For more than two months, suburban Mumbai’s Goregaon Social pub attracted young patrons without any controversy. On Tuesday, however, this new branch of the popular “Social” pub franchise became the object of ire for sections of Mumbai Catholics. The reason: its interiors are designed to look like a church, with furniture and imagery that some community members claim are offensive to their religious sentiments.

On the night of November 1, the Watchdog Foundation – an organisation claiming to represent Christian interests – filed a police complaint against the owner of Goregaon Social, demanding his arrest under Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code for intentionally outraging the community’s sentiments. On Wednesday morning, the Archdiocese of Bombay – the office of the Catholic Church in the city – released an official condemnation of the “blasphemous” decor of the pub, demanding a temporary cancellation of its operational licenses till the interiors are changed.

By Wednesday evening, one more community organisation joined in the fray: the Catholic Secular Forum issued a statement calling for the police to take “urgent action” against the owners of Goregaon Social and demanding a public apology from them.

The trigger 

On its Facebook page, Goregaon Social has described its design as a “church of anti-consumerism”. On another Facebook page, the architects of the restaurant have further explained their vision as a “dark Masonic temple” inserted into a “spankingly new modern retail store facade”.

A view of the controversial pub. Photos courtesy: Facebook/Goregaon Social

Dissenting Christians, however, claim that the design takes irreverence too far. Among the many “objectionable” decor elements listed by the Watchdog Foundation are stained glass paintings of Jesus Christ, Mother Mary and other saints carrying modern-day objects such as bags, chains and computer tablets. In addition to these, the pub’s seats have been designed like church pews, the benches carry quotes from the Bible, some liquor bottles are allegedly inscribed with the holy cross and the bar is designed like a tabernacle, a structure that is typically used to store the Eucharist.

The controversial stain glass paintings.

“We strongly condemn what appears to be a deliberate attempt to insult the Christian community by lack of respect for our religious beliefs and the sacred objects that are used for divine worship,” the statement from the Archdiocese said.

Despite several attempts, was unable to reach the directors or other representatives of Impresario Entertainment and Hospitality Pvt Ltd, the company that owns Goregaon Social. Unverified reports, however, claimed that the restaurant has now taken down the controversial stained glass paintings and is currently closed for maintenance.

Singled out?

The dissent voiced by offended Catholic groups and individuals, however, seem to be less about the specific elements of the pub’s interiors and more about a general perception of being “taken for granted”.

“What would have happened if any other religion or clergy was mocked and ridiculed?” said Joseph Dias, head of the Catholic Secular Forum. “Why are Catholics taken for granted and singled out for such outrageous treatment?”

Father Warner D’Souza, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese, echoed the same point. “For two months, people have been patronising this pub and no one realised that its design can be offensive to Christians,” he said. “If this were done with any other community, would they tolerate it? We are always playing an unfair game.”

This sentiment has also found support among some Catholic youth who are unaffiliated to any of the organisations that have officially condemned the restaurant. “I would certainly not go so far as to say that the owners need to be arrested,” said a Catholic college student from Bandra who did not wish to be named. “But the fact is that the designers would not even think of similarly making fun of Hindu temples or mosques in India.”

An Indian problem?

Goregaon Social is not the first Mumbai restaurant to receive a backlash from a religious community. In 2006, the city’s Jewish community – and the governments of Israel and Germany – raised objections to a Navi Mumbai restaurant that had launched with the name “Hitler’s Cross”. The controversy ended in less than a week when the restaurant’s owner agreed to change its name to “Cross Cafe”.

While the cafe named after Adolf Hitler attracted international media coverage, observers believe that the stir over a church-themed pub may be more specific to the Indian context.

In the past few decades, with religious practitioners on the decline, hundreds of empty churches across Europe have been repurposed into bars, shops, concert halls, banks and other venues. In most cases, church authorities themselves hand over the space for remodelling and reuse, with little controversy. In Scotland, for instance, an old church was converted into a Frankenstein-themed bar, while in the Netherlands, a church is now being used as a skateboarding park, with rap music in place of hymns, tyres around statues of saints and a painting of Jesus holding a skateboard. Far from taking offence, a local pastor has been quoted in a report saying he can “see the humour in it”.

“In Europe, old churches have been turned into offices and restaurants and they often use irreverent imagery, but people there don’t see it as offensive,” said Rochelle Pinto, an academic researcher. “In the Indian context, I can see why some might find something like this objectionable – because of the sentiment that any other community would not take such irreverence lightly.”

Nonetheless, Pinto does not believe that the owners of Goregaon Social need to face a police complaint for their choice of interiors. “I don’t think they meant any intentional insult – I think they see it more as exotica,” said Pinto. “It is one thing to voice dissent against this if one is offended, but there is no need to make a bigger issue out of something that is really inconsequential.”