Imagine steel trunks stacked on each other, 9-feet high at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), platform number eight. They form an L shape. The trunks are used as a surface to screen a video about three rivers incarnated as sisters. The trunks are part of artist Owais Husain’s installation, You are Forever, displayed on October 22 and 23. The installation was part of Bori Bunder @ Platform 8, an exhibition by ArtOxygen, a Mumbai-based independent art initiative.
It was meant to inspire memories of travel and represent the shifting of cultures from one place to the next. But, here’s the problem: CST is one of the busiest railway stations in India and is frequented by millions of individuals every day, travelling within the city and out of it. And with only short intervals between local trains entering and leaving the station, the possibility of commuters noticing the installation is small.
“That’s the biggest drawback of Mumbai and its public art. The city’s pace is too fast to allow people a moment’s respite to stand and observe art,” says Kaiwan Mehta (41), a city-based architect and a critic in visual culture. This weekend, Mehta, along with contemporary artist Farah Siddiqui and arts consultant Anupa Mehta will come together for a panel discussion on the challenges of creating spaces for public art in Mumbai.
A fine line
Mumbai traditionally has had no culture of public art. The only public installations that were set up during the 19th and early 20th century were commissioned honorary statues of prominent men from the British Raj — the Black Stone statue of King Edward VII mounted on a black horse at Kala Ghoda (later shifted to Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum in 1965). Others were either utilitarian installations, such as the Flora Fountain, or architectural designs — Art Deco on the New India Assurance building, Fort..
Mehta thinks the reason for Mumbai’s chequered relationship with public art is due to a lack of dedicated spaces. Sure, we have railway stations, mall courtyards, and a few parks scattered across the city, but we lack planned town squares or plazas that are commonly seen in international cities, such as New York, Chicago and London.
Additionally, Mehta says Mumbaikars utilise the public space as a private one, and might overlook a public art installation. He cites the example of recently beautified railway stations in the city. King’s Circle, Parel, Thane and Tilak Nagar stations house murals with a message — a green Mumbai, gender equality and promotion of health and sanitation practices. “Yet, you will often see commuters hardly noticing the art. For them, the railway station is a part of their private space, part of their daily routine,” says Mehta.
Space crunch notwithstanding, the fundamental function of art is to engage audiences. Yet, in Mumbai, contemporary installations — Arzan Khambatta’s steel dolphins in Worli, the bronze statue of a mermaid sitting on a flower on Marine Drive, or the statue of RK Laxman on Worli Sea Face — inspire no engagement. They are commissioned by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for beautification (source: livemint.com).
In contrast is Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture in Chicago: a stainless steel bean that reflects the city’s inverted skyline. It invites audience interaction in the form of them observing their reflection against Chicago’s skyline.
“Art should draw inspiration from everyday life and lend a visual character. We need more works that reflect the city’s culture,” says Mehta.
Be there: Boribunder @ Platform 8: Art in Public Spaces, a Symposium will take place on November 26, from 11am to 5pm.
Where: ICIA, next to Rampart House, K Dubash Marg, Kala Ghoda
Call: 97699 37710
Tickets: Rs 500 per head