On Mumbai Gallery Weekend

This was published in the Sunday Guardian, as last Sunday’s Culture Mulcher.

Art Makes Inroads Into Bandra

Shine Shivan's cow dung installation at Taj Lands End.

Last weekend, something dream-like happened. I stepped out of my Bandra residence, hailed an auto and about 12 minutes later, I was standing in front of a floor-to-ceiling pile of cow dung patties; and all I felt was giddy delight. Not because I’m afflicted with an unhealthy love for animal faeces but because what I stood before was — unlikely as this may sound — art. For two days, Taj Lands End in Bandra hosted the Mumbai Gallery Weekend and as part of this exhibition, visitors could see contemporary art that ranged from weird (like the cow dung sculpture by Shine Shivan) to the wonderful (like Manjunath Kamath’s animation series).

Even though a few have been patrons, five-star hotels in India aren’t known for their taste in art. The paintings on their walls are usually as boring and characterless as those painted by schoolchildren. There are a few exceptions. Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace has an enviable collection of paintings by the older masters of modern Indian art, although few of these are on display. The Grand Hyatt in Mumbai is one of the rare places where you can see works by contemporary stars like Atul Dodiya and Sudarshan Shetty since the hotel has a permanent exhibition that was curated by Rajeev Sethi. However, these are exceptions.

Add to this the fact that Mumbai Gallery Weekend was held at a hotel in Bandra, a suburb, and you have an event that was the stuff of dreams. Because the truth of the matter is that Colaba, rather than Mumbai, is the unofficial capital of Indian art. In the past, a few valiant people tried to set up and run galleries in the city’s suburbs, but they were either forced to give up or surrender to exhibitions of chikan salwar kameez. So for someone like Arshiya Lokhandwala, who once had a gallery in Andheri that virtually no one visited, and now runs Lakeeren out of a space in Colaba that is the real-estate equivalent of carpaccio, it must have been particularly heartening to see the enthusiasm about Mumbai Gallery Weekend. People walked in with kids, parents and dates. They roamed around an area designed by architect Rooshad Shroff that had been especially constructed for this exhibition. Perhaps the best part was that the show wasn’t cubicled into segregated spaces for individual galleries, which meant the show felt cohesive and not like a cluster of stalls. While there were some works with questionable appeal on display — for example, one glimpse of one of Chintan Upadhyay’s oversized babies and I felt myself turning into Godzilla — the show was, by and large, delightful. After all, how often do you see a David LaChappelle photograph and one of Ranbir Kaleka’s magic lantern-esque video paintings under one roof?

While there may not have been a stampede at Taj Lands End, I’m reasonably sure that there were more people at this two-day event than there are visitors at any of the Colaba galleries on an average. Considering Bandra’s reputation as hipster central, you’d think that galleries would be vying for this crowd’s attention, but there’s a paranoia in most of the Mumbai art world that to move beyond the charmed stretch of Colaba would be suicidal in terms of business. Consequently, there have been only a few time-bound forays, like the Anish Kapoor exhibition at Mehboob Studios and Mumbai Gallery Weekend. Attempting to fill in the artistic blanks are efforts like The Art Loft and False Ceiling. The first has a modest art education program and organises the occasional show. The latter is a gallery where the current exhibition is of cute watercolours and is titled “Adventures of Reluctant Superheroes”. They’re modest attempts but perhaps the day is near when residents of suburbs (like me) won’t have to trek for hours, into the deep south of Mumbai, for an art fix.

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