While studying in London in 2012, designers Ruchita Madhok and Aditya Palsule noticed that it differed from their home city, Mumbai, in a very fundamental way. Though both have long histories, London, unlike Mumbai, likes to celebrate its heritage – anybody can uncover its secrets and treasures by following the maps, guidebooks and other resources available in local bookstores. On their return to India, the couple did not forget their London experiences. Instead, after they set up their design studio Kahani Designworks, they began a project to celebrate Mumbai’s history and culture.
Called Storycity, the project started life by documenting the beautifully intricate heritage floor tiles that harken to a bygone era. After that came the city guides. Madhok and Palsule’s first guide included maps of its museums, the second plotted places with a connection to the sea, and the third offered a tour of the historic buildings in Fort. Their fourth guide, the latest in the series, honours a part of Mumbai that doesn’t often come to mind when thinking about it – the city’s green spaces.
On Nature’s Trail lists 18 places where Mumbaikars can get respite from the concrete chaos around them. Some of the mentions on the foldable map, made of eco-friendly paper, are well known – such as the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and Byculla’s Rani Baug – but many of them are not. For instance, there’s Thane’s Ovalekar Wadi Butterfly Garden, a two-acre ancestral farm converted into a garden. Unlike most butterfly parks, Ovalekar Wadi does not cage the colourful insects, so visitors can see nearly 100 species from up close on Sundays, the only day the park is open to the public.
There’s also room for some off-beat choices on the map. Dadar’s Flower Market is much like the train station nearby: busy, crowded, with little space for movement. Yet it finds a place in On Nature’s Trail, because, according to Madhok, “If you really love flowers, that is the best place to go at 5’o clock in the morning. It kind of takes you back to the tradition we’ve had of making flowers a daily part of your life in some way, of using natural materials in your celebrations.”
Another interesting inclusion is the architectural elements from the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus. Although much of Madhok and Palsule’s research came from books and interviews, serendipity had a hand in the addition of the train station’s splendour to their map. During a heritage walk organised by the conservation group INTACH, the couple realised that the structure was inscribed with images of cobras and peacocks, and flora and fauna of the Western Ghats. Their fascination with the designs grew more upon learning that they had been created by students of the nearby JJ School of Art.
“Most people don’t look up during the hustle and bustle of their daily commute,” Palsule said, “but it is all there.”
Madhok, who wrote and illustrated On Nature’s Trail, made sure that the map didn’t just give elementary information about green spaces, such as year of founding and precise location, but also offered some interesting titbits.
For instance, two of Mumbai’s most beloved public parks – Mahim’s Maharashtra Nature Park and Bandra’s Jogger’s Park – were once garbage dumps. Guided by three enterprising citizens in the mid-1980s, Maharashtra Nature Park began its slow transformation to becoming a haven of bio-diversity that it is today. Incidentally, it was while walking in the Mahim Nature Park, and reflecting on its history amidst its 18,000 trees, that Madhok and Pansule were inspired to create On Nature’s Trail.
“It’s interesting to see that sort of citizen’s involvement and civil responsibility towards their neighbourhood,” said Madhok. “I think that’s one of the things we would love if the map encourages more people to feel like they can make a difference.”
Another historical narrative that inspired the duo was the connection between Sanjay Gandhi National’s Park’s Kanheri Caves and ancient trading routes. Travellers and pilgrims came to Nalasopara via ship and made the journey to Kalyan to take another ship. During their stay, they often rested in the relative comfort of these caves.
According to Madhok, these stories add character to the spaces and make them relatable. Palsule added: “A city is, you know, more than just roads and buildings, and fancy flyovers. It’s really about the conversations between the people that live there. And stories are just a better way for people to engage with their locality.”