Stop before your step, Mumbai

Fiona Fernandez.It’s a slow yet steady development that all kinds of Mumbaiites are thrilled about — be it the music buff, the festival hopper, the city chronicler and the heritage lover. And so, for a few years now, and more so in the current calendar year, there has been a heartening rise in the number of cultural events that have used heritage landmarks as fitting backdrops. It’s a commentary on the blending of the arts and heritage — a picture-perfect advertisement for the city, we believe.

The annual and much-followed Kala Ghoda Festival does justice to the glorious stretch from the David Sassoon Library, the Kala Ghoda square down Rampart Row, towards Lion Gate as well as the likes of the stately KR Cama Oriental Institute and the heart of intellectual Mumbai — the Town Hall; in fact, its steps doubled up as ideal vantage point to soak in a delightful playlist of live music acts against the stunning skyline of the BSE building, the spire of St Thomas Cathedral and the Romanesque semi-circular buildings that line the Horniman Circle Gardens. It felt like a dream destination for Mumbai’s open-air venue-starved junta.

Horniman Circle
Work  being carried out near Horniman Circle. Pic/Suresh KK

Of late, even the Horniman Circle Gardens joined this impressive list as it played venue for a couple of the popular performing arts and music events. It seems like a step in the right direction. That these festivals might be able to actually draw in people from all walks of life to watch, listen and hopefully, take home a slice of their city’s history and valued heritage (that they would probably have never second-glanced at before), would be a fabulous assumption to make.

But as one noticed last year — there was a flip side to it. On the penultimate day of the festival, when popular act after another played live at the Town Hall-facing stage, there was pandemonium unravelling on the hallowed steps. Some elements within the fast-increasing crowds grew boisterous after a while, didn’t seem to care about the sanctity or fragility (naturally) of the environs. Using the staircase railings as support, and in some cases, temporary seats, such acts of disregard put the entire space in grave danger. To make matters worse, the woefully inadequate security were left helpless when the promotion of a Bollywood film was squeezed in between acts, even as the crowd grew delirious when the leading lady in the film appeared on stage. We noticed a section of the railing give way with the pressure, as loads jostling for a glimpse of the starlet. Overall, it was a forgettable end to an otherwise pleasant evening of open air music in a great venue.

There wasn’t a repeat at the Horniman Circle venue this year. But we did notice a few signs of carelessness and disregard by visitors. There was litter (mostly used water bottles) strewn across this landmark, too many stalls stuffed into a small space such that one was barely able to enjoy this green patch in its quaint avatar, and no attempt being made to throw the spotlight on the importance of the venue itself (brochures on its significance - architecturally, historically and from the viewpoint of the city’s evolution, or heritage walk around the buildings and spots that grace the circle, would have helped).

One dearly hopes that while these landmarks are being opened up to the public, a blueprint is drafted to ensure a basic civic sense is observed, one that becomes mandatory to be followed when such heritage venues are used. Clearly, Mumbai can’t afford to face a ‘from-the-frying-pan-to-the-fire’ scenario. Neglect due to lack of funds and other issues mired in red tapism remains a continuous concern that plagues so many of our heritage structures and spaces but damage due to public negligence is like committing hara-kiri within an already fragile situation. Mumbai can do much better.

— The writer is Features Editor, MiD DAY 

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