ORIGINALLY KNOWN as the Gokuldas Morarji market, the history of the Swadeshi Market in Mumbai is closely intertwined with that of the city’s past. One of the oldest cloth markets, it became a hub of revolutionary activity during the Swadeshi Movement that gave the market its name.
Located on Kalbadevi Road in South Mumbai, the market was abuzz with activity when the textile mills were still open in the city. It witnessed a slow decline after the mills started shutting down in the 1980s.
Today, with talk of redevelopment and a second generation of shopkeepers no longer interested, the future of the market looks bleak.
The market has several entrances, any of which open to rows and rows of shops selling cloth, separated by narrow alleyways.
“For the longest time, at least till the mills were open, the clientele mostly comprised wholesalers. With a decline in footfall, some shops have also started selling on a retail basis,” says Vilas Kale, who collects rent from the shopkeepers on behalf of the landlord.
Operating out of a shop for nearly 50 years, 73-year-old Chandubhai Mehta says, “When the textile mills were working, we would get cloth from big mills. The cloth would be available exclusively with us and customers would sometimes approach mills, asking where they could purchase the cloth manufactured by them. Those were the days when the customers ran after us.”
He adds, “The cloth that was available with us was also available at other places since the mills shut down, putting an end to our exclusivity. And so, the demand for the market has gone down.”
The market that started in 1909 is five-storied now. The bottom three floors were meant to house shops with residential units on the top two floors.
“Earlier, there were many residential units but over the years, people left their houses. Now, shops have opened in those units. Today, around 550 of the 600 units comprise shops while the rest are residential units,” Kale says, adding that there are murmurs that the building will be going in for redevelopment and shopkeepers want to sell off their shops.
“I had a bigger shop in the market that I put out on rent. I am old now and my son is a manager in a well-known bank and daughter a chartered accountant. They are not interested in working with me. So, I have taken a smaller place here and do not run around seeking orders as I did earlier,” Mehta says.
Many shopkeepers talk about how the next generation is not interested in continuing the family legacy.
Talking about the clientele they cater to in the age of ready-made clothes, Dhruv Vora, who also operates from Swadeshi market, says, “These days, people prefer ready-made clothes and do not mind if the shirt lasts for a year or two. In older times, customers cared about quality. Many who want their clothes to last longer and understand quality still come to us.”