Growing up in Mumbai several decades ago, many felt that Bombay’s spiritual home was indeed New York, specifically Manhattan. It was another matter that thanks to prohibition in the 1970s, spirits were banned in the city. Instead the ‘vibrant’ underworld that fed off smuggling gold and liquor made you feel a bit like Chicago. Okay. Kidding.
But whether Mumbai and Manhattan have anything in common at all, it will not come from an artificial creation of Times Square whether in the heritage precinct of Kala Ghoda or anywhere else, as proposed by the Central government. Times Square for the tourists who visit New York is about freedom, diversity, choice, culture, entertainment and outrageous glamour. Times Square is just at the corner of Broadway, the theatre headquarters of USA.
Kala Ghoda is one of Mumbai’s recent cultural tourist successes. It has become a confluence of heritage, art and culture and that makes its annual festival a massive draw. Mumbai may be India’s commercial capital but the Kala Ghoda festival puts Mumbai on a cultural map.” File Pic
What part of Mumbai fits that description? Our authorities run for cover whenever they meet the outrageous and then fire arrows in the most cowardly manner behind the facade of moral policing. It is hard to imagine how the Bombay Police Act would be applied at Times Square or anywhere in New York — the whole population in jail perhaps?
No, Times Square is a state of mind and India does not have it. We have, not yet, in almost 70 years understood the concepts of freedom of speech and expression and we use culture and tradition as an excuse to stamp out originality. A city where a painting by MF Husain has to be hastily removed from the walls of a luxury hotel for fear of offending someone is not a city, which can understand Times Square.
And then there’s the idea of improving tourism in Mumbai and picking on Kala Ghoda. As it happens, Kala Ghoda is one of Mumbai’s recent cultural tourist successes. It has become a confluence of heritage, art and culture and that makes its annual festival a massive draw. For those two weeks — in spite of carping and quibbling by residents — performance art, literary discussions, music, theatre, dance, art, food, handicrafts and so much more jostle for attention. Mumbai may be India’s commercial capital but the Kala Ghoda festival puts Mumbai on a cultural map.
Bright neon signs and live video streaming will not only detract from that — and who knows what those residents will say — but will also be pointless. Besides, Kala Ghoda is a citizens’ initiative. Government grants to destroy its ethos are hardly what it requires. A leafy area with heritage buildings and art galleries and iconic institutions like the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) — does it really need massive neon signs?
If Mumbai’s tourism potential needs to be improved and New York is what you’re looking at, then why not drop the hypocrisy that politicians try and enforce? Stop worrying about the lengths of women’s skirts or the fact that people drink alcohol or stay up late at night or public displays of affection. To make Mumbai like New York, take another look at the laws that govern restaurant timings, drop the archaic Bombay Police Act and get rid of the concept of ‘permit rooms’. Open your mind to the 21st century.
And if there is indeed money to spend on this concept, revisit Times Square and take a look at Broadway. Maybe if the money to be spent on hoardings could be given to the theatre in Mumbai? The city’s once grand traditions of Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi and English theatre could do with a little help. Make some part of Mumbai the theatre precinct and fill it with as many lights as you want. A little bit of Broadway, Times Square and London’s West End, all here in some part of Mumbai, plus generous grants for theatre companies. After that, the lights will come by themselves. The Centre won’t have to pay for them.
Even better, go back to the drawing board and forget these silly gimmicks that will do nothing to improve Mumbai tourism potential. Everyone can see through them for what they are. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, it is politicians expecting us to bow and pray to the neon god they have made.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona