Why artists in India are leaving Mumbai for tiny fishing village Madh Island

The small fishing village off the Indian coast is increasingly becoming home for the city’s creative tribe

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It was once a quaint beach picnic spot for jaded city slickers. It still remains notorious for the choppy waves that threaten ­intrepid merrymakers who should have known better. And yet, Madh Island, a fishing village abutting Mumbai, is preening its feathers of late as the postal code of choice for a gaggle of "Bombohemians". To escape Mumbai's soaring rents (which is old news) and its increasingly dysfunctional infrastructure, some musicians, actors and visual artists are making this balmy island their nest for good.

Tuning in to nature

“Living in the city was too hectic. Not even Bandra [once the hipster hub of Mumbai] was cutting it for me. But here, it’s amazing. There is a sense of community, which is very important for me as an artist too,” says 34-year-old musician, Arjun Dhanraj.

He recently released an EP titled The Shenanigans with his band Arjun & the Teenage Men. Before moving to Madh Island, he worked as the brand manager of Furtados, the go-to place for musical instruments in south Mumbai, a posh district in the city. ­However, to focus more on his craft, he decided to look further afield and zoned in on Madh Island.

Musician Arjun Dhanraj, second from bottom, on Madh Island: 

"I was very keen to live in a neighbourhood that offered lots of nature. In fact, I was equally keen on Aarey Milk Colony [a north Mumbai suburb that abuts a forest reserve and occasionally roars its way into the news for its leopard menace], but Madh Island is where I've settled. If I miss the buzz of the city, I take the ferry and visit Versova [in north Mumbai] at max," adds Dhanraj, who is creating an animation series about India's indie music scene.

Peaceful nights 

For 23-year-old theatre actor Vennelakanti Vidyuth, who now goes by the stage moniker Vidyuth Gargi, the fishing village became home after two "hellish" experiments with Mumbai neighbourhoods. "I came to Mumbai to study at The Drama School in Charni Road in south Mumbai. I tried to live in Prabhadevi in central Mumbai, and Azad Nagar in north Mumbai. Those were horrid experiences. I am from Chennai, which is very peaceful, especially at night. The decibel levels here are similar to Chennai – I need that," says Gargi, who recently acted in a play (A Fistful of Rupees) and a web series for Amazon Prime (Die Trying).

Incidentally, what started out as an economic decision for the thespian (the rents here are remarkably cheaper than Mumbai), has become a lot deeper than that. "It has also instilled a sense of discipline in me. For instance, the ferry that connects the island to the city stops service at 1am. So I know that even if I go to a party in Mumbai city, I have to call it a night latest by 10.30pm, which is how things should be," he adds.

Has the neighbourhood offered him any collaborative possibilities with fellow comrades? “Absolutely. I am working on an ‘evening theatre’ piece with veteran playwright Mahesh Dattani, who also happens to be a Madh Island resident.” Does anything about his secluded neighbourhood bother him? “The snails! The snails that come out during the monsoon are huge. And walking to the convenience store, one can’t help but squirm when you hear that squelching sound under your shoes.”

'This is home now'

Not all hipsters who have made Madh Island their redoubt came here as tenants or flat-owners. Photographer Natasha Hemrajani discovered her tropical paradise thanks to couchsurfing. "My partner and I were actually looking for places outside Mumbai when we noticed that an Indo-German couple had put up their home in Madh Island for couchsurfing." That couple is Karan Talwar and Michaela Strobel, who run the critically acclaimed Harkat Studios, a boutique collective that curates immersive experiences, across the bay in Versova. "When I read Madh Island on my laptop, I was like, 'I know that place! I used to go there for picnics as a kid!'"

Photographer Natasha Hemrajani doesn’t miss Mumbai life. Photo by Merwyn Rodrigues

Thus, what started out as an unusual weekend for Hemrajani and her partner, ended up becoming a permanent change of residence, quite literally overnight. The 40-year-old now runs The Sisterhood Company, India’s first all-woman wedding photography firm, from an apartment with stunning vistas of azure skies, coconut groves and the Arabian Sea. The photographer has been rather vocal about the ­ever-changing, serrated skyline of her city, which can sometimes resemble the hideous nape of a dinosaur.

In 2013, for example, she created Hello, Goodbye, a suite of photographs that explored the "ambivalence she feels for the Bombay of her youth and the Mumbai she sees today". "As a visual artist, I need inspiration. Mumbai is ugly and disgusting. Here, there are three strains of frangipani flowers that fall on my head en route to the tuck shop. Why would I ever move back? Madh Island is also democratic. From the fishermen to top television actors, we are literally 'on the same boat' when crossing from the mainland to the island," she explains.

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As an “islander”, as she calls herself now, does she miss the city’s exciting nightlife? “I don’t. I don’t feel the need to justify that I exist. This is home now.” How does she negotiate the anorexic, squalid bylanes of the Versova fishing village when catching the ferry back to the island in the monsoon? “Wellies,” she quips. And pray, what are Wellies? “Wellington boots. An ex-boyfriend brought them for me from Poland. I plan to put them to some good use through the rains.”

A cursed watch tower and a haunted road

Madh Fort was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese as a watchtower and prison. Photo by Merwyn Rodrigues
Madh Fort was built in the 17th century by the Portuguese as a watchtower and prison. Photo by Merwyn Rodrigues

Also known as Versova Fort, the Madh Fort on Madh Island was built in the 17th century to function as a watchtower and prison for the Portuguese, a perpetually paranoid lot, given that they had to stave off the Brits and the Marathas all at once. Both were eager to gain control of the fort for strategic reasons.

The 17th century was a politically turbulent era in the nation’s history and fraught with intrigue – the fort’s chequered history mirrors this. After the 1739 war, the Portuguese lost control of the fort to the Marathas. However, when the British conquered India in its entirety, the fort became a training centre for new recruits of the British Army. In fact, until 1818, there was an army base at the fort. When India gained independence in 1947, Madh Fort came under the purview of the Indian Air Force and Navy. On a lighter note, the Bollywood blockbuster, Mard (1985), starring Indian megastar Amitabh Bachchan, used the fort as a location.

Given its seclusion, a range of urban legends do haunt the island. The narrow road connecting Marve and Madh Island, for instance, is sometimes referred to as “one of India’s most haunted places”.

Legend has it that a woman was murdered on Madh Island on her wedding night, and that her spirit haunts drivers who take the route on a full moon night. Some have claimed to have heard a wailing sound only to see no real person in the vicinity. Others have attributed fatal accidents on the stretch to the sudden vision of a woman, who is dressed as a bride.