Yeh hai Mumbai meri jaan
An exhibition showcasing six life-size sculptures captures the spirit and the frenetic pace of the city
Travelling in a Virar fast is an even bigger nightmare than, say, getting stuck on a potholed Mumbai road in peak-hour traffic. But artist Valay Shende had to take that particular train on a daily basis for three years after he shifted to the suburb in 2004. He describes the experience as being similar to what you’d feel like when drowning in the sea. “It’s difficult to breathe when you’re among so many people. And I would normally stand near the gate since it was almost impossible to get off otherwise, which meant that I’d get a free massage of sorts when people would board or alight from the train,” he laughs, adding that he observed two types of passengers in that local — those who’d given up on life and were just going through the motions to earn their daily bread, and those who still had the will to fight and make something better of their lives. “That’s in fact the case with the whole nation as well. Eighty per cent of the population is sleeping, while the rest are working towards making a change,” Shende says.
A sculpture of a dabbawalah
He adds that in his struggling years — when he’d walk from his Worli home to JJ School of Art where he studied, or when he’d go through the whole Virar fast grind — he always considered himself to belong in the category of fighters. And going by the stellar quality of the sculptures that are part of Spirit of Bombay, Shende’s exhibition that’s currently on display in the atrium of a Lower Parel mall, it’s fair to say that his efforts have paid off. There are six life-size artworks showcased. Each depicts a particular facet of Mumbai life that makes up the fabric of this city. There is one where Shende has used watches that are still ticking to create the image of a dabbawallah, for example. Another shows passengers inside the compartment of a Virar fast. There is also one that depicts a truck carrying labourers in transit. And each is so intricately designed that it captures the essence of the narrative that the artist is trying to build here — that of human stories that would otherwise be lost in the frenzied pace of the city.
An installation depicting passengers in a Virar Fast local train.
Shende tells us that his interest in art developed during his childhood in Nagpur. His father had a business of scraps. There was thus a big warehouse next to their house filled with machine parts and other such material. A young Shende would spend hours there, fascinated with the different objects and constantly creating new things with them. That’s how he gravitated naturally towards the art world, finishing a two-year diploma in his hometown first and then shifting to Mumbai to join JJ when he was 20.
But he adds that his first year in the city was difficult to digest. “Everything was new and came across as dramatic. And I realised that I had to keep up if I had to survive in such an energetic city,” Shende says. It’s that very energy that he’s encapsulated in the sculptures in this exhibition. And its basis lies in people here having no choice in life but to get things done. “Unki woh majboori hain. If you have to survive here, you have to do what you have to do, come what may. But the city also gives you a lot back if you look at things in a practical, positive way. You do get results,” he tells us, before explaining how studying human behaviour lies at the centre of his artistic approach.
“Our behaviour is the reflection of our culture. If there is just one person in a place, there is no culture to speak of. But that changes when you bring four or five people together in a kind of a society. I also always feel as if I am a citizen of this entire planet, without any limitations of borders or anything. And being an artist, I have a certain responsibility towards the society, which means it’s important for me to be aware of my surroundings and portray the time I live in through my art, so that people 500 years down the line understand what the scene was like right now,” he says, adding that that’s the reason he’s used only top-quality material for the sculptures, so that their lasting permanence will inform future generations about a dabbawallah’s crucial role in building Mumbai. Or, for that matter, what an absolute nightmare travelling in a Virar fast can be.
Till: August 18, 11 am to 10 pm
At: Palladium Mumbai, Tulsi Pipe Road, Lower Parel.
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