Some people try and engineer celebrity status for themselves; others find themselves in the spotlight somewhat unexpectedly. My sister Radhika Piramal, the vice-chairperson of our family luggage business, VIP Industries, qualifies for the latter. She did not expect to become a corporate gay rights icon when she first spoke in public about her “coming out" journey, at a 2015 event at the Godrej India Culture Lab, on Godrej’s Vikhroli campus in north-east Mumbai. But that is exactly what happened.

A leading newspaper featured her speech on the front page of its supplement. Her story resonated widely, and she soon found herself becoming a national spokesperson, addressing corporate events and being interviewed by media platforms.

This is exactly the outcome Parmesh Shahani, Lab head, had hoped for. The seven-year-old Lab is “a new kind of space for an emergent India. It is a safe, welcoming space for new ideas. Over time, we have experimented with formats and now our theme is distilled to ‘marginality’. It is vital. We want to move the conversation forward on LGBT, caste, gender, feminism, environment, for example, by adding a light touch to heavy issues. And to look through the lens of optimism, and the lens of possibilities to make them mainstream," he says.

Audiences are responding with curiosity and delight to this mix of intellectual stimulation and egalitarian access. Event timings—usually 5pm on a Friday or sometimes over a weekend—are tailor-made for working professionals. Riddhika Jesrani, a Powai-based jewellery designer, likes their “cutting-edge agenda". “There was clearly a gap, as many people like me keep coming back," she says. As a Culture Lab regular, I have often had to settle for a spot in the aisle.

Intellectual growth also underpins the Avid learning programme, which offers over 150 talks, workshops and masterclasses through the year, in the fields of arts, innovation and design. Run by the entrepreneurial Asad Lalljee, and incubated by the Essar group, events are often held in partnership with consulates, hosting international resources. Programmes are open to all, and held on weekends or evenings to maximize participation. Based on Avid’s popularity, Lalljee’s curatorial expertise has expanded to other entities, such as the refurbished Royal Opera House, and to Mumbai’s annual cultural landmark, the Kala Ghoda festival.

Sharp, well-defined and confident, G5A is injecting creative imagination into Mumbai’s midtown cultural life. Architect Anuradha Parikh transformed a family property, which was “a wonderful warehouse in the mill district of central Mumbai", into “a centre for contemporary culture, offering a mix of the arts, including theatre, music, cinema, dance, language arts, architecture, design". She deliberately eschewed commercial formats such as retail because she felt “there is such a tragic paucity of professionally conceived and designed spaces for art and culture in our city, that even our small and unique black box could be a valuable beginning and enable new ideas, new conversations, new communities".

Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Finally, music aficionados of all genres have rejoiced at the opening of The Quarter, a live music venue flanked by an open-air restaurant, a bar and a café, located within the newly refurnished Royal Opera House complex. The Quarter’s intimate jazz-club atmosphere and innovative music line-up is drawing diverse audiences, from millennials to senior citizens. “The response has exceeded our expectation. The quality of music, the variety of music have been very well-received," says Nakul Toshniwal, co-founder and partner of Royal Opera Music LLP, which runs The Quarter.

Each initiative has its own audience, but all have one feature in common: They are deeply embedded in the city’s urban fabric. Each constitutes a thoughtful and meaningful response to Mumbai’s urban contours and represents Mumbai’s ability to mutate and grow.

At the Godrej Culture Lab, Shahani leverages the campus’ existing resources—from auditoriums to old factories—as a stage for events. “Instead of supporting culture outside, we created space for the city and for culture to come within. It is also cost-efficient."

G5A’s success lies in its architectural versatility, in Parikh’s ability to turn a static space into one that is flexible. In a short time span, the Royal Opera House’s elegant restoration has established itself as an urban cultural icon. Finally, The Quarter finds the right balance between respecting its architectural heritage, and expressing its own contemporary voice.

Mumbai struggles to qualify as a global city on many counts: It has missed out on tech entrepreneurship, it has always been short on open spaces and affordable housing, and, lately, it has even taken its most precious commodity—comparatively clean air—for granted.

Yet, these energetic cultural hot spots confirm why this is the place to be in India if you’re looking for something to do after work. The best part? Most of these offerings are free, or priced pretty much the same as a movie ticket in a mall. Time to look up from the smartphone and be part of a changing cultural landscape.

Aparna Piramal Raje is a Mint columnist and author of Working Out Of The Box: 40 Stories Of Leading CEOs, a compilation of Head Office columns published as part of the Mint Business Series.

Close