New Vasantashram: Finding new grounds

As I boarded the train at 10pm back for home from Churchgate, I found myself pleasantly at peace and very pleased with the way my Saturday evening had ended, an immense sense of satisfaction loomed over my spirit.

New Vasantashram drew my attention specifically for couple of reasons, for one it enjoys the most convenient location strategic  for a range of travelers & boarders. This 69 year old quaint 2 floor facility is located right next to Crawford  market above the line of uber cool showrooms like Esbeda and Roopam. Secondly, the place is run by a sweet lady and the initial images of the place gave a hint of the changing vibe which was tugging at my innate creativity still lurking in the veins somewhere.

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New Vasantashram  Signage as seen from the street opposite

Somewhere midweek I messaged the owner who invited me over to have a look at the place. As a confession on my part, I have been smitten by Fort area of Mumbai. The older chawls, community buildings, government structures all these have always filled me with awe and longing to enter and trespass. I picture them as witnesses standing time immortal to the changing times and history of this fascinating city. Having spent ages around this part of the city, I have always been curious on multiple occasions to step into one of those 4 storied façades of continuous balconies, which often have worker class looming on the rail edges. The deterrent being the shady faces and dinghy lanes and corridors leading in to such, not to mention the notorious elements of drug peddlers and prostitutes hovering around the innocent architecture posts office hours. So, here was a brilliant chance to get into one of these spaces, now that I knew it was managed by a lady and seemed to be pretty safe.

And to my pleasant surprise it turned to be a most engaging evening in recent times. The entrance to the lodge was not a good start, walking amidst the market stalls at the ground floor, I lumbered in the dimly lit alley ,filled with stench from the public urinals behind and entered an equally disturbing staircase block. The sight was repulsive, and had I not seen the pictures of the lodging before, I probably wouldn’t have continued my way to the top. The structure being old constructed in 1935, and though strong is in need of some basic facelift. As I continued my way up the 3rd floor, I witnessed the change in the ambience and the air, and found myself looking into the Signboard of New Vasantashram.

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The spooky stairway in the lower two floors

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Dramatic change of the ambience as I climbed to the 3rd floor of Narshimha bldg

As I was busy clicking the old wooden staircase block,I heard my name being called by a small built elegant persona. Sujata Pilinja Rao, is second generation owner of Vasantashram  and is ever gracious and friendly  person, easy to connect and brimming with sensitivity and eagerness to strive.

She warmly greeted me and led me inside the office space. The Lodging surely has an aura of the by gone ages and Sujata has been very sensitive to not meddle and tear down the history in the process of reinventing the space. The lovely sign board on the entrance with the floral hearth painted and the unmistakable capital letters painted on the doorframe above in the characteristic Navy blue and offwhite immediately struck a chord with my love for everything period. The high ceiling and the tall wooden entrance doors with the glass ventilators are what my dreams are made of.

 

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Lovely Age hand painted Signage of the Lodge

As we went inside, the quality of air and light in the space put me to ease. The first thing that hit me was the cleanliness of the space, no funny odors , no cobwebs, no dust, betel-nut stains , no ugly unwanted sights. The place is very clean and well ventilated from both sides, corridor on one and the balcony on the other and the rooms stretching in between. I found myself walking over old black and white tiles , that rose into quaint wooden furniture pieces, and white stucco walls, dotting with numerous Indian artwork framed in minimalist manner. The wooden rafters across the ceiling delighted me as I enjoyed the lovely height of the space.

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The Office space with high ceiling and the old chequered tiling

Sujata showed me around at leisure and we sat down in a cross ventilated hallway, with discarded wooden ladders suspended from the ceiling and receiving down lighters, lovely wooden chairs with green leather upholstery sat on the sides and the room opened to the balcony through the tall doorway accentuated by the brick archway. Sujata inherited the lodging from her father who passed away in 1999, she along with her mother and her sister who resides in Bangalore are partners in the Lodging. Established in 1947, The lodge since has a trusted and loyal broader following who has been coming to the place for over 40 years, thanks to the Crawford market and innumerable business needs that are associated with it.The lodge has been home for months for traders all its life.

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The hallway which is laid with Indian seating during events, the hanging ladder and the artwork adorning the walls

Although it was running successfully, Sujata wished to extend the space to more range of boarders. In a space like Mumbai where every sqft counts and so does every second, she realized the need to make the lodging more approachable and acceptable for a wider spectrum of people. Couple of years back, she initiated the restructuring of the space along with a suburban architectural firm SBAU, which incidentally is led by my college alumni Ar Suprio Bhattacharjee.  In the interest of the minimalist budget, they planned to do the space as a distressed interior and the result is a lovely, delicately accentuated space with abundant light and freshness. The wooden doors have been stripped of their formica and the layers of older turquoise paints have been brushed to leave you reading in the past. The simple iron cots have been painted white and nimbly align the spaces. The corridors have been adorned with old ship lights sourced from Daru khana , which hang beautifully from the tall ceilings.

