Publicly Courting Art
That Uttar Pradesh’s ex-chief minister Mayawati from the Bahujan Samaj Party has built a sprawling memorial in Lucknow in tribute to those who have dedicated the better part of their lives for the enhancement of humanity, is a paradox in itself. This park is built on acres of public land and is augmented from hues of sore pink. Made entirely in stone, the BJP minister has validated it as a recreational space for the locals. Clearly the thought of adding trees for respite from the scorching heat, instead of the aimlessly placed stone elephants – an insignia of her political party – has prevaricated the minds of her landscapists. Regal domes show her gargantuan statues with the limp purse, slippers and scarf, sculpted next to those of prominent charity workers in their polished shoes and humble suits. None of the frames have been labelled though, leaving the visitor to guess the events. Each visit begs a question – was this project for her personal satisfaction or was it meant to be meaningful for the taxpayers as well?
We understand the point behind 3D portraits of our national heroes. They were martyrs who fought for our freedom. What remains incomprehensible is why have we been made to pay tribute to those several decades old British lords’ effigies, as well as those politicians who have been honouring themselves by insisting on such statues. When the British left, many busts were plucked out and placed in Mumbai’s Bhau Daji Lad Museum; and those of the current rulers have pompously replaced some others. In spite of it all, unlike the aforementioned, these are in incredibly modest proportions, merely filling empty roundabouts or whatever space is available to them, leaving ample land for us to obtusely manoeuvre around. The only reason for their existence, as most of us have understood, is for the city’s pigeons to exploit them as resting spots. The ones that actually do provoke a reaction from the general public are widely divergent in comparison to the commonly sighted glum men on horses or the vacuously stark figures with solemn expressions.
THE BEAUTIES AND THE BEASTS
A metropolis like Mumbai that typically ranges high in intensity from trying to live a life amidst commotion usually lets off steam by berating its government for their shoddy jobs. This is precisely why the Common Man statue that was spotted on Mumbai’s Worli Seaface in 2007, pacified such resentment. Finally something that celebrates the powerless denizens! Populaces flock to it, taking pictures with gleeful pride. There isn’t just one, but two – both of which have found their way into the tourist’s handbook. Ironically, it is Worli MLA Sachin Ahir who took out five lakh from his MLA fund, which was once replete with taxes of course, to honour the taxpayers. What makes this more interesting is that The Common Man is the prodigy of veteran cartoonist R.K. Laxman, and is known for his sarcasm towards India’s politicians.
Several installations later, the city is witness to a barrage of larger-than-life symbolism of it – not just for festivals, but most likely as lasting fixtures. Only a few months ago Chintan Upadhyay’s baby head at Nariman Point’s traffic signal was the talk across social circles, receiving plenty judgemental reviews. Many even strolled towards it for a closer look. Mumbai’s key defining moments are circled over this red fibreglass skull.
“Whether it’s a person or an object,” as Sudarshan Shetty explains, “any kind of public art always commemorates something. My Flying Bus (installed in Bandra East in 2012) is a commemoration too. It is a symbol of Mumbai when the double decker buses were being phased out.” Now that was one contemporary piece that saw copious mentions in Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
It must be easier for the general public to applaud something that they understand. If they relate to it, it’s a hit. No wonder they excitedly waited for Valay Shende’s 13-feet tall stainless steel dabbawala at Crawford Market, and Jaideep Mehrotra’s carbon-fibre face of Sachin Tendulkar at Worli. When these were finally unveiled, did a crowd gather! It was actually a surprise as public art in India is only a recent phenomenon because not often do we hear of a regular folk, students, professionals or others taking time out to stroll through galleries; a luxury that is indulged in for the arty or speculative sort. If the trend of art-spotting continues, perhaps the next generation will have imbibed this culture, if not in entirety, at least a tad bit for their good. Artist Arzan Khambatta explains, “India started seeing public art when Europe was already involved in this idea. The only way to get our public engaged in art is by showing them what modern contemporary art is. It is then up to them to judge it however they like. If they won’t see it, how will they know it?”
THE CRUDE AND THE LEWD
Not all of the city’s creative figures incite a cheery welcome though. In 2008 the MSRDC gathered much flak from the denizens of Mumbai. It made them rethink their decision to allow the erection of something that was purposed to be a product of artistic virtuosity, and titled – Child Gives Birth To A Mother. Passers-by have felt an itch big enough to demand something be done about it. Perhaps this stems from the opinion that at first glance, from a certain angle it looks rather rude, till you finally read the words describing it. Luckily, the artist remains anonymous for his or her benefit. Because there is even a cry to have it removed as it is perceived as an ostensible “eye-sore.”
This is the time when we forgot that art is subjective. If we must, then humiliating it can be accepted as a form of judgement – harsh, but an opinion nonetheless. These assemblies in any shape are the only mediums through which a city, unjustly devoid of adequate open spaces, may enjoy variety in structure as opposed to dreary potholes and rusting street-lamps. Demanding a piece be stripped off its art is a baseless tantrum.
Luckily the patterned cows by Mumbai’s Indian Merchants’ Chamber (IMC), in spite of receiving varied feedback, haven’t been the targets of demolishment threats. The older crowds hate it, but the younger ones have shown some appreciation towards it. Maybe because these figures were commissioned out to the students of Sir JJ School Of Arts, the youth are able to connect with them on some level. IMC board member Arvind Jolly was heard stating that the worldwide animal parades, more popular overseas, are the inspiration behind these stamped bovines. He also boasts of receiving offers from international art houses and collectors to buy them.
THE BANE AND THE BOON
If this is true, public art is definitely a boost to the young adults who graduate from art schools with dreams of being affiliated with internationally renowned galleries. Rouble Nagi, a young artist in her early 30s, has bagged four public projects herself in this city alone. She says, “If I’m getting a chance at this age, I’m sure a lot of other young artists are being encouraged too.” One of her pieces – an ode to freedom – is an abstract portrait of a bird carved from a single marble block and stands 13 feet tall at Napean Sea Road.
Even the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) is on board with art, as they see it as a way of beautifying the city. They have expressed their wish to add more such installations by encouraging companies and corporate houses to adopt parts of the city for this purpose. Khambatta seconds this thought, “It (public art) is a break in the urban landscape, without which, the city just cannot be aesthetically enriched. Just like a new home looks bare without art, a city without public art lacks personality.”
PUBLIC SAYS, “ART GONE WRONG X 5.”
- A bean shaped structure by Indian artist Anish Kapoor in Chicago, 2006.
- Egg yolks by Dutch artist Henk Hofstra, Netherlands, 2008.
- A 42-foot tall toy rabbit by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman in Sweden, 2011.
- A hanging rhinoceros by Italian artist Stefano Bombardieri in Germany, 2011.
- A gigantic electric-blue cockerel by German artist Katharina Fritsch in London, 2013.
OTHERS IN THE CITY
- On March 28, 2012, the crowds happily squirrelled to watch Bollywood diva Kareena Kapoor and her actor-father Randhir Kapoor inaugurate Bandstand’s two-km promenade, Walk Of The Stars. It is anybody’s guess that the project is inspired by Hollywood Boulevard with handprints, autographs and statues of the film fraternity.
- Since Worli was once upon a time a fishing village by itself, statues of a fisher-couple on an elevated patch of green here, are a prelude to the history of the now posh neighbourhood. The sculptures are not spoken about much – but they sure hold great importance to the trailing fragment of the village that still resides in one part on the periphery of Worli.
- Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport is a gigantic specimen for public art in multitudes.