Versova Koli Seafood Festival

Introduction

Koli seafood festivals have been held in Mumbai for more than a decade. These festivals, organised in various Koliwadas (settlements of Kolis) across the city, offer visitors an array of seafood dishes. Many Mumbaikars (residents of Mumbai) relish the opportunity to immerse themselves in Koli cuisine and entertainment during these festivals. In addition to being a visual and literal feast, the festival provides a glimpse into Maharashtra's Koli culture.

Beginning of the seafood festival tradition

The festival was first held in Versova, or Vesava, in 2006. Since then, it has gained popularity and grown in size and quality. The annual Versova Koli Seafood Festival is held in the open ground of the Versova village, attracting thousands of visitors.

Image 1: One of the seafood stalls at the Mumbai Koli Sea Food Festival 2024, Versova.

Rajhans Tapke, a resident of Versova and founding member of the festival in Versova, narrates how the festival came to be and the factors that prompted its inception. The Koli community has been involved in fishing in the region for generations. Over the years, problems like shifting fishing grounds, diminishing fish catches, and increasing expenditure resulting from environmental factors have been detrimental to the artisan fishing practices of the Kolis. In contrast, the selling price for fish in the same period remained essentially the same, making the trade increasingly unviable for boat owners and fishermen. Fish are also perishable and cannot be stored for a long time in cold storage, so the catch had to be sold promptly. Given these circumstances, it was imperative for the community to look for supplementary sources of income.[1]

In January 2005, Mumbai hosted the Mumbai Festival at various venues across the city. This festival hosted several events showcasing Mumbai’s history, heritage, and culture. However, Tapke noticed that there was no representation of the Koli community, some of the first settlers of Mumbai. He felt that in a programme such as this, the culture of the Kolis of Mumbai ought to be showcased and wrote a letter to one of the leading Marathi newspapers, Sakaal. When his story was published in Sakaal, it caught the eye of the organizers of the Mumbai Festival, who set up a meeting with Tapke. They had initially suggested that the Kolis should showcase their culture through dance, but Tapke disagreed as dance would not represent Koli culture in its entirety nor would it benefit the community in any way. He instead requested that the organizers allow the Kolis to set up food stalls as a part of the festival. The organizers agreed to this on the condition that the community would be solely responsible for setting up the stalls, with the Mumbai Festival helping only with advertising and publicity. When Tapke informed the residents of the village about the festival, they agreed to support him in making the arrangements; however, everyone backed out when it was time to do the work. The arrangement of the festival thus became a difficult task. Tapke asked his friends Suryakant Ratne and Pravin Bhave for help, and they supported him in this endeavour. When the schedule of the Mumbai Festival was announced, the dates for the Koli Seafood Festival were also fixed, and the hunt for a decorator began. One decorator agreed to do the job but was sceptical about the payment so he asked them for a guarantor in case they failed to pay. The decorator turned out to be a friend of Tapke’s father-in-law, who agreed to act as the guarantor. Since the festival was meant to showcase Koli culture, the next step was arranging for cultural performances, as well as the stage, lights, and sound system necessary for such performances. Performers (singers and dancers) from Versova agreed to perform at the festival for free. Lights were sourced from houses and temples. Since Tapke and his friends were low on money, they tried to source everything either for free or at the lowest possible cost. Tapke says that organizing the festival kept him so busy that he did not have the time to dine at home for about one and a half months.

When Tapke and his friends approached the Koli women of Versova to set up stalls for the festival, they were shocked at the suggestion of selling cooked seafood. The Kolis made a livelihood selling raw fish. Cooked dishes were fed by the women to their family and friends, but these were never sold commercially. Tapke recalls the women exclaiming,

‘Kay? Jevan ikavcha? Yed laglay ka tumhana? Tumche kay mitra astil na tar aamche ghara jevala pathva, amhi tyana jevan ghalu. Asla kay bhalta salta sangtos.’ (‘What? Selling food? Have you gone crazy? Send your friends to our house, we will cook for them and feed them. What are you even suggesting?’)[2]

After the Koli women declined, Tapke turned to his family and friends. He succeeded in convincing his wife, her sisters, and her mother. Together, they convinced his friends’ wives and groups of women from his neighbourhood. The women agreed on the condition that if people did not attend the festival and the food was unsold or wasted, Tapke would pay them the incurred cost. With this, the arrangements for the first-ever Koli seafood festival in the village of Versova were completed.

