Amphitheatre Act II

Published: May 29, 2011, 12:07 IST | Lhendup G Bhutia

Rang Bhavan may have gone from a concert venue to a deserted ground used by neighbourhood lads to play gully cricket, but the Mumbai police band is playing Justin Beiber hits at Dadar Chowpatty and Navi Mumbai is gearing up for a 7,000-seater open air venue. Will the revival of the amphitheatre help Mumbai's live music culture?

Rang Bhavan may have gone from a concert venue to a deserted ground used by neighbourhood lads to play gully cricket, but the Mumbai police band is playing Justin Beiber hits at Dadar Chowpatty and Navi Mumbai is gearing up for a 7,000-seater open air venue. Will the revival of the amphitheatre help Mumbai's live music culture?

Last year in February, audiences at the Hanging Gardens were in for a surprise. Something Relevant, a six-member indie-funk band jammed with no one less than 30 members of the Mumbai police band. For over two hours, the unusual double act dished out classics including Final Countdown and pop acts like Shalala Lala.
Yesterday, evening strollers at Dadar Chowpatty went away equally surprised. The same police band came up with another ace. It played the Justin Beiber hit Baby Baby.

Both performances were part of the Bandstand Revival Project, an initiative to revive the culture of performances at open-air venues. There have been three editions so far, starting in 2007, with the second one held last year. But, it is this year's three month-long edition that has been the most successful. Spread across three venues (Hanging Gardens, Dadar Chowpatty and the Carter Road amphitheatre), the festival wound up yesterday.

The Dadar Chowpatty concerts drew between 1,000 to 2,000 people per performance; a far cry from the first performance at Hanging Gardens, which saw a crowd of a few hundreds.


Past> Rang Bhavan, which for years played host to major music festivals
in the city, including Independence Day Rock and Jazz Yatra, is a shadow
of its former self. After the Bombay High Court's 2003 judgement that
ruled that performances cannot be held at the venue, the area is
now deserted.
Pic/Atul Kamble


Present> 2010's edition of the Bandstand Revival Project saw an
unusual combination. The seven-member grunge band Something
Relevant teamed up with the iconic 30-member Mumbai Police band to
keep audiences enthralled. 
PIC/SHADAB KHAN


Future> Central Park in Kharghar, which spreads across 80 hectares,
is expected to be ready next year. Apart from other facilities, the park
will house a 7,000-seating capacity amphitheatre. PIC/SAMEER MARKANDE
 

Reclaiming open spaces
Over the years, individual outfits, from musicians to dancers, have been utilising Mumbai's open-air venues. For instance, Traveling River Band, which plays experimental music, dabbling equally in alternative rock, blues and folk, holds at least three concerts at amphitheatres every two months, in addition to regular gigs at private pubs. Expressions Modern Dance Company that tutors students in modern dance, has often held performances at Bandra's Carter Road amphitheatre. Only a few months ago, they organised an impromptu, non-choreographed and bereft of music performance called Nature Moves. Sasha Goradia from the dance group says, "The performance was to have no music, and the dancers were to perform to the sounds of the sea and breeze. The audience had no idea. A concept performance like this was best suited for this amphitheatre."

Often, the joy of letting go under an open sky comes second to bypassing the hassle of bagging one of Mumbai's closed venues.

"It is a cultural expression," says Stuart DaCosta from Something Relevant. "There are many limitations to a gig in a pub. There are restrictions on attire, smoking. The audience comes from a certain class, and a certain type of music is played," he says.

What the city gains
Kavita Sharma, joint director of Bombay Chamber of Commerce and Industry and organiser of the Bandstand Revival Project, agrees with DaCosta.

"There are several closed venues showing musical, dance and theatrical performances, but these are attended by the elite only. What about those who cannot afford these places? Amphitheatres in Mumbai have historically pulled people from various classes, and they are doing it again," she says.

Interestingly, the big push towards performances in open-air venues may not come from Mumbai, but the satellite township of Navi Mumbai. Recently, two gardens in Panvel and Kalamboli were inaugurated -- both have amphitheatres that can house 200 people each. Since its launch in 2009, the 450-seater amphitheatre in Urban Haat, Belapur (modelled along the lines of Delhi Haat to promote art and crafts) has been the venue of several music shows.

