One rainy evening, the owners of six alternate, Mumbai-based performance venues found themselves posing together for our photo shoot at The Cuckoo Club, Bandra (W). One of the proprietors of our chosen venue, Sharin Bhatti (who also owns and runs The Hive, Khar West, with husband Sudeip Nair) was already chatting with Sujata Rao when we reached.
Rao, who owns a boarding and lodging house in Crawford Market, recently hosted her first event at the 70-year-old space. Soon, New York-born Jeff Goldberg, who started The Jeff Goldberg Studio two years back in Bandra (W), and Meghna Ghai Puri, the owner of Andheri Base and Bandra Base, arrived. Nair finally joined us after wrapping up some work. And so, amid introductions and some talk of Mumbai traffic, we began photographing the pioneers of the city’s cultural revolution.
By opening alternate cultural venues, where people can stage plays, dance shows, music performances, and conduct a variety of workshops, among other activities, these entrepreneurs are changing the way Mumbaikars entertain themselves and engage with the arts.
Here, they speak about the risks of opening independent performance spaces in a “disgustingly- expensive” city, and why they still chose to do it all.
Sudeip Nair and Sharin Bhatti
The Hive, Khar (W) and The Cuckoo Club, Bandra (W)
Sharin: The Hive was Sudeip’s brainchild. He noticed a shift in how young people were finding new sources of entertainment. He has a mad appetite for risk and failure. It all started with our first venue, which was located in a one-room office off Carter Road, where we would have book sales and open-mic poetry nights. But our bigger goal was to get a venue that was dedicated to performances. Otherwise, something like stand-up comedy would have remained a hobby. In 2009, when we hosted Culture Shoq shows, comedians, who are big artistes today, used to attend our events.
Don Ward (founder of The Comedy Store) used to watch our shows. After that, stand-up just blew up. After opening The Hive, we decided to start The Cuckoo Club for productions that were bigger in scale. On the curating front, we understand what people will come to watch on what day of the week. We know how to price our tickets. Our plan was to have 60% of the events curated by us, and to let the city contribute 40%. I’m happy to have achieved that goal. There’s insurmountable risk involved in opening a venue like this, but the fact that we haven’t shut down proves Mumbai is experimental; it lets you be. We’re a start-up, so you have to keep reinventing yourself. We want to be at the centre of the next cultural wave.
Sudeip: I have a background in hospitality. I used to plan the entertainment events for students at the IHM Aurangabad campus, when I was studying there. So, at these two venues, I’m trying to marry entertainment and hospitality. People in Mumbai would often complain about the lack of venues. They only had movies, theatre or clubs to go to. That’s why we organised our first comedy show. We started with one to two events a week. Now, we host 25 events at The Hive on the weekend itself, from 6am to 11pm. We’re in a good space now. Profits are not important to us.
Looking at where The Hive and The Cuckoo Club are today, I feel our risk has had a great impact. I learn something every day. I feel like I’m in school. But yes, these spaces are expensive to maintain. That is a constant fight. Our rent is high, but we subsidise our tickets. So, we aren’t breaking even. My friends and family have been helping us out. But that is not a loss. I know we will break even this year. But it has taken me six years to reach this stage.
New Vasantashram, Fort
One, Mumbai has limited space. Second, in the town area, we hardly have cultural spaces. Most cultural venues are opening up in Bandra and Andheri. So, why not have something in south Mumbai? That’s why I wanted my space, a 70-year-old boarding and lodging house, to be used for cultural events. I could have continued using it as my father did. But I wanted to use this place for other things. A month back, I got a Facebook friend request from Rahgeer Citiwalks. The organisers loved my place, and that’s how the first event — a story therapy session — took place. We don’t have a sound system there. So, the performers got it for our first event. But we cooked noodles, and it was raining. Since then, I have been getting requests from people who want to have events there, so the demand is there.
I’m happy this is happening. I’m not here to make money. But I’m glad to be part of a new [cultural] wave in Mumbai. These are changes that are required. Youngsters, today, do not want to come to lodges. They prefer hotels. So, why not change that [perception]? If you don’t change, you have to shut shop.
Meghna Ghai Puri
Andheri Base, Andheri (W), and Bandra Base, Bandra (W)
I left for London, UK, when I was 16. But being part of the family that I am (Meghna is film-maker Subhash Ghai’s daughter), I used to watch a lot of plays and musical performances [while growing up]. When I came back to India, I found there was a lacuna. There wasn’t enough to do culturally in Mumbai. So, we opened Andheri Base and Bandra Base. We started these spaces because it’s important for artistes to have platforms where they can network and make friends from the same profession. These venues were started with the artiste in mind, and less from the audience’s point of view. Luckily, we found an amazing audience, even though we don’t allow people to eat or drink while watching a show. We want people to be immersed.
In Bandra, dance, jazz music and poetry are more popular, while in Andheri, its comedy and plays. We want to have as many people performing at these places as possible. Our weekends are full of shows, and we have four-five events on weekdays. Bandra Base is usually overflowing with people. The plays and stand-up shows are booked out. So, there is a demand. Otherwise though, we aren’t even breaking even. It’s not a lucrative business opportunity. We aren’t charging much for the tickets, but we always pay the artistes. Otherwise, how will they ever become professionals?
The Jeff Goldberg Studio, Bandra (W)
I have worked at the School of Visual Arts and the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York, USA. I have been teaching acting, direction and screenwriting for 15 years. I came to Mumbai six years ago. It is a big city, but it doesn’t have the cultural spaces that a city its size should have. While there are traditional venues like NCPA (Nariman Point) and Prithvi Theatre (Juhu), there is a need for more performance spaces here. Bandra has become a hub for food, nightlife, film and TV, but the lack of theatre venues in the area troubled me. I was struck by the amount of talent in Mumbai, and that’s why I started my studio. When it comes to the kind of shows we curate, we have an open-door policy.
Our source of income is my training school. So, we’re not running the cultural space as a commercial venue. The risk in opening such a place is that Mumbai is a disgustingly-expensive city. But you have to make sure that the ticket prices are affordable. Real estate prices, however, don’t have to be affordable. That’s why there are not many [alternative] cultural venues in Mumbai. NCPA and Prithvi Theatre have trusts. Indie spaces like mine don’t have a pool of money. The government should help in this case, because people in Mumbai are hungry for art.
House Of Wow, Bandra (W)
I began dancing at the age of four. At 16, I received a scholarship from the Terence Lewis Contemporary Dance Company, Mumbai. I was also being offered a seat in an economics and statistics course at one of Mumbai’s most prestigious colleges. But I decided to leave behind a career that looked promising to pursue my passion. I have travelled to cities across the globe, I have met trainers and experts, who believe that people should not watch art if they have not paid for it. I am a strong believer of the fact that learning begins the minute you enter a space, irrespective of whether you are taking a class there or not. This notion inspired me to start House Of Wow. The concept of boutique spaces has existed for years, internationally. However, there is a need for intimate spaces in India right now, especially in cities like Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. I believe this requirement stems from the fact that audiences want to be part of niche art communities. At my venue, we have curated events like Spanish Flamenco Night, Bullying Workshop, Pop-Pilates, etc. One of the hurdles we faced was to construct the physical space itself. From finding teak wood, spring boards and foam flooring to the right kind of insulation was nothing less than a Herculean task. But my husband (Pratik Gupta) and I decided there was not a single corner of the space we should compromise on. Therefore, instead of a couple of months, it took us about four and a half months to build the space. And it was all worth our time.