Mumbai’s Kolis: Indigenous as well as Migrant?

How do we understand indigeneity in the context of a city like Mumbai? Certain communities in the metropolis – such as the Kolis and the East Indians, for instance – consider themselves its original inhabitants and indigenous to the city. The implications of the term indigeneity, though, do call for a deeper investigation for it has sometimes been used to differentiate between insiders and outsiders, us and them.

Dr. Sanjay Ranade (in his video interview below) says that “the question of indigeneity is not applicable in India… We are frontier people, we don’t have borders. The whole idea of the border comes from the Westphalian idea of a state.” In his essay titled ‘Reconstructing the Mumbai Koli Profile’ in the edited volume Mumbai: Socio-Cultural Perspectives: Contributions of Ethnic Groups and Communities[1], he writes: “The Kolis were the oldest migrants to the islands of Bombay and possibly its earliest settlers. In a sense, therefore, the community could be called indigenous as well as migrant.”[2]

This idea of indigeneity is markedly different from the articulations of the Kolis themselves, a group of fishing communities in the city, who can often be heard reciting the following slogan at public gatherings: “Mumbai konyachi? Kolianchi!” (Whose Mumbai is it? It is the Mumbai of the Kolis!). As one of the oldest communities to have settled the city – which was a group of uninhabitable islands before it was reclaimed from the sea – the Kolis have felt the pressures of urbanization quite intensely. Over time, their settlements have been encroached upon by the developing city and their livelihoods threatened by urbanization, offshore state projects, overfishing and climate change.

The Syncretic Religiosity of Mumbai’s Kolis | An Interview with Dr. Sanjay Ranade | By Subuhi Jiwani

The question about how we should think of indigeneity still remains unresolved. What we have documented, though, are creative expressions of what it means to be a Koli in Mumbai today. They’re captured beautifully in songs sung by Kailash Tandel and his friends (see the video below), who live in Machhimar Nagar, a Koli settlement in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade. Some of these songs are re-scripted versions of popular Marathi songs; others can be considered Koli lokgeet or folk songs. The former use popular melodies but reflect on Koli lives today; the latter dwell on conversations between fishermen at sea, the city’s pollution of coastal waters, a wedding between two fish species, and a Koli woman’s take on her fishing-related work.

In the same video, Tandel also talks about his PhD dissertation, which explores the impact of offshore state projects (such as the Mumbai High Field and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Memorial) on the livelihoods of Kolis in his own Machhimar Nagar. Dr. Sanjay Ranade, in his interview, discusses the texts which mention the history of Koli settlement in the city and the syncretic nature of Koli devotional practices, a topic he has researched closely. For more, watch the videos below.

Koli Lives, Livelihoods and Songs | An Interview with Kailash Tandel | By Subuhi Jiwani


[1] Anila Verghese, Swarupa Kamat and Rashna Poncha (eds), Mumbai: Socio-Cultural Perspectives: Contributions of Ethnic Groups and Communities: Primus Books, 2018.

[2] Ibid, pg. 24.