We all have a friend who is a bore of art. Someone for whom the edge of the glass is not wide enough and the edge of the cord is not white enough. Let us leave these unbearable aesthetics aside for a moment of liberation. Art, as confirmed by anyone who has not attended art school, is a personal and subjective issue. I find it difficult to pass through four lines of Wordsworth, and for many it is the last meliflua word about poetry. But there is an art category that bravely challenges this subjective description of aesthetics: public art. Is
that branch of art that, by definition, seeks to delight and edify a great mass of people. I offer, as a case study, the glorious facilities scattered through the streets of Mumbai, my beloved and disheveled city.
All that glitters…
Where should I start? With Bandra’s giant bandit informing you that a child gives birth to a mother, a message conveyed by the special breeze that floats over Mahim Creek? Or that other baby on the other side of the city, at Nariman Point, the scary baby of Chintan Upadhyay with elaborate marks all over his red face? Or the magnificent image of Shilpa Shetty, lying on a mini sea link in a sleeping bridge pose in the JVPD Scheme? I would like to dwell on each one of these masterpieces, but Mumbai is a vast city, and the inches of the column are less than those around the remarkable waist of Mrs. Shetty.
If you pass in front of Haji Ali, running to the NCPA to catch an Oxford choir (no), you may find a familiar figure that becomes unrecognizable: a dabba-wallah sculpture made of shiny gold discs. This after you have already survived the Magic Garden of Ameet Satam on Juhu-Versova Link Road (I have never entered, scared by the distant image of fantastically ornamented lanterns) and the ineffable island dedicated to Mohammed Rafi in the Lucky Signal in Bandra ( a metal ball enclosed in a glass box contained in a giant point, was that it?). And those horrible Delhi-wallahs claim that we do not have culture. Hmph.
Kitsch and the constitution
Adding color to this grayer reality, we have the mural art movement (the open invitation to paint the walls of the boundaries of the Mahim station was an excellent initiative), which has traveled to bastis and other marginalized communities from Dharavi to Kamathipura. In the Bandra Chapel, the Bollywood icons look through the walls, with an old poster style. Elsewhere in the suburbs, the trunks of the trees are painted as a protest against their felling. It is always good when the public gets involved in public art.
The new Mumbai International Airport is distinguished from the rest of the city as a modern museum. I must admit that it is good to see the art and craft facilities in the endless walk from the aerobridge to the conveyor belt. And a particular installation in T2, one that presents Babasaheb Ambedkar, brilliant and kitsch, which supports the Constitution, always makes me think that it is one of the main uses of art. But as Behind the Beautiful Forevers, winner of Katherine Boo Booker, shows us in a memorable way, there is an alternative reality that lurks in the shadows of this elegant airport of which we are all very proud.
Art vs plastic
For all the bitter pills we’ve had to swallow in the name of art, Mumbai these days is throwing us some nutritious crumbs. Two places around the Bandstand promenade feature giant animal facilities, each filled with hundreds of plastic bottles. A blunt reminder of how we are suffocating our planet with meaningless consumption. We have a giant colorful mural of Gandhi coming out of a third-class compartment, painted on the side of the Churchgate station building. And at BKC, we have some excellent installations by prominent artists, such as Aakash, Pataal, Subodh Gupta’s Dharti, which highlight the darkness of corporate routine.