Humour: The perils and pleasures of exploring Mumbai's public art

Humour: The perils and pleasures of exploring Mumbai’s public art

We all have that one friend who’s an art bore. Someone for whom the brim of the glass is not wide enough and the trim of the lace not white enough. Let’s set these insufferable aesthetes aside for a liberating moment. Art – as anyone who didn’t go to art school will confirm – is a personal, subjective matter. I find it difficult to get through four lines of Wordsworth, and to so many he’s the last mellifluous word on poetry. But there’s one category of art that valiantly defies this subjective description of aesthetics: public art. It is that branch of art that, by definition, seeks to delight and edify a large mass of people. I offer, as a case study, the glorious installations littered around the streets of Mumbai, my beloved, bedraggled city. Where should I begin? With the wiry Bandra behemoth informing you that A Child Gives Birth To A Mother – a message carried over the special breeze wafting over the Mahim creek? Or that other infant at the other end of town, in Nariman Point – ChintanUpadhyay’s scarily bonny baby with elaborate markings all over its red face? Or the magnificent Shilpa Shetty likeness, stretched out over a mini sea link in a sleeping bridge pose at JVPD Scheme? I would dwell at length on each of these masterpieces, but Mumbai is a vast city, and column inches are fewer than those around Ms. Shetty’s remarkable waist. If you happen to be driving past Haji Ali, dashing to NCPA to catch a choir from Oxford (don’t), you might encounter a familiar figure made unrecognisable: a dabba-wallah sculpture made of glittering golden discs. This after you’ve already survived Ameet Satam’s Magic Garden At Juhu-Versova Link Road (I’ve never actually gone in, scared off by the distant image of fantastically-ornate street lamps) and the ineffable island dedicated to Mohammed Rafi at the Lucky signal in Bandra (a metal ball enclosed in a glass case held within a giant nib, was that?). And those horrid Delhi-wallahs claim we’ve got no culture. Hmph. The new international airport in Mumbai stands apart from the rest of the city as a modern museum. I have to admit it’s good to see the art and craft installations on the endless walk from the aerobridge to the conveyor belt. And a particular installation at T2 – one featuring a bright and kitschy Babasaheb Ambedkar holding the Constitution always gets me thinking, which is one of art’s primary uses. But as Katherine Boo’s Booker-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers… so memorably shows us, there’s an alternative reality lurking in the shadows of this fancy airport we’re all so proud of. Adding colour to this greyer reality, we have the wall art movement (the open invitation to paint the boundary walls of Mahim station was a superb initiative), which has travelled to bastis and other marginalised communities from Dharavi to Kamathipura. In Bandra’s Chapel Road, Bollywood icons stare out of walls, old poster style. Elsewhere in the suburbs, tree stumps are painted as a protest against their felling. It’s always good when the public gets involved in public art. For all the bitter pills we have had to swallow in the name of art, Mumbai these days is throwing us a few nutritious crumbs. Two spots around the Bandstand promenade feature giant animal installations, each filled with hundreds of plastic bottles. A hard-hitting reminder of how we’re choking our planet with mindless consumption. We have a giant colourful mural of Gandhi stepping out of a third-class compartment, painted across the side of the Churchgate station building. And in BKC, we have some fine installations by prominent artists – such as Subodh Gupta’s cubic Aakash, Pataal, Dharti – lifting the gloom of corporate routine. Of course, the city still has its handful of historic monuments and statues. But even the pristine Haji Ali is often covered in psychedelic lights straight out of a ’90s discotheque. These days we even have new kaala ghodas standing in for the original kaala ghodas, confounding those tracing the history of this shape-shifting city. I shall ponder the question as I walk past the creepy Indian mermaid sculpture at Juhu Beach, and towards the towering Chhatrapati Shivaji statue pointing accusingly at the Arabian Sea.
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