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Re-imagining Mumbai

Monday, June 02, 2014
By Carol Andrade

One of the many things that sets Mumbai apart from other, real global cities is the absence of any pretence of an artistic sense of beauty in its public spaces. You see this while traveling abroad in the northern and southern hemisphere, and you feel it even more when you return home to a city that looks ugly from the very air.

For our last anniversary issue in March, the ADC tried to get a sense of Mumbai’s engagement with its public spaces as places where citizens can actually relax and feast their eyes on installations.

Hard luck, and with the exception of Worli Naka, where Azrzan Khambatta’s leaping dolphins liven up the landscape, leading onto Worli seaface with its traffic island alive with flowers that look like they have escaped from an Enid Blytonian world, plus some gimcrack in the suburbs, there is nothing.

Mumbai’s perception of art seems to be statues – of kolis or musicians or the odd historical figure. In Paris and London, Rome and New York, Auckland, Melbourne and Brisbane,  public art installations make you stop and stare. In Sydney for instance, very near the botanical gardens, there is King
Edward on a black horse, looking exactly like the one that gave Kala Ghoda its name. Except that our king on a black horse is languishing in the Bhau Daji Laud garden (or perhaps not), along with Queen Victoria on her canopy. So the black horse has gone but we are too lazy even to rename the area, leaving a big hole in the history of our city.

Currently, the city has been flooded with pictures of the new piece of art, the fibre glass sculpture of a baby’s head created by artist Chintan Upadhyay, at a traffic light near Marine Drive in the Nariman Point area. Part of the RPG group’s initiative to introduce contemporary art into prominent traffic islands in the city, this is a welcome move. But it is hardly enough and definitely not consistent.

It is not as if there is no art in Mumbai. The galleries are exploding with shows using every kind of material to create art works, including paintings and sculptures.

The new commercial buildings in Mumbai, especially those in the newly-smart Parel, Worli and Lower Parel areas, have art installations, but they are off the street and known to comparatively few.

The Bhau Daji Laud Institution seems to have several, but this is not art one passes by and absorbs on a sub-conscious level.  And how many people actually realize that the new international terminal at Sahar is a rich repository of art, nearly 7,000 pieces, ranging from graphite drawings on wood to papier mache work, all mostly on a heroic scale.

Good luck with trying to enjoy those, and there is a sneaking suspicion that the unwary traveler for the first time to the city is likely to receive a cultural shock multiplied by the difference between the rarefied environs of Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and the brutal truth of filthy, ugly Mumbai.  

Every time a new “art work” pops up in Mumbai, virtually no information is communicated to the public,  and very ittle can be gauged from the work itself.

For example, at the madly busy, erroneously named Lokhandwala Circle in Juhu, at the traffic junction before the road branches off towards the Link Road to the north and Versova to the northwest, there are two traffic islands. One bears a sculpture of a group of musicians standing six abreast and playing away, the other now has an enormous sculpture of a rhinocerous.

Outside Mithibai College, also in Juhu, there are two metal rod installations, geometric representations of a globe and a pyramid, out of which emerge flying birds.  They look interesting. It remains to be seen what they look like in three months.

Which is why the news that a new concept in mixed use buildings, aimed at encouraging the display of art both contemporary and traditional, has been launched as part of Kurla’s Phoenix Marketcity Development. The building, called the Art House Guild, was opened this weekend just past, and will be completed finally next June. But it has thrown up immensely interesting possibilities for lovers of art and even the common citizen who likes public spaces filled with artistic concepts.

The brainchild of Gayatri and Atul Ruia, according to the former, regarded as the brains behind the concept of creating experiential spaces for the working denizens of the city, “At Art Guild House we would like to offer an unmatched ambience that seamlessly blends design, functionality and ergonomics with Art.” To cut through the marketspeak, this should make working in the building a fairly unique experience because it seems to combine experiencing the works as opposed to merely gazing at them.

After all, the Google offices in BKC as also the television channels like Star TV, created plenty of play places for their employees much earlier. And there are plenty buildings that offer you a chance to gawp at art works in lobbies etc. But this one seems to be a bit different.

“We have commissioned some of the country’s best known names to create the first series of works here, which are sure to elevate the work/life experience for all offices at Art Guild House,” Gayatri Ruia is quoted as saying.

Currently, what has been installed  are works by contemporary artists like Thukral and Tagra, Shilpa Gupta, Narendra Yadav, Sunil Gawde and Justin Ponmany. Though, as stated earlier, the building itself will take another year to be completed before offices move in, the unfinished structure is the backdrop for the Already installed  works, described as “some avante garde, some signature styles and some new age media.” All planned finally over six floors and two parking basement levels.

 Thukral and Tagra  already known for their versatility and have two  oil-on-canvas paintings and two installations. These are specially commissioned Table Tennis tables which they have playfully recreated on their own unique style in wood, and people can actually play on them.

Sunil Gawde, who famously takes inspiration frome everyday objects to metaphorically convert them for his art works, is showing two fibreglass bulbs, in black and white,  lit externally by UV lights and “decorated” with flies. The other piece is made in metal, with two sides, one showing moons waxing and waning and stars blinking, the other displaying the wheels and cogs that carry out the process.

A  video projection of a pendulum depicting time and how we are all always are trying to catch up with it has been fitted with a mechanism which makes the projector move so that the pendulums oscillates, is the contribution of Narendra Yadav who usually uses a variety mediums to express himself. And there is Justin Ponmany with a wall installation using  mosaic tiles, and sequential lights to create the impression of an optical illusion of the floor moving to the wall.

What is  going to be of utmost importance however, for the public to assimilate the idea of art outside a gallery, is the location. Kurla may be in the process of being hyped at the new commercial hub for Mumbai, served by a multiplicity of transport schemes and infrastructure, but the truth is, it has received so much bad press as being crowded, chaotic and dirty, and also on the wrong side of the city (the east!) that it will take much more than hype to pull people in, even if it is for art at its best.

Mumbai’s traffic scene militates against easy travel to any part of the city. If Sobo is still regarded as the triumph of location for anything, it is because it has had a 150 year head start on the rest of the city. Which means, the best bet is still public art, so lavishly distributed that one cannot help but be notice and be affected.

Given the current state of the the city, that may not happen any time soon.


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