The biggest impetus to the amphitheatre scene both, in Mumbai and Navi Mumbai is, however, still under construction. The Central Park in Kharghar, spread across an area of around 80 hectares, is to be opened next year. The park will provide tracks for joggers, house a botanical garden, theme parks, a sports stadium, and an amphitheatre with a seating capacity of 7,000.

Public Relations Officer of CIDCO Mohan Ninawe says, "In the coming months, we will be inaugurating more gardens with amphitheatres. We want to create an open-air performance culture in Navi Mumbai. Perhaps performers who are unable to get an opportunity to perform in Mumbai's amphitheatres will find an opportunity here."

Mumbai's old love
A city that's struggling to hold on to its performance and live music culture has in fact, had a long history of open-air concerts, dating back to the colonial rule. In the 19th century, the military band played every evening at what is now Horniman Circle in Fort. It slowly turned into one of the main sources of entertainment for city dwellers, and its success prodded the British to construct more bandstands at Apollo Bunder and Yacht Club among other locations. Once the British left, the performances thinned down, until in the 1970s, when the Police and Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) bands began playing popular tunes from Hindi films and other English acts.

While the amphitheatre at Rang Bhavan on MG Road functioned for many years, holding iconic festivals like Independence Day Rock for 18 years, and shows featuring legends like Shiv Kumar Sharma, Zakir Hussain, Sting, Jethro Tull and John Mc Laughlin, a High Court order in 2003 deemed the venue to fall in a 'silence zone'. (Any place that falls within 100 metres of a court, religious place, educational institution or hospital is deemed to be a silence zone.) Despite citizen campaigns and occasional although oscillating support from politicians, the venue now lies deserted.

Like Rang Bhavan, Rampart Row that hosted the landmark cultural event, the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival for years, was also found to fall in a 'silence zone'. While its various activities carried on as usual in February 2011, the Bombay High Court ordered organisers to do away with loudspeakers and amplifiers. This was a shade better than the previous year when the entire music component of the event had to be cancelled and moved to the commercial district of Horniman Circle, a 10-minute walk away.

"A city like Mumbai is noisy. Here, schools are located underneath residential apartments; even hospitals organise loud Ganpati pujas. How can you target only musical venues?" asks Farhad Wadia, founder of Independence Day Rock.

The troubles ahead
The Bandstand Revival Project's crusade hasn't been without hurdles either. Sharma, who claims to have secured all necessary permissions, was warned by the local police station at Dadar Chowpatty, and the residents  of Carter Road as well, to keep the noise levels down. "On two occasions, policemen arrived at the Dadar Chowpatty show and threatened to disrupt it, if noise levels were not kept below 70 decibels. At that level, it is impossible to hold a music show. They told us we were inconveniencing the residents, and the Shiv Sena chief, who lives nearby," Sharma says.

While the Dadar Chowpatty venue may have been a big success for the festival, party poopers may have already won the war, with Sharma saying she might reconsider holding concerts there in future, if problems persist.

For the city's noise activists however, the disturbance factor is central, no matter how enjoyable the open-air fest may be. Sumaira Abdulai of the Awaz Foundation, a non-for-profit organisation dedicated to reducing noise pollution, says, "During the British era, these amphitheatres were successful, but space wasn't a problem then. Now there are people living close to these venues."

Despite the tussle between activists and festival organisers and performers, the optimistic bunch continue to believe in the power of open-air venues. Akash Sharma, guitarist with Traveling River Band, says, "The audience has always loved it, and so have the musicians." He would know. This February, despite knowing that there was a ban on amplifiers and speakers at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, he played with his band without a single amplifier.

"Only about 10 people in the front row could hear us. But it was so much fun."

World's oldest surviving amphitheatre
The Amphitheatre of Pompeii is considered to be the oldest surviving amphitheatre in the world. It is located in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, and was built around 70 BCE. It was built out of stone, and the next Roman amphitheatre to be built from stone was the Colosseum in Rome, after nearly a century. Pompeii's amphitheatre was called a spectacula, since the term amphitheatrum was then not in use. Around AD 59 CE, a deadly brawl occurred between Pompeians and Nuceria residents in the amphitheatre, which resulted in games being banned at the venue for 10 years. Amongst other events, it hosted gladiatorial games. The music band Pink Floyd filmed a video and concert film (Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii) in the amphitheatre.
Watch the YouTube video at http://bit.ly/xMgh3

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