Returning to the Megalopolis

Published in Art News New Zealand, Spring 2018

Mumbai, or Bombay as it once was, is a city called by many names—city of the seven islands, maximum city, the city of dreams. It’s the maya nagari, the ‘illusive place’, where dreamers from other parts of the subcontinent come in search of a better life.

In Mumbai, the majority speaks the same languages I do: English, Hindi/Urdu and Marathi. But there are Gujaratis and Parsis too, and Konkans, Sindhis, Punjabis. Although I was born in Hyderabad, and though my mother’s family are from Mysuru and my father’s ancestry links him to Pune, Mumbai has recently been for me, albeit ironically as a child of the Indian diaspora, my Gateway to India—as it once was for the colonialists and as it is now for many other ‘foreign returnees’ or NRIs (non-resident Indians). As ‘the city of migrants’, Mumbai mediates between people. It is an arbiter of difference, of different castes and class, conglomerate giants and labour-workers, celebrities, expats, artists and curators.

Since migrating to New Zealand at the age of ten, my return visits to India have been an experience of going between my family members’ living rooms and pilgrimages to Hindu temples. This is not so unique; author Jhumpa Lahiri depicts the experience of mopey teenagers-in-tow on a family holiday to India in her novel The Namesake, in which Gogol tries, in vain, to keep up with his cross-country training in the chock-a-block streets of Kolkata, and he and his sister fight over the Walkman and a collection of tapes recorded ‘back home’ in Massachusetts. With those years behind me, I wanted to meet with people in India outside of our Swakula Sali community, the weavers’ caste on my father’s side. After an art-school education and a few years working in galleries as a curator, I wanted to get to know the city differently, through its contemporary art, galleries and museums—to know my old world through a new disciplinary lens.

Mumbai has long been the financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India, and it’s also one of the centres for contemporary art. There are other centres too, such as Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Kochi, but Mumbai is a self-mythologising place, a metropolis for opportunity and reinvention. It is the setting of innumerable fables in books and movies: Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh and Midnight’s Children, Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and Family Matters, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City, and more than 300 titles in Hindi cinema. While few refer to contemporary art, the world of art is implicated in these stories, because it is of the same world, the cosmopolis of Mumbai.

The only major contemporary art exhibition in Aotearoa from this part of the world has been Sub-Topical Heat, curated by Rhana Devenport for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2012. I met some of the artists during the show, including Sharmila Samant from Mumbai. She was an artist from Clark House Initiative, an adventurous cooperative in the heart of old Bombay. Clark House was one of the first spaces I sought out when I arrived in Mumbai. It was at an 11-pronged intersection opposite the Regal, the first cinema hall in India with air conditioning. I had counted 25 other galleries and museums in my notebook in the southern districts alone, so I made my home nearby, in one of old Bombay’s cheapest hotels, where with two outstretched arms I could touch the walls on either side, where crows perched on the windowsills, and where in their company, I could enjoy the occasional respite from the megalopolis. In a city that is full, where 29 people share a square metre and where there is a continuing swell of people arriving, it is no wonder there is a housing crisis. The issue of housing in India was explored in an exhibition at the nearby Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan in the Kala Ghoda district.

Curated by architects Rahul Mehrotra, Kaiwan Mehta and curator Ranjit Hoskote, and organised by the Urban Design Research Institute and the Architecture Foundation, The State of Housing was an education in a tumultuous history of housing since India’s independence and partition. The gallery was enclosed by a timeline on the walls from 1947 to the present day, each date listing political and policy changes and major events that affected housing. Two structures were built in the shape of small dwellings, which featured a roster of film and video screenings, and nearby was an archive of architectural plans and urban designs. From the perspectives of architects, urban planners, local governance bodies, private real-estate developers, financial institutions, policy makers and others, this interdisciplinary exhibition revealed the aspirations, imaginaries and realities of housing in India.

The Max Mueller Bhavan bookended my stay in Mumbai. I visited again for the book launch of Democracy Under Threat, and a panel discussion by some of the book’s contributors. The writers unpacked the relationship between cynicism and democratic participation, contested the role of media in a democracy, explored the implications of high-level migration and rising populism, and debated the problems of leadership and the particularities of dynastic rule in Indian democracy. The book is a cross-cultural and international study, but which takes India as its centre, as the world’s largest democracy.

There was a full programme of wonderful happenings in the city, including events that occurred haphazardly on the streets – the rickshaw-wallah’s balancing act of some hundred barrels, the mad choreography of vehicles on busy roads, the pop-up pack-down shops of porters and street-side vendors. The latter were the kind of architectural inventions that inspired architects Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte whose exhibition, Transactional Objects at Project 88, was previously shown at the 56th Venice Biennale curated by Okwui Enwezor. A group of unnatural objects populated the exhibition, each beginning as an observation on the streets of Mumbai where a transaction is enacted, a commodity is sold, money is exchanged. These pop-up pack-down shops are the sorts of structures used by porters and street-side vendors for their ‘transactional capacity’. Some pack down within seconds into discreet and transportable objects, allowing vendors to escape the city council regulators. Others are up-front and indiscreet, like the Astrologer’s Chair, an elevated platform, a high seat for the astrologer’s performances of reading stars or predicting the future. It looked not unlike the structures used by surf lifesavers on the shores of Piha or Muriwai. The chair’s elevation gave an illusion of illumination, a way of standing out so it was easy for querents to find. Other structures combined the necessities of work and life, like the basket which once emptied of goods became a container for the hawker’s rest and sleep. These are at once utilitarian, imaginative and poignant forms that allow for fluidity and transiency. In the ‘maximum city’, these objects allow one to settle in, and move on if need be.

While in Mumbai, I met with Areez Katki, a New Zealand artist whose family is Parsi. He was living in the Parsi colony of the city in his grandmother’s home. Areez learnt knitting and embroidery from his grandmother when he was seven, and had returned to research the textiles and garments of Parsis for an exhibition at Malcolm Smith Gallery next year. Like me, he is a ‘foreign returnee’ updating his sense of his other hometown. He planned to stay at least until the monsoon arrived, when the unrelenting rain might push him out to sea and back home to Auckland.

India has the world’s largest diaspora, from Fiji in the Pacific to Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, from South Africa and South America to the United Arab Emirates and United States of America. But what, if anything, is shared across the ‘desis’ from all these places? On the central railway line to Thane, at the Byculla train station, I find Mumbai’s oldest museum, Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum (BDL Museum), formerly known as the Victoria and Albert Museum. On show was Beyond Transnationalism, an exhibition curated by Dr. Arshiya Lokhandwala which featured a group of South Asian American artists who reconfigure the discussion of diaspora away from notions of nostalgia, dislocation and longing, and complicate notions of belonging, commitment and community for a life ‘beyond transnationalism’.

The exhibition opened with a mixed-media installation by Shelly Bahl, International Woman of Mystery II: Amru Sani (2017–18). The Varanasi-born, Toronto-raised and New York-based artist has, for this series, looked at the biographies of historical women who have also led transcultural lives. This included the real and imagined stories of Amru Sani, an Indo-Caribbean jazz singer and actress who performed internationally from the 1940s to 60s and who, at the height of her fame, disappeared. But what makes Amru Sani ‘a woman of mystery’ is not so much her disappearance or her racial ambiguity, but that she was a performer, the centre of attention in her public life, who moved between cultural margins in her private world. Sani’s cultural multiplicity, her shapeshifting identities and attitudes can only be interpreted as something enigmatic.

As a whole, the exhibition pointed to shifting subjectivities. It suggested that we may need new vocabularies to describe the experiences of people who do not necessarily derive their sense of self through the boundaries of nation-state, cultural difference or ethnic background. The exhibition suggested that it is difficult to describe the lived experience of a diaspora, a migrant or a foreign returnee with the meta-narrative of home, belonging and identity. As for myself, it is with another return trip to Mumbai—on the hazy causeways of Colaba, on the overcrowded trains to Borivali and with frequent visits to the city’s finest galleries and museums and a burgeoning contemporary art scene—that I might begin to find that elusive new language to describe my own experience.

Balamohan Shingade