Tapke says they received significant support from the organizers of the Mumbai Festival as well, who had advertized the Koli Seafood Festival in The Times of India newspaper. This advertisement made people aware of the event and a lot of people visited the festival. In about two hours, the food at all the stalls had more or less sold out. Seeing this, the women who had initially refused to participate also began to request stall allocations. During the first few years, the festival was conducted for four days. The festival was advertised in The Times of India in the initial years. On an individual level, the Kolis would put up brochures of the festival in the office canteens and invite their colleagues to visit the festival. Tapke says that the festival has become so popular now that it does not need advertising. Once people get to know the dates of the festival through various social media platforms, they automatically visit the festival.

The festival represents the close connection between the Kolis' livelihood and their cultural heritage. Tapke says that the concept behind the festival was to serve a dual purpose.

One, to showcase the Koli cuisine and culture to the rest of the city and two, to help Koli women earn in these challenging times. If raw pomfret (Indian butterfish) is sold for say 100 rupees, cooked pomfret dishes cost somewhere around 200 to 250 rupees or even more in restaurants. With an additional cost of 10 rupees and a little bit of effort required for cooking, the same pomfret can be served for 150 rupees allowing them to earn a 40 rupees profit.[3]

The festival, its popularity, arrangement, and components

The first seafood festival was well received in Versova, with thousands visiting during the four days. The festival has been conducted at Versova every year since 2006 except for the two years during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the festival is held over three days, and people keep pouring in, even at midnight, to enjoy the local cuisine. Subsequently, seafood festivals have been conducted in Koliwadas across the city, including Koliwadas in Mahim, Juhu, Trombay, Kolaba, and Worli. Sometimes, the festival is arranged by political parties, the Ministry of Fisheries, or the local governing bodies. The Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival is also held at Versova, although at a different location (Versova Welfare School Ground) and on a lesser scale when compared to the Versova Koli Seafood Festival. The brand of the Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival is used by the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Vesava Koli Mahila Samajik Sanstha as part of fundraising events for various issues. Unlike the annual Versova Koli Seafood Festival, the Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival has only been held three times, once in 2018, and then in 2023 and 2024.[4] Bhushan Pede, a resident of Versova and one of the organizers of the Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival, says that the consumption of eggs was promoted by the National Egg Coordination Committee (NECC) with the commercial ‘Sunday ho ya Monday, roz khaao ande.’[5] The consumption of fish was, however, not promoted anywhere. He says that the seafood festival aims to promote the consumption of fish, authentic Koli recipes, and the culture and traditions of the fishing community. The Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival is promoted with the catchphrase ‘macchi sehat ke liye acchi.’ (‘Fish is good for health’).[6] Tapke says that the people enjoy Koli cuisine and the festival so much that many have asked for it to be conducted twice or thrice a year.

Over twenty varieties of fish are cooked and served at the festival, including bombil (Bombay duck, dried as well as fresh), rawas (Indian salmon), surmai (King Mackerel), halwa/paplet (pomfret), bangda (mackerel), tisrya (clams), prawns, kekda (crabs), and shevand (lobster) to name a few. Fish curries, stuffed fish, fried fish, tandoori fish, and fusion fish recipes are served across all the stalls. Koli rice bhakris and rice (plain rice as well as biryani) are also served. The seafood dishes are prepared with fresh catch and alterations are made to the dish according to the demands and tastes of the customer. Although the festival centres around seafood, vegetarian options such as potato twisters, momos, dabeli, burgers, and french fries, are also available.

