If Sanjna Kapoor and Sameera Iyengar could have their way, every corner of Mumbai would have a performing arts space. Mumbai Local, the new venture of their theatre company Junoon, began earlier this month with free, monthly, interactive sessions where performing artistes and scientists will share their experiences with the public in gardens, book stores, libraries, museums and colleges.

“There is a need to foster a sense of community, and not only in times of crisis. Our other agenda is always to make people fall in love with the arts," says Iyengar who, along with Kapoor, was inspired by the vibrant community centres of São Paulo, Brazil. Kapoor recalls programming shows at the Horniman Circle Garden where the homeless and CEOs often shared seating. “Mumbai needs these spaces so critically where you can still be who you are and yet feel a sense that you are part of the same thing," Kapoor says. The ongoing project has the Keli Classical Rhythm Festival, singer and Mint Lounge columnist Shubha Mudgal and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Tifr) as partners, with sessions with theatre practitioners Rajat Kapoor and Ben Rivers, documentary film-maker Ajay Noronha and molecular biologist Sreelaja Nair.

Mumbai’s arts scene has been nurturing responsive audiences for some time, in art exhibitions as well as social groups.

A recent initiative to help people drop their social barriers is the Share Your Table flag, part of the Making Strangers Social campaign launched in Mumbai by Chandy Thomas, Aditya Dhull, Prince Jacob Thomas and Mohit Narwal in October. Raising the flag placed in the jar on a diner’s table signals a willingness to share a meal with people waiting in line at a restaurant. Over 30 restaurants in Mumbai and Pune are participating. “We realized that we need to give people mediums to help build this culture of making strangers social," says Thomas.

The group has also launched Treetins.com, a networking site to connect strangers through opinions shared on blog posts, and has run a photography project in Bandra and Colaba that was inspired by American photographer Richard Renaldi’s “Touching Strangers", which got strangers to physically interact for a portrait.

Having an open mind has been a prerequisite for many recent art shows in the city. Artist Shilpa Gupta’s 2009 work titled Threat displayed a wall of soap bars engraved with the word “Threat", and invited visitors to take away a bar, thus gradually diminishing the wall. “People came especially to take one bar of soap, it was like the ownership of art," says Shireen Gandhy, director, Chemould Prescott Road. Visitors were more reluctant at Gupta’s show in November, where they were invited to take away an unmarked gravestone from Kashmir after signing a caretaker oath.

At Anju Dodiya’s Room For Erasures show in September, visitors were invited to erase three canvases of pencil drawings, in an installation that tapped the agony of creation. People initially responded with shock and alarm, Gandhy recalls, but as a few began to rub away—some even revelling in the power of altering a famous artist’s work—the feeling of vandalism faded. “It became a talking point, and people came to see it and photograph it at different stages," she says. Some, like Gandhy, started confronting their hesitation by erasing the bits they felt the most resistance to.

Performer Suman Sridhar finds such resistance precious in her work. Her February show Fall in Line at the Last Ship in Bandra, a devised piece with film-maker Natasha Mendonca and belly dancer Veronica Simas de Souza, pivoted on the audience’s reaction as the trio attempted to challenge the idea of entertainment and provoke the audience with lengthy questionnaires and intrusive videography. The unexpectedly passive audience made one of the actors “betray the authoritarian threesome" by encouraging the audience to be more defiant by, for instance, instigating a chant for more alcohol when the venue’s stock had run out.

“By the end of the performance, they did loosen up," says Sridhar. “There is a blurring of lines between who is the actor and who is the audience. I am happy to take the audience exactly where it is and how it is. And if it means that the audience is more stuck-up, then maybe that’s the place where something like this needs to be performed."

Close