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The charm of the lodging the beautiful balcony with shiplights and wooden railing

A lovely innocence wafts around the spaces which heightens with the smell of incense lighted in the little corner of Godliness separate from the office by a stained glass partition. Brass keys engraved with the name dangle over the manager’s desk from the room numbers pinned above. The owner’s love for upcycling as she refers to is evident in the use of hand printing blocks as handles for the room doors. Lovely blocks in various designs adorn the rustic doors adding to their charm.She has also got a Madhubani artist to hand paint the old water drums with wonderful colorful designs , which double up as dinning counters during the weekend events. Upstairs the tiny single cubicles have been done with wooden partitions and sleeper wood doors adding a warmth to the spaces. Sujatas collection of Indian handicraft in form of paintings adorn the walls.

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The stain glass partition between the office and the Pooja corner

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The artwork  on the walls and the Madhubani painting on the water drums

 New Vasantashram offers a variety of options for the boarders, with the new look instilled, the space looks forward to be on the convenience list of backpackers, students, creative strugglers and  weekenders who essentially stay way too far from the charismatic south Mumbai . The lodging offers an array of rooms , single, double, 4 bed , 6bed and finally 3-4 dormitories with 10-12 beds each .The toilets however are shared for all the rooms and none have an attached facility. In between our talks, I drifted around to the rooms, all of which on the lower level open onto the amazing Balcony. This space is clearly the high point of the lodge. The tall and wide continuous balcony is a dear element, providing the much needed relief from the smaller rooms in this crowded city. The Wooden handrail with the wrought iron delicate grill pattern delighted me. From here you can spend your evenings looking at the changing crowds below in the city fabric.

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The subtle minimalist look of the double bed room

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The bare and basic provisions

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The lovely iron grills as seen from with in the double room

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The compartmentalized single bed rooms

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The Four bed rooms with the wooden partition and the artwork

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One of the dormitories at the upper level of the lodge

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After clicking the place, I had a long chat with Sujata, where she spoke  about how her older staff was bewildered with the idea of distressed décor and upcycled interiors and gradually saw through it as the space started appealing to more younger boarders.  We discussed what she can do to pep up the place more. As I gave her my two cent of advice on the décor and amenities as a user, she eagerly jotted them down in her file to explore. Keshav , one of the employee who is with the lodging since 46 yrs, pumped me with cups of tea as I pondered over the dated documents Sujata shared with me. A collection of the rate revisions for the rent dating way back to 1981 was the oldest document in the file.. with the pricing for a single room was 380/- for a month long stay. I gaped in amazement, as we laughed over it, how much far we have come. The charges start at 300/- for a dorm bed and go upto 900 for a double bed room in todays times. The tariff is easily an affordable number considering the location and if one does not mind the common toilets. The one thing that I noticed hasn’t changed was the checkout timings, the dated document spelled 8.am which has remained so , and can be a deterrent in this age of late risers, and most of the hotels/ lodges having a standard of 10 am to 11am checkout.

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The old printout of the prevailing rates then , 1981

As we discussed the changeover of the lodging , Sujata shared her vision for making the space more than just a basic lodging facility, she wishes to reinvent it as a hub for informal events. Oblivious to me, the day I met Sujata, was incidentally the same day she had been in the Hindustan times HT café along with 4 other entrepreneurs who were bringing new ideas to the city that would add to the social needs of the younger crowd. Sujata plans to throw the hallway open to creative and artist bunch, by tying up with organizers for holding events for small intimate social gatherings over the weekend evenings. The first event of such kind already initiated a couple of weeks before on a lovely rainy day was well received, which encourages her to do more. I did a mental note to drop in for the next one, hopefully during the lovely monsoons to have a piping Maggi and filter kappi in this heritage piece.

Although the lodging in its earlier times had a boarding facility run by her uncle it no longer serves food. The early morning breakfast is provided by a nearby restaurant with multiple options. Our conversation and meeting lasted for 4 hours ranging from history to family to décor and travel. I didn’t notice when the ship lights lit up to add a lovely yellow to the balcony stretch. We discussed a lot of plans and ideas which I was very excited to spell, being a part of the travelling backpacker genre and a sedate architect.  It was one pleasant evening with lovely exchanges and lots of positive exuberance.

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The view outside the balcony , you can see the Mahatma Phule market

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Handpainted revival of the older signages

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The corridor leading to the single rooms, basic wooden partitioned spaces.

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The recently done up common toilet areas with sleeper wood shutters

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The old brick archways revealed during renovation are now exposed

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The balcony stretch after dark, wish i Could sit here longer

There are aspects that would need to be fixed and Sujata was very humbly aware and willing to do them slowly over the time. And there are issues of new generation like allowing cohabitation for unmarried travel couples which the lodge is struggling with and would need to redefine at certain point.

 I am glad to have finally been able to visit one of those long ogled, fascinating structures by means of New Vasantashram and meeting this striving lady. I know I am going to be visiting sooner for a staycation as Sujata labels it.I wish her the very best in turning around this place into a more inviting  cultural corner for the deprived city.

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