At Versova, for the first two years, Tapke and his friends looked after the organization of the festival. Later, the Koli organizations of Versova, namely the Vesava Macchimar Vividh Karyakar Sahakari Society, Vesava Koli Jamat Trust, Vesava Macchimar Sahakari Society, Vesava Koli Sahakari Sarvodaya and the Vesava Koli Nakhwa Mandal came together to form the Vesava Koli Seafood Committee. The Vesava Koli Jamat Trust owns the ground on which the festival is conducted. The organization of the festival is now the responsibility of the Vesava Koli Seafood Committee. The heads of each of the member organizations lead the committee and look after the arrangements of the Versova Koli Seafood Festival on a rotating basis. The management of the festival at Versova is done by the Kolis themselves. There is no event manager or management company involved. For the cultural performances, local band groups are hired. The hired groups look after the orchestra and the dance performances. A decorator is hired for decoration purposes. The sponsors are promoted through banners, hoardings (at fish markets and jetties), and digital marketing (Instagram, Facebook).[7]

A few years ago, around 50 stalls were set up at Versova during the festival. Due to restrictions, the number of stalls has come down to 35. The groups or individuals not allowed to set up stalls in one year are given preference in the following year. A lottery system is used to allot the remaining stalls. Usually, the stalls set up by profitable businesses and have good track records are preferred. According to Pede, the stalls are allocated to the participating families and groups at a minimum rent.[8] He also said that a few years ago, there was a huge demand for stalls, but it has since declined due to the high cost and scarcity of fish. At the Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival, the stalls are allotted to those who approach the festival organizers, and when the demand for stalls exceeds the number of stalls allowed, a lottery system is used. The ones who have had stalls previously are given preference over the newcomers.

The seafood festival can be divided into three parts: cultural events/performances, Koli cuisine, and organizations and sponsors showcasing their goods, ideas, and commodities. An event that started at a local level at the lowest possible costs has today garnered support through donations and sponsors. Sponsorships handle the funding required for decoration, advertisement, performances, and stall set-up. In 2024, the Versova Koli Seafood Festival received monetary support of Rs 5,00,000 from the National Fisheries Development Board (NFDB) for the first time.[9]

Image 2: Tandoor seafood stall at the Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival 2024, Versova.

Another major attraction of the festival is the traditional attire and jewellery of the Koli men and women. Some groups of women running stalls don sarees similar in pattern and colour. The women are spotted joyfully cooking the dishes while singing and dancing. Pede says, ‘We receive a different happiness in presenting ourselves (at the festival). Our ladies enjoy dressing up in traditional attire, and it is fun for a change.’[10]

Image 3: Women dressed in similar sarees preparing fresh seafood dishes, at the Mumbai Koli Seafood Festival 2024, Versova.

The seafood festival introduced the Koli fishing community to a new venture of selling Koli food. Tapke mentions that the women of Versova today no longer refuse to sell cooked fish or bhakris. They take orders and provide food to their customers. Small restaurants and catering services emerged in the community since the success of the seafood festival. This has provided them with an alternative source of income and empowered them. The women are involved in grinding the spices, preparing the marinades, and prepping and cooking the fish. The festival has brought out the entrepreneurial skills of the Koli women. Despite its rocky start, the festival has become a must-visit for seafood lovers.


Footnotes:

[1] Rajhans Tapke, interview with the author, March 5, 2024.

[2] Rajhans Tapke, interview with the author, March 5, 2024.

[3] Rajhans Tapke, interview with the author, March 5, 2024.

[4] Bhushan Pede, interview with the author, February 27, 2024.

[5] Bhushan Pede, interview with the author, February 27, 2024.

[6] Bhushan Pede, interview with the author, February 27, 2024.

[7] Bhushan Pede, interview with the author, February 27, 2024.

[8] Bhushan Pede, interview with the author, February 27, 2024.

[9] Rajhans Tapke, interview with the author, March 5, 2024.

[10] Bhushan Pede, in discussion with the author.

Bibliography:

Rajhans Tapke (native scholar and Founder Member of the Versova Koli Sea Food Festival), in discussion with the author, March 5, 2024.

Bhushan Pede (One of the organizers of Mumbai Koli Sea Food Festival 2024), in discussion with the author, February 27, 2024.