What would be precious to me about Mumbai, if it were to turn into my dream city?
I would love its cosmopolitan spirit to be valued, nurtured and celebrated. It would be a city that is at ease with itself, that chooses to outwardly celebrate its melting pot of traditions and values, and inwardly work towards breaking barriers between our gated communities and ghettos.
Spaces for culture and arts are central to the realization of this dream city. Not as a soft subject or ancillary add-on to prettify it, and not like our “beautification projects” that gloss over the filth and muck, but as an integral part of the city’s infrastructure.
What would these cultural spaces be?
Arts districts—which are vehicle-free—where pedestrians could amble through, soaking in the history of the area, be it Kala Ghoda or an entire mill property in central Mumbai or an area in the northern suburbs. Mumbai would have at least three such arts districts with spaces for artists of all disciplines—studio spaces for fine artists, kilns for potters, rehearsal spaces for theatre workers and dancers.
For the city dweller, the arts district should be an inviting destination. There would be cafés and Udipi restaurants side by side. Arts would spill on to the streets, where on certain days you would have flea markets, where bargaining was part of the spirit that one enjoyed. Streets would be home to performances. Dotting the pavements and by-lanes would be various language bookshops that brought the word alive in myriad ways as well as second-hand book vendors—celebrating the many languages that Mumbai is home to. There would also be study corners with solar lighting to cater to students who need good lights to study by night. The buildings in these precincts would be restored—bringing alive their pristine histories, inhabited by modern life—acknowledging and celebrating the past, but throbbing with the pulse of today.
There should be the possibility of hiring an audio guide, or downloading it on to your phone, so that as you walk through these areas, you have the option of being guided through its story—past and present. I dread visiting most of our archaeological sites because I fear the guide—or the lack of truly knowledgeable, delicious anecdotes that bring history alive.
Sadly, I have never enjoyed walking in Mumbai as much as I have in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Belgrade, Poznan, and Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Dharamsala years and years ago. Why should walking through Chor Bazaar or Kalbadevi in Mumbai be such an ordeal?
In this ideal world, there would be a variety of live performance and cinema venues across the city, each municipal ward would have at least three such venues, with one focusing exclusively on children and youth. These centres for children and youth would enable them to engage with culture and the arts in innovative and creative ways. Every child in the city should have the opportunity to discover their own creativity and to be exposed to the professional arts. The centres could act as satellite centres of National Bal Bhavan, another institution that desperately needs to be restored to its glorious days of wonderful creative engagement with children.
Auditoria across the city would programme their year-round calendars that would be specific style or genre focused. These venues would have year-round programming and not simply bursts of festivals, which is the trend. Festivals do have their value, but they should not be the only opportunity to see interesting work.
But for all this, the city’s establishment needs to make up its mind. How does it envisage itself 10-15 years from now? Who does it want to be when it grows up?
The government, now more than ever before, needs to act as a catalyst to create opportunities and engagement with the arts across the city and leave the rest to the professionals and artists to manage.
With a holistic view of the city, we need to revisit our rules and regulations on licensing of spaces for performance, cinema and art. We need to view the city across ministries and departments, and enable cross-ministerial partnerships.
Mumbai is unique in that it has the software and the artist community to create the work as well as the sagacious patron to sustain creative work. What we lack is the infrastructure and the opportunities. In the midst of our hectic market-driven lives, we need opportunities for those who would take the risk to build the infrastructure to develop a culturally rich city. It is a dream, but it is possible in Mumbai.
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