Public art in Mumbai, never very edifying, has been joined by some colourful and strange installations in different parts of the city
Mumbai: At Mumbai’s Cross Maidan near Churchgate station, a gaggle of curious onlookers stares at the young man posing next to a rather large bust of a police officer. The man raises his hand in a smart salute, mimicking the figure while his friend clicks a picture. A small boy follows and salutes the same way.
A fortuitous scheduling of a favourite city street festival and the celebration of the Prime Minister’s Make in India week that opened on Saturday have resulted in the sprouting of a large number of statues and installations all over the city. Some colourful, others somewhat odd and a few startling examples of public art have sprung up at intersections, drawing curious glances and, as in the case of the police inspector, a bit of admiration too.
At the busy Haji Ali junction stands Mumbai’s Nagrik (citizen), a 25-foot tall sculpture. He wears a nondescript ensemble complete with a tie, carries a laptop bag (with Make in India embossed on it) and an umbrella. This is supposed to be the common man of 2016 – a corporate drone wearing a glazed expression on his sullen face. He looks boring and unhappy – everything that art is not meant to be.
Near the Art Deco Eros cinema is a tall and multi-hued figure doing surya namaskar, while office goers scurry past him. Near the magnificent Gothic headquarters of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai is the Lion of Gears, the mascot of the Make in India initiative.
There are multiple life-sized Make In India lion sculptures, in wood, metal and one that is composed of giant medicinal pills — to reflect the pharmaceutical industry, no doubt — at different locations around the city. For the annual Kala Ghoda Art Festival, there are installations all over Rampart Row, Cross Maidan, David Sassoon Library and Museum Garden. There’s everything from the cliched I Love Mumbai signage to a multi-coloured canopy of cycle tyres to the sponsored The Fabric of Life to a giant pair of Kolhapur chappals (yes!), presumably to showcase a traditional trade of the state.
Public art in dubious taste
Nagrik and his fellow figures joins a long list of aesthetically questionable public art in the metropolis. There is the unfathomably hideous Child Gives Birth To A Mother statue at the Bandra-Mahim junction. Commissioned by a local hotelier, the work, by an unknown artist, shows a woman, presumably a mother, holding a baby and has the words ‘Child gives birth to a mother’ etched at the base. No one knows who commissioned it or indeed permitted it to come up at the spot.
About two years ago, a 15-foot tall baby head was unveiled in Nariman Point. Aptly described as ‘nightmare-inducing’ by many, this Chintan Upadhyay bulbous, fibreglass sculpture is imprinted with asuras, vada pau and scenes from the 26/11 attack. A traffic island on Worli Seaface has giant psychedelic polka dotted flowers by mural artist Rouble Nagi, with little or no connection to the surroundings or anything else really. At Juhu Circle near the beach, four bronzed men play the dhol and the ektara as a woman dressed in a traditional Maharashtrian sari carries a dead potted plant on her head. Most of these leave citizens quite unmoved.
Great cities across the world have public art that stimulate new energy and conversations to become an integral part of the urbanscape. Think Anish Kapoor’s mammoth Cloud Gate in Chicago, Melbourne’s sonic art work, the Federation Bells or Yue Minjun’s A-maze-ing Laughter sculptures in Vancouver. In comparison, there is very little public art in Mumbai and what does exist leaves a lot to be desired.
At the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (KGAF), a 10-day street celebration of arts, crafts, music and literary discussions, the venue has many installations by up and coming artists which are great draws for visitors. Not only to they bring art to the public at large, they are perfect props for selfies.
“KGAF is the only opportunity for those who feel inhibited to walk into a gallery to experience art. But otherwise Mumbai is the only city in the world that doesn’t have enough public art. There are people who believe that something is better than nothing but I feel what’s come up is not curated,” says artist Brinda Miller-Chudasama, who made a mural on the dockyard wall about eight years ago, and is also the Festival Director of the KGAF.
Brinda’s favourite public installation was eminent sculptor Piloo Pochkhanawala’s Spark that used to be at the Haji Ali traffic circle. “It was demolished years ago and now there’s a miniature version outside the NGMA but it doesn’t have the same impact,” she says, adding, “At least at KGF, if people don’t like the art, its temporary. On the other hand, a lot of people don’t like the installations at Worli Seaface but they aren’t going away. One has to be careful of what we put up because these become a part of the cityscape and a reflection of who we are as a city”.
There is no word yet on whether the new examples of public art set up for the Make in India will stay or be quietly removed once the event is over. Mumbaikars can be forgiven for wondering if they will have to pass by the doleful Nagrik watching over their traffic jams for all time to come.