Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival draws on centuries of history (w/ photos)

Published: June 29, 2014

The Dabbawalas of Mumbai

Picture 1 of 16

Submitted/ Shahid Datawala


Born and raised in India, Vancouver’s Sirish Rao never thought twice about the workers he’d see “bustling around” Mumbai train stations carrying a sea of tin lunch boxes in giant wooden crates perched atop their heads.

According to Rao, now artistic director of Vancouver’s Indian Summer Festival (which kicks off Thursday and runs until July 12), the workers are widely known across the city as “Dabbawalas,” which translates to “one who carries a box.” They’re part of Mumbai’s daily chaos, racing through streets and transit hubs to provide a lunch courier service that delivers hot, homemade lunches to workers in the downtown city centre. They begin their day in the outskirts of Mumbai, visiting suburban family homes to pick up the meals, then cycle, walk or take public transport to deliver the goods by the lunch hour.

The Dabbawalas of Mumbai happen to be one of Indian Summer Festival’s highlight events this year, as two workers have agreed to travel to Vancouver for a seminar to share their stories, organizational methods and tips for entrepreneurial success.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s, when Forbes Magazine, Harvard Business School and even Richard Branson started showing an interest in the Dabbawalas’ work, that Rao and many others realized these integral figures of the hectic Mumbai scene were part of one of the “most efficient organizations on the planet,” as they’re known for never making a mistake.

“The organization feeds off the fact that Indians like home-cooked food and hot food,” said Rao. “I’d hear about them all the time.”

“(But) you kind of look around and you don’t know that these guys are so amazing in what they do.”

Indian Summer Festival, now in its fourth year, started out rooted in Indian literature and has since expanded to include all of South Asia in a celebration of art, ideas and diversity through its showcase of local and internationally known South Asian artists.

This year’s eight-day festival offers a range of events from movies in the park, to yoga and bhangra classes, storytelling workshops, speaker series with authors and filmmakers and food tastings.

And while Mumbai’s Dabbawalas may seem an unlikely match for ISF, these workers, in fact, “fit in,” said Rao, as they’re artists themselves.

“If you’re from Bombay and you try to take a suburban train, that itself is an achievement,” Rao said with a laugh. “We want to offer ideas and here is something that’s driven by human passion.

“It’s a story, it’s a narrative — that’s what it’s driven by … this quintessential India, strange story.”

“We have speakers of all kinds — why not entrepreneurs?”

It’s this wide scope that makes ISF so classically Indian, said Rao, which results in “an unusual festival for North America.”

“Here, what normally happens is festivals are very clear about what genre they’re operating in — music, film or literature,” he said. “In India we’re more used to a festival that melds various disciplines.”

“This is a place where worlds meet in every way — disciplines, audiences, artists.”

The goal is to create an intriguing and exciting dialogue that is global in scope.

“We’re offering different perspectives on the world,” said Rao.


Event Details:

Lunchbox Legends: The Dabbawalas of Mumbai — Thursday July 10, 6 p.m., SFU’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, $25

For more information and event listings visit

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