Mumbai is definitely India’s creative dynamo. It is home to several successful creative industries such as Bollywood, television, animation, publishing, fashion, restaurants, theatre, performing arts and art galleries. This vibrancy flows from a dynamic, cosmopolitan and urbane culture that nourishes the creative ecosystem, encouraging multiple talents to flourish. Mumbai’s streets, chaotic and run down as they might appear, are full of kinetic energy, which inspires artists, poets, writers and other creative minds, and pushes us to engage, to get involved and find our equilibrium in the hurly-burly of the city.
Art and artists have thrived in Mumbai since the establishment of the JJ School Of Art (Fort) in 1857. The British set up two great museums, the Victoria & Albert Museum, now the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL; Byculla East) in 1855 and the Prince Of Wales Museum, now the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS; Fort), in 1922, to encourage the local population to engage with art. But it takes much more than an art school and museums to create a thriving art scene. In the past decade, Mumbai has seen the mushrooming of several galleries and alternative art spaces that have given a new pulse to the city’s art scene. The quality varies, and they cater to different audiences, but there is now a much greater awareness and interest in the subject. This year, in Maharashtra alone, 2,50,000 students registered in Fine Art courses.
The city draws you into the art world with its galleries, which are located at walking distance from each other, and a stone’s throw from the imposing CSMVS and its neighbour, the National Gallery Of Modern Art (NGMA; Fort). In the ’70s, when I was studying at the JJ School Of Art, we would hang out at Irani cafés (in Colaba) and at the famous Samovar Café (Fort).
My favourite galleries are those that push the envelope such as Lakeeren, Project 88, Chatterjee And Lal, and Maskara (though this wonderful space is closing), all cheek by jowl on the busy Colaba road. Then there are galleries like Mirchandani & Steinruecke (Colaba) and Chemould Prescott Road, (Fort). These galleries have supported the art they believe in, often in the face of financial risk. Maskara’s show of the artist Anant Joshi ranks as one of the best I have seen in the year, not just in India, but also internationally. Joshi’s miniature sculptures presented in multitude mesmerised me. Sakshi Gallery, also located here, was one of the first galleries to set up shop in Mumbai 25 years back. They have shown two special artists, Rekha Roddwittya and Surendran Nair, among others.
Mumbai is also revolutionising the museum scene in India. While museums across the country suffer without knowledgeable directors and adequate staff, Mumbai’s three museums — the CSMVS, the NGMA and the BDL — have valiantly struggled to put on good shows despite many odds. The NGMA is beset by problems, but the city’s artist community, and the staff have managed to keep the place going despite the many challenges. I have been on the advisory committee for the past 20 years, and we’ve tried with successive governments to find solutions to its problems. But I firmly believe that as long as museums are treated as departments of the government, changes will be cosmetic.
This feast is not just in South Mumbai. There’s much more as one moves north. The Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which I helm, has had some amazing shows in the last year. Atul Dodiya’s exhibition is one of the best shows by any Indian artist, not just in the past year, but in the past decade. We launched on Google Cultural Institute (GCI), and you can now do a detailed walk-through of the museum and its collection. Nearly 51 million people across the world have access to the GCI. In Bandra, you have What About Art, a residency space that supports artists, and many galleries and spaces that have taken to pop-up exhibitions.
I want to acknowledge the Kala Ghoda Festival and the other street fests in Bandra and Ballard Estate. Art in its many varied forms has suddenly become happening, and now everyone wants a piece of the action. The city’s fathers would do well to pay attention to this creative energy and establish adequate infrastructure to support and sustain it. It is what makes Mumbai cool and buzzing.
Tasneem Zakaria Mehta is the managing trustee and director of Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Byculla (E), one of Mumbai’s most prominent cultural destinations.