> What's the Story?
> Mrs. Fixit
> Desperately Seeking Ingredients...
> Passionate about Mill Road
> Caribbean Masterchef
> Everything is Possible!
> A Sanctuary on Mill Road
> Boat People
> Going Green with Al-Amin
> The Akashi Project
> Open All Hours
> Mesmerised by Meze
> Come Together
> The Girl from Arapau
> Still Sweet and Spicy
> A Real Neighourhood
> Lei Si Fan Mei?
> Flight from Baghdad
> Streets of Revolution
> Stepping up the Ladder
The old Mill Road Library has been given a new lease of life as Bharat Bhavan, the Indian Community and Cultural Association. This Autumn it opens its doors as a fully renovated purpose designed space complete with Hindu Shrine. Overseeing the mammoth task is SURESH PATEL.
In an unnamed side street (soon to be Bharat Way) leading to the city depot at the foot of the Mill Road bridge stands the old Mill Road Library. Built in 1896, the cavernous redbrick building was once a public lending library, an important nexus in the neighbourhood. Like many other public services, it fell victim to short sighted spending cuts in the 1990s.
The solid wooden book stacks, newspaper racks and reading tables have long since been removed. What greets me as I push open the large door to the old library is a vast white space, a high vaulted ceiling and at one end, still incongruously wrapped in bubble wrap, the beautiful, intricately carved stone altarpiece of a Hindu shrine. I can make out elephant-trunk supported brackets, devotional wheels. Fresh sawn timber has been stacked at the other end of the hall, and from somewhere above on a high mezzanine hung with a hessian dust curtain, comes what sounds like someone sandpapering. When I call out his name, the noise stops and from behind the dust curtain, Suresh Patel appears.
We sit on moulded plastic chairs in the middle of the hall, with a view through the open door to the street where Suresh wants to keep an eye on his car, parked in one of only two pay-and-display bays. ‘I’ve paid for another hour,’ he says. ‘But if I run over by just four minutes, I get fined. The traffic wardens’ office is just next door and they’re merciless.’
A highly experienced architect and urban planner, Kenyanborn Suresh trained in India in the sixties, and worked in Nigeria and the Midlands before becoming head of design on a government research project near Oxford in 2000. ‘The Indian community in Cambridge had no permanent place to hold various religious and cultural events. There was a real need for a purpose-designed meeting place for local Indian elders, who found themselves stuck at home, isolated, their children out at work. Many of them spoke only Gujarati, so social services could not really meet their needs. It seemed obvious they should come together.’ In 1996 the building’s landlord, Cambridge County Council, invited various community groups to submit proposals for use of the former library. The Indian Community and Culture Association’s proposal was one of 35 submitted. They won.
Statue of Hindu God - Ganesha
||‘We’ve called it Bharat Bhavan, which means India House. We use it for all sorts of Indian cultural and religious get-togethers, and teach Indian dance, music and languages. But we also open it to over 16 different users, from an African dance group to a yoga class. Though it’s a Hindu centre, it’s open to absolutely everyone. With all the rich and varied communities we have in this city, how often do we all come together?’
As a place of worship, Bharat Bhavan cannot receive government assistance. Amazingly, the £85,000 that has gone into redesigning the old library has been raised entirely from individual donations and local fund-raising events. They are still in need of a further £40,000. ‘Every Saturday lunchtime we serve home cooked vegetarian curry at £3–£4 a plate. Our Indian lassi drinks are very popular at only 50p a glass. It all adds up, and has allowed us to remove the false ceiling and open up this lovely vaulted space with its high lantern window. It also paid for the Hindu shrine carvings we had done in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in local sandstone, and shipped to Cambridge. I just couldn’t find the craftsmen to do it over here. Although many Indians left for the UK as highly skilled wood and stone carvers and embroiderers, once here, they got jobs driving buses and trains, or running small grocery outlets. All lost their skills as artisans. It’s sad. It took 25 craftsmen 4 months to produce that altar. All the various statues of the deities which are so important in a Hindu shrine, Ganesh, Vishnu, Krishna and Ram, we got in Jaipur which is the place in India for deities carved in marble by families of stone carvers practising their trade for centuries.’
The plans for Bharat Bhavan are ambitious. From a new entrance from the street, the visitor will be welcomed by a marble statue of the elephant god Ganesh in a niche (‘Ganesh is a must in any Hindu building’, says Suresh).
The white walls will be hung with paintings and sequined embroideries depicting scenes from life on the Indian sub-continent as well as East Africa. Suresh, one hired labourer and a volunteer are currently carrying out the refurbishment of the new facilities which will include kitchens, a basement dance studio, and a disabled lift up to what will one day be an airy mezzanine complete with resource centre and cafeteria serving up vegetarian food. ‘We want to have the daily newspapers available. I’m mindful of the fact this was once a library. In our proposal we stressed that we wanted to maintain the original building’s function. So not everything is changing; we’re committed to restoring many features to how they were in 1896. This beautiful Victorian redbrick structure is an asset to Cambridge. It belongs to us all.’
The Hindu Shrine in Bharat Bhavan will be inaugurated this autumn when the carved statues of revered Hindu deities are carried in colourful procession from the Guildhall, along Parkside and Mill Road. Local schools, colleges and music groups will be invited to join in the festivities. Besides the beautifully decorated bullock cart, there are plans afoot for a holy cow, and if possible an elephant! No Hindu festivity is worthy of its name without musicians, bhajan mandli (devotional singers) and street dancers in colourful costumes. ‘And plenty to eat,’ Suresh assures me. ‘Prassadam is the offering of food to everyone who comes to pranapratishta, the religious ceremony where life is instilled into the marble statues and they actually become deities’.
Suresh stands up from the plastic chairs on which we’ve been sitting and we walk towards the main door. It’s time to feed the greedy pay-and-display meter. ‘Bharat Bhavan is a Hindu space but it’s open to everyone,’ Suresh repeats. I wonder if this extends to traffic wardens. ‘Absolutely everyone!’ laughs Suresh. ‘We all have to come together!’
> back to top