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Culture, culture on the wall

Studying the listings gives one an indication of the cultural life of a city — and Mumbai is just about waking up to the possibilities of entertainment and engagement outside of malls and multiplexes. Every day on the listings pages, new venues are jostling for space, and every time there’s a music concert in Navi Mumbai, literature festival in Powai or something interesting happening in Thane, Borivli or Mulund, the heart gives a little cry of delight.


Reader’s delight: Children check out books during the first ever Mumbai Book Fair 2013 held at Powai

It may be premature to say that Mumbai is awash with culture, but as compared to, say, five years ago, there’s a hell of a lot more happening in the city. And things don’t just happen by themselves, people create a demand, or find a void and fill it. And if something is successful, or the people behind it are sufficiently dedicated and persistent, money follows too — may be not big money, but enough to attract more talent into curating, managing, promoting cultural events.

The sad thing is that, a large part of the cultural activity taking place in Mumbai, gets no support from the government or corporates. Money will flow into film awards shows and fashion weeks, but not even a fraction for culture. Surprisingly, for a city the size of Mumbai, there are hardly any cultural centres. There are auditoriums that can be hired, but just one multi-genre centre (the National Centre for the Performing Arts), a tiny Prithvi Theatre that initiates and supports a variety of events on a regular basis. There are venues like Nehru Centre, Shanmukhananda, Bhavans and the Maharashtra Kala Academy that often do good work too; there are a lot of festivals but why, for instance, is there no space where classical music or dance can be accessed by connoisseurs every day?

Still, there is some regular and some sporadic activity, especially in the areas of popular Western music and an explosion in stand up comedy and improv. People in this city love having a good time and ‘gigs’ offer that at a relatively low price. Blue Frog, Hard Rock Cafe, Canvas Laugh Factory (formerly the Comedy Store) are popular haunts.

More often than not, it is the passion of an individual that makes things happen — like Jehan Maneckshaw and his Theatre Professionals set up a drama school in the city; Atul Kumar established, with some support from like-minded people, The Company Theatre Workspace, which is a residency for theatre research and performance in Lonavla. Anil Dharker conceived of a Literature Festival and made it happen, and this was followed by many large and small lit fests in the city. Cyrus Dastur created a short film network called Shamiana in many cities across the country, recognising the hunger for culture in smaller cities and catering to it. Mahesh Babu’s Banyan Tree, Shashi Vyas’s Pancham Nishad have been working wonders over the years.

Several years ago, Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor had put in their own funds into building Prithvi Theatre, that revolutionised theatre in Mumbai. But this wonderful model was replicated only in Bangalore as Rang Shankara, when there should be many more small, well-managed, affordable spaces for the performing arts to reach the people. Still, a large part of the exploding suburbs in Mumbai have very little to offer the culturally inclined, as a result of which, people have nowhere to spend their leisure and disposable income except at malls, multiplexes and restaurants that are spouting all over, even in the most distant suburbs. People would, perhaps attend a concert or watch a play if they could at a convenient venue.

When there is a jazz or blues festival or an expertly curated classical music, dance or theatre event, audiences are found for them. And the fact that people crave new experiences was proved by the selling out of tickets months in advance for Metropolitan Opera and Bolshoi Ballet screenings at the NCPA.

Imagine if Mumbai had the facilities and resources for actually hosting cultural events of international standard!

If theatres and auditoriums cannot be built, the least the government can do to create an interest in culture is introduce appreciation of the arts in schools.

Even this aspect of culture is handled by individuals and independent organisations by holding workshops, especially during vacations. And the less said about bureaucratic hurdles to be crossed the better.

In spite of all the problems if there is still so much happening in the city that the listings sections have enough to put in those pages and have to leave out plenty more, it’s thanks to Mumbai’s spirit of enterprise. But if that isn’t really enough, considering the size of the city’s population, it just means that spirit needs more backing. 

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator

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