversity is deeply affected. 


Fishing in Mumbai has seen a drastic change over the years. The water is met with increasing levels of pollution, all caused by overfishing, population density issues, and poor infrastructure that does not support the water the city was built on and around. Many attempts have been made to document the effects of pollution to the rivers in the city; an example is a documentary by on the Kolis of Dharavi, Mumbai - the largest slum in India - where fisherman Vinayak Koli guides us through the current situation of the Mithi river, that connects the city and its suburbs.


The Mithi River is the primary source of water for Dharavi, and pollution has threatened the livelihoods of the residents around it. Here Vinayak describes the plight of the Dharavi Kolis at such a time, and how the city is unbothered by the dependency of the Kolis to the river. 99 percent of fisheries in the estuary have disappeared, and to deal with that the fishermen have adopted an age-old tradition of manually building ponds by removing silt; forming naturally enclosed areas. Across the city, in fact, Koli settlements have had to adapt to pollution problems that have also caused floods that are only getting worse in the city. Mumbai cannot sustain itself without its mangroves, that are structurally supposed to carry rainwater away from the city, but are now slowly disappearing. Apart from contaminating the water bodies that observe fishing, the current situation in the city is endangering the lives of the Kolis in many ways.

Farmers and fishers are two of many primary food producers on this planet, and sustainable practices that would allow nature and its resources to survive in balance with humanity are only possible when demoractic control is given back to these communities. The increasing water problems in the city, from accessibility to pollution, have a lot to do with the treatment of Kolis as marginalised instead of caretakers of the sea. Kolis are often described as the first settlers in the city, but have, in contemporary times, been discarded from the cultural, social and economic landscape of Mumbai.


Source: Suraj Katra

The Coastal Road Project

A significant threat to the ecosystem has been the controversial coastal road project, that is planned to connect South Bombay with suburban areas like Kandivli, and is proposed to cut travel time by 70 percent. This project has been argued in court by several activists, urging the authorities to reevaluate how this will damage the already disappearing ecosystem of the city. The argument in favour of this is that it is designed to redirect about 60,000 vehicles that travel back-and-forth every day, reducing traffic and pollution caused by the same. However, the project is widely seen as a product of the planning failure in the city, that has only increased in the last few years. There is also uncertainty about whether there is a plan to rehabilitate the fishing villages that will inevitably get displaced by this development. 


An Uncertain Future

It is difficult, however not impossible, to reimagine the infrastructure of Mumbai and include Kolis as one of the primary food producers and therefore significant to the landscape of the city. The Worli Koliwada, owing to its prime real estate status, has been dealing with tenants who are ‘outsiders’ with no historical or contemporary understanding of the community, often denying Koli traditions and festivities. But because these tenants offer rental income to Kolis, it is a toxic relationship that they cannot get out of. There is also a slow but sure decrease in the sharing of archival history within families, since younger Kolis are now moving away from fishing towards occupations that ensure higher pay. Sustainable traditions like sun-drying fish using salt are disappearing because historically, there were more than 30 varieties of the famous Bombay duck, and now hardly 15 can be found. Only Koli settlements where water pollution is not as threatening still observe this practice, but it is largely erased by water problems in the city. 


The wisdom of fish and the relationship with it has been symbolic of the Kolis and their knowledge of natural resources; how this is addressed by the city is heartbreaking. Kolis are often backdrops to the glamour the city presents; often painted as backward and therefore pushed to the edges, even literally. However, the emotional bond that they share with fish and water is one that cannot be easily erased or appropriated. Often manifested materially, Koli homes are decorated with fish figurines and women adorn necklaces with fish pendants. Fish and water are closely involved in the everyday lives of Kolis, and while the discourse on the threats posed by urbanisation is arduous and extensive, there is an urge, however quiet, to preserve this natural relationship through rituals, beliefs and traditions.



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