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Art on the street

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-06-2014 Dhamini Ratnam

On 29 May, the giant face of a baby was unveiled at the traffic signal at Marine Drive in Nariman Point, Mumbai. Sculptor Chintan Upadhyay’s newest fibreglass sculpture juxtaposes iconography derived from classical miniatures with scenes from contemporary city life, including the 26/11 terror attacks, imprinted on the brightly coloured, 10ft head.

The commissioned installation is part of a public art initiative by the RPG group, whose companies operate in businesses such as technology, power, infrastructure and pharmaceuticals, led by avid collector Harsh Goenka. A few more are to follow—a 13ft stainless steel figure of a dabbawala outside the police commissioner’s office in Crawford Market, and two installations, including an aluminium and chromium alloy carbon-fibre face of Sachin Tendulkar’s at Worli. The installations, created by Valay Shende and Jaideep Mehrotra, respectively, are expected to be unveiled on 11 June.

Valay Shende’s dabbawala installation in progress.The city has a chequered relationship with public art. The Brihanmumbai municipal corporation encourages private companies to beautify traffic islands, gardens, rockeries, footpaths, and provide road railings and sanitary conveniences. The RPG group has adopted five traffic islands. In November, the Mahindra group, which has businesses in fields ranging from automobiles to aerospace, adopted two traffic islands in south Mumbai, including the garden opposite Regal Cinema with a heritage fountain. Business houses have also commissioned works of art for the city—Tata Steel, together with the Indian Architect And Builder magazine, put out a competition call in 2011, and a 30ft abstract steel installation titled Charkha, designed by architect Nuru Karim, came up at Cross Maidan; hotelier Vithal Venkatesh Kamat commissioned the unfathomable Child Gives Birth To A Mother statue at the Bandra-Mahim junction; real estate developer Manish Maker commissioned a piece by Sudarshan Shetty, a replica of Mumbai’s double-decker Routemaster with awe-inspiring cantilevered wings, for the Maker Maxity office enclosure at the Bandra-Kurla Complex in 2012. Other instances of artworks in the city include giant psychedelic flowers on a traffic island across the Worli Seaface, created by mural artist Rouble Nagi; Arzan Khambatta’s steel dolphins installed at a petrol pump in Worli; and a bronze statue of a mermaid sitting atop a flower in Marine Drive. The city corporation does not take a call on what comes up. Nor does any independent arts committee.

Thus while the aesthetic quality of many of these pieces is debatable, it is interesting to note that despite the paucity of space, the city is nevertheless turning into a site. Anupa Mehta, who has curated the RPG Art Foundation’s initiative, hopes that the effort will infuse logic into the city’s public artworks. “The landscape of Bombay is dotted with a lot of random sculptures. We see the city as an open-air museum that has the potential to offer an overview of contemporary Indian art. We were keen to create a synergy. These aren’t simply meant to beautify the space, but also provoke the viewer,” she says.

Jaideep Mