In the flamboyant and sweeping spectacle that The Great Indian Musical: From Civilization to Nation is, there comes the inevitable moment when India has thrown away the colonial yoke and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru speaks to the nation on its “tryst with destiny” on the midnight of August 14-15, 1947. On the large stage, a humongous Tricolour forms the backdrop to the lone actor, who plays Nehru, standing behind the lectern. He addresses the nation, in this case the audience in the Grand Theatre that boasts of the state-of-the-art facilities, special viewing balconies, and the famed lotus-shaped ceiling studded with 8,400 Swarovski diamonds.
As he finishes the monologue, stirring and epochal to mark a milestone moment in India’s journey, there is barely any applause in the auditorium that was clapping and whistling along on most of the acts till then. Minutes later, the narrative moves on to the unification of princely states and other territories into a nation with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s image looming large on the magnificent translucent curtain — and the hall breaks out into loud cheers. The widely divergent responses to ‘Nehru’ and ‘Patel’ can be traced to several factors, including that many in the audience were perhaps Gujaratis and felt a kinship with the latter, but it would be unwise to not read, in this, the impact of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s relentless political propaganda against Nehru and glorification of Patel.
Patel was India’s first deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister in Nehru’s cabinet, besides being a co-traveller in India’s freedom movement. Writing on Nehru’s 60th birthday, Patel acknowledged their differences on issues but was fulsome in his praise, describing Nehru as “a priceless possession of a free India”. Those words may be dismissed by minds that have been bent away from reality into prejudice, minds of people who can afford tickets worth a few thousands of rupees in the grand auditorium.
Watching The Great Indian Musical: From Civilization to Nation, ably directed by Firoz Abbas Khan, in the auditorium of the mint-new Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC) was as telling as ever. Besides the movement on stage, there was the perceptible shift in the audience responses that revealed their preferences and partialities, inclinations and feelings. Catching a movie in a packed cinema hall or a music performance in an auditorium, or small-scale performances in intimate settings, offers this insight too. If you are attuned to audience energy, it reveals something precious though ephemeral, it is akin to hearing a silent public discourse. It underlines, once again, the power of the collective when people gather in hundreds or thousands, and express themselves.
This is why the importance of cultural and art spaces in a city does not ever diminish. They create and coalesce the socio-cultural capital in a city, they hold the possibilities of shared experiences, they promise to show a good slice of the public mind, they can be platforms of expression for both performers as well as audiences. A city is usually considered as the engine of economy and commerce, but it is much more than that. It is also a cultural and social hub offering freedom and opportunities to people to be creative or respond to the creativity. Urbanists like Richard Florida have, in fact, categorised work and people in frontline American cities as creative industries and the creative class.
Housed in the upmarket commercial-residential hub of the Bandra Kurla Complex, the NMACC, a four-storey multi-disciplinary performance and exhibition centre spread over 52,600 square feet and dazzling in its imagination and form, intends to be that cultural space of Mumbai. At least, it has been hailed as such after a lavish three-day launch last fortnight which saw the glitterati of the country and Hollywood swish across its gleaming floors. Besides the Grand Theatre, there are two smaller performance spaces, and exhibition areas that showcase fashion and art drawn from the topmost tier in the respective fields. Calling it “an ode to our nation” its founder Nita Ambani shared in an official statement: “I hope our spaces inspire and nurture talent, bringing together communities from across India and the globe”.
The NMACC bears the distinctive stamp of the Ambanis — grand scale, extravagant, even flashy. It is part of the Jio complex that houses a state-of-the-art convention centre among other venues, which is a quick car dash from the open ground venue of Jio World Garden, and Jio World Drive which houses some of the top-notch retail luxury brands from all over the world prompting many to say that the BKC may well be called Ambani Jio Complex.
The NMACC may become the cultural hub of the city — this sort of space is welcome indeed — but the destination of a select set who can afford it. If the Ambanis could secure such large tracts of land developed from the marsh by government authorities to mount grand structures, why could the authorities not create free or affordable world-class creative spaces that all Mumbaikars could access? In a city with a low spread of cultural and recreational spaces – a heavy concentration of them in south Mumbai – new land development by public authorities ought to have allocated spaces for these pursuits.
It was the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, an arm of the state government, which worked on the decades-old plan to landfill the marshy areas between the suburbs of Bandra on the western side and Kurla on the eastern side to create a new commercial centre after Nariman Point but commerce did not have to preclude culture. The plan goes back to 1977 but MMRDA’s project took off in earnest in the post-liberalisation years. The BKC has come into its own in the last decade. Stretches of low-lying marshes on either side of the Mithi River-Mahim Creek were turned into a 370-hectare area that is now a sought-after and exclusive destination for corporate offices, consulates, luxury apartment complexes and hotels.
Surely, the MMRDA could have had several creative and art spaces planned and built within a public precinct in the BKC. Open air auditoriums, parks with amphitheatres, galleries and exhibition spaces, affordable recreation venues, public gardens and waterways along the river were possible if the authority was imaginative and less driven by commercial considerations. These would have brought a larger number and cross-section of people to the BKC, and given Mumbai a public place it could be truly proud of.
There are dozens of examples from around the world where derelict or defunct areas were turned around to create buzzing public places; of these, the Chicago Riverwalk project is worth mentioning for the parallels it offers. A marshy and meandering river that once supported the industrialisation and city-making of Chicago, it fell into disuse and pollution. Led by the Chicago Department of Transportation, the project helmed by renown planners, architects and engineers transformed the riverfront into an admirable ecological and recreational place with distinct areas for certain activities but in a continuum along the length of the river, all open and public; economic benefits followed.
If Chicago could, Mumbai could too — if the intention was to build the city holistically for all rather than turn over plots to private players. Intent and imagination were called for; Mumbai’s authorities fell short.
Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is also the Founder Editor of ‘Question of Cities’