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May 29, 2019

In Conversation With The Creative Minds Behind The Exhibition ‘Shifting City’

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

Kaiwan Mehta, Rachel Lopez, Sameer Kulavoor and Ritesh Uttamchandani talk about their connection and engagement with the financial capital

Mumbai – a city of countless dreams – evokes strong emotions from those who live in it, and even from those who drop by for a visit. Being a staunch Mumbaikar – having been born, brought up and bred in this metro, I have an umbilical connection with the city that I call home. It is no wonder then that I was drawn to the exhibition Shifting City, a project by Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan Mumbai, in collaboration with the Architecture Foundation. It is curated by Kaiwan Mehta, theorist and critic in the fields of visual culture, architecture and city studies.

It is well-known that people flock to Mumbai from across the country in the hope of ‘making it’ – and as the curatorial note says, “within the larger cycle of economic and social well-being”. When one reaches Mumbai and begins to live here – one gets the feeling of being part of a world system of objects and spaces, as one begins to live in this machinery of material and financial exchanges. There is a clear corporeal and urban production of this ‘arrived’ sense. And it is these geographies of ‘arrival’ that are established through a curated range of particular spatial narratives.

Curated by Mehta, the Mumbai Pavilion has new works specially created for Shifting City by visual artist and designer Sameer Kulavoor, writer and journalist Rachel Lopez, and photographer and journalist Ritesh Uttamchandani. The exhibition also showcases existing works by veteran artist Sudhir Patwardhan, and photographers Pallon Daruwala and Peter Bialobreszki.

A few days ago, in sync with the ongoing exhibition, a panel discussion with Mehta, the curator of Shifting City, who delivered a lecture titled Walking, Seeing, Collecting and three of the participating artists – Lopez, Kulavoor and Uttamchandani took place at Library MMB, one flight above the gallery. The four panellists discussed their ‘forms and mediums of discovering and documenting, chronicling and producing anew their cities within Bombay-Mumbai-Bambai’. We later interact with them; exploring their individual perceptions of the city and how they engaged with the metropolis they call home.

KAIWAN MEHTA, CURATOR, SHIFTING CITY
The significance of the title
The exhibitions maps two ‘shifts’ – one, it tries to blur the differences between the ‘old city’, the central ‘industrial city’ and northern suburbs – and sees the geography of Mumbai Metropolitan as one story with changing chords over specific historical times – so the study of Mumbai can no longer be nostalgia for South Bombay and Newness or Alien-ness for North Bombay…unproductive binaries!

Secondly, it has been my thesis through my doctoral research vis-a-vis the changing nature of ‘urbanity’ itself – which means our imagination and definition of ‘city’ is undergoing a change and ‘shift’, so the nature of spaces that shape and make a city are shifting grounds, scales, as well as ideas.

The vision for Shifting City
This is an Urban History exhibition and not an art exhibition – but the process of Urban History that I employ is that of engaging with artists/artworks and representations of a variety of types – artists, illustrators, photo-journalists, architectural photographers, journalists, photographers – all of who engage with their mediums as chroniclers as well as artists in their own right. All six of them in their everyday work employ the artistic to subconsciously or subtly or sometimes more consciously comment on the city of their action and their work, Mumbai in this case; their perceptions as journalists or artists, as both simultaneously produce layers of readings about a city changing in different registers. The exhibition attempts to grab those registers of change and make an Urban Historical narrative.

Among all the artists, Sudhir Patwardhan is the most senior with a long career as an artist who has closely thought about the city through his artistic works; and Peter Bialobrszeski and more recently Sameer Kulavoor, are full-time artists, engaging with various aspects of the contemporary world and its politics, as well as issues of urbanity. The others combine different kinds of professional engagements with artistic enquiry. These biographies of the artists, as well as the career of their own works, were important.

It was also essential to put these artworks in conversations – the carpet of  over a 100 images from Ritesh Uttamchandani bracketed between the large images of the aerial perspective from Pallon Daruwala, or comparing the distances or perspective of urban landscape as shot by Daruwala and Bialobrszeski, or the characters drawn in a Patwardhan mural and the documentary diaristic drawings of characters in the Kulavoor ‘crowds’, or the characters in Lopez’ essays meeting the people in Uttamchandani’s photos or Kulavoor’s sketches….

All this is then grounded in a more technical study of the city – history of housing types, the landscape of physical fabrics within which all the characters and details breed; and the professional tools of documentation now in conversation with the artistic representations.

How one engages with a city
You live it, you read it very closely… but you and the city never become one…you are always somebody moving through the city. As much as all cities are characteristically their own selves, readings and experiences between cities help a keen observer learn from one city and take that experience to another, and so on and so forth – a set of relays and reflections…

To ‘live a city’ it takes a lot of energy and emotion out of you, you read city biographies to only understand and learn from the experience of others who have travelled the same path…fighting and loving the city to know it without being subsumed or repelled out, and without being lost in it like one of its denizens. You have to hold your conscience tightly to get into the conscience and flesh of the city. You have to grasp the ‘mental life of the metropolis’ and read its ‘flesh and stone’.

RACHEL LOPEZ, WRITER AND JOURNALIST
The significance of Shifting City
It was a privilege to be given a platform and so much leeway to think aloud about the city. So many of us are trapped in a binary: do we love Mumbai or hate it? We seldom consider that there are other ways of examining one’s city and acknowledging one’s relationship with it. We still are trapped in the idea of South Mumbai as ‘Bombay’, as though reality stops at the end of the Mahim Causeway. We also tend to look at change in a narrow way: then and now. And often it’s a limited glamorisation of the past. I wrote ten essays about Mumbai, change, migration and the idea of a continuous shift, and how one might make sense of it all.

Being a woman in Mumbai
Better here than anywhere else in India. In this city, no one looks at you twice, or even once for that matter. You’re free (and expected) to take ownership of the space you inhabit as a resident, a commuter, a shopper, a wanderer and a pedestrian. People value confidence. They appreciate warmth and friendship. And, while it certainly isn’t free of crime and harassment, it’s possible to rally popular opinion, and police support to the side of the woman.

Her response to the changing face of Mumbai
I do think we’re seeing a welcome change in the way citizens have responded to the pedestal they’ve been placed on. We don’t want to be the brave Mumbaikars who soldier on through blasts, floods, bandhs and potholes. We’re starting to admit that we deserve more, and deserve better. We’re starting to say that we’d rather have a more liveable city than hear about the ‘Spirit of Mumbai’.

Engaging with any city
I love streets, public transport, public parks, free cultural activities, public spaces, bazaars, stray animals, characterless new townships, extended suburbs and discounted supermarkets. If I could live anywhere else in the world, it would be off the Yamanote Line in Tokyo, Japan.  And I’d live alone.

SAMEER KULAVOOR, VISUAL ARTIST AND ILLUSTRATOR
What Shifting City means
Shifting City to me means the city as a living breathing organism in itself that evolves, changes, shifts over time. How certain pockets of the city were purely commercial areas in the past and are now being developed into residential or living areas. New pockets are being developed – like the eastern areas of BPT and Sewri. Increase in east-west connectivity (Ghatkopar-Versova metro) makes the city evolve from a linear (North-South) one to a wider and more complicated network of movement and infrastructure.

Personal engagement with Mumbai
I have lived in three areas – my childhood was in Borivali, post-graduation I was in Mazgaon and now I’m in Parel. All three areas have a very different pace, energy and demographics. I take kaali-peeli cabs most of the time to travel from home to my studio and back, and have a good amount of interaction with people on the streets – the cabbies, chaiwallahs, tapris, people with other small businesses, besides my usual interaction with friends and all kinds of creative people in the city.

Pieces for the exhibition
A few months ago I had made a painting called Cafe which Kaiwan saw and found to be relevant with the theme of this show he was curating. So he came by my studio to discuss it in detail. For my segment, we decided to look at the idea of ‘arrival city’ in the context of the people (actors, writers, comedians, musicians, etc) working for the film and entertainment industry, who spend a lot of time in cafes around Versova, Juhu and Bandra. And secondly look at those who work in the IT industry around the Goregaon-Malad (Link Road stretch in the west and the highway in the east) and end up frequenting the malls around that area.

I am interested in new urban spaces and how we manoeuvre ourselves through these spaces, what kind of interactions do we have on a daily basis? Are cafes, food courts, and co-working spaces really about community or are they the refuge of the lonely? Or like Kaiwan asks, “Are malls the new public spaces?” These are important questions.

A Man of the Crowd
A Man of the Crowd was not specifically about Mumbai. It was about the idea of a metropolis. Over the last few years before A Man Of The Crowd, I had been experiencing feelings of disillusionment, insignificance, futility and sceptical optimism about living in a metropolis. I began painting as a rather visceral response to everything I felt, saw and experienced in the last couple of years. In a way painting this series, figure by figure, was meditative and it helped me cope with these pressures. The works have been informed directly or indirectly by elements from my surroundings, travels, everyday occurrences and tragedies, memory, news, social media, friends and family (and self in some cases). It is a take on contemporary urban life – creating landscapes that explore scale, density, friction, relationships. The impact of politics, economy, idea of development and smart cities – themes I have been dealing with over the last two years – find their way into these works.

RITESH UTTAMCHANDANI, PHOTOGRAPHER

What Shifting City means
Kaiwan gave us a brief related to ‘Arrived In City’, and over several meetings and discussions, we realised that our works weren’t just looking at that but we were also speaking about the rapid expansion of the city, both in physical and mental terms. It evoked memories of the time I moved from Mahim to Goregaon, and the mental jolt I got on seeing the socio-cultural differences. It made me think of all the conversations I have had with people I know who have shifted along with the city – people who went into newer, unheard and unimaginable suburbs.

Personal engagement with Mumbai
This is my home. My father’s family and my mother’s, migrated to India post Partition. As a Sindhi I don’t have a homeland, so to speak. So Bombay is essentially home to me, and my engagement is of a similar nature. Sometimes you long to be home, sometimes you want to run far away. I used to engage with the city and its inhabitants in a distant or may I say taken for granted manner. It has changed over the years and there is a certain intimacy and understanding built over time that has matured the way I photograph it too.

His images for Shifting City
While I do use the conventional camera format of the 35mm DSLR, in 2014, I began using the phone camera extensively, in the square format. In the process, I learnt that am a very different photographer on the phone and it began impacting the way I dealt with the city. The phone camera is the camera of today, of our generation. And what better way to display a lived-in experience of Bombay. I am also quite fatigued by the clichéd images of lovers on Marine Drive, crowds at the Gateway Of India, South Bombay charm etc. As a response to this, I self-published a photo book last year called The Red Cat and Other Stories in which I link a Sindhi fable my mother told me when I was younger and my way of seeing the city which I feel now is also influenced by these little fables and folk stories. For this show, I took the same idea ahead and built an alternative version of the Mumbai Darshan, like a trip from South Bombay to the North, in the shape of a skyline. After laying it out, Kaiwan and I punctured the skyline by shifting large chunks up and down and thereby disorienting the skyline. So Bandra shows up in a section with Colaba, Goregaon merges with Chembur, etc. Some of the images in the show are from my book, some are rejects from the book, and some were recently made, one just a day before I finalised the layout!

An image of his that defines Mumbai
The photograph of the really ugly ‘I love Mumbai’ sign, with a broken heart.

Shifting City is on till June 16th at Gallery MMB.

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