The usually vibrant Prithvi Theatre precinct turned more lively and festive last Sunday morning. Bright colours and live welcome music added to its usual buzz. The theatre inside, packed to capacity, was transformed into a magical space throbbing with creativity that drew deep on Hindustani classical music in a performance curated by table maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain.
In his trademark easy manner, the genius percussionist took centre stage to display his art then had his table ask questions of Niladri Kumar’s sitar, respond to Antonia Minnecola’s Kathak bols and lock beats with Ranjit Barot’s drums. This was veteran actor Shashi Kapoor and son Kunal’s way of remembering the woman who created Prithvi, Jennifer Kapoor, on her birth anniversary. Prithvi is not just a theatre, it is a cultural space.
About 12 kilometres south-east of Prithvi and throbbing with its own raw energy was the Dharavi Biennale. It sought to merge art and culture with health issues, food and nutrition, and hazards of working in Mumbai’s most vibrant mixed use area. It drew deep on Dharavi’s traditional eco-systems and among other things, turned homemakers into cook book authors and children into photographers.
Where else in the city but in Dharavi can one see a fusion of art, health and recycling endeavour in which residents become artists/artistes? Here too as at Prithvi, conversations veered around to the city’s development plan, the government’s policies – or lack of them – to nurture spaces for art and culture, and people’s responses to them.
Yes, there is the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival but its earliest organisers had to fight authorities to get the idea off the ground 16-17 years ago. Mumbai has its film festivals, music soirees and book readings. But they are more tributes to an individual or group’s persistence, less an affirmation of the government’s endeavour to create spaces that foster art and culture, and become cultural markers of the city. The need for such spaces hardly ever enters discussions on Development Plan or in Mumbai Next symposium where it is all shop talk about Floor Space Index and infrastructure.
So where does Mumbai rank for its culture that is not to be conflated with Bollywood entertainment? The World Cities Cultural Forum spearheaded by London’s mayor in 2012 set out to map 21 leading cities of the world on six cultural markers: Literary culture, performing arts, films and video games, people and talent, cultural vitality and diversity, and cultural heritage. Each marker was further delineated into seven-eight pointers. For example, literary culture was determined in the number of public libraries, books loaned out by them, number of book shops, number of rare and second hand book shops and so on.
Mumbai featured on top of the pile on only one pointer in the ‘films and games’ marker: number of films given theatrical releases in a year. On all others, it languished somewhere near the bottom. For instance, Mumbai has only four national museums compared to 11 in London and 18 in Berlin. It has 80 public libraries and 525 book shops compared to 383 and 802 in London, 477 and 777 in New York.
It is the contrast with Shanghai that stands out in a most stark manner, a city that Mumbai if often compared to in development. On every parameter, Shanghai trumps Mumbai. It requires political will to create spaces and include them into the larger vision for the city. More “Prithvis” are possible, so are more local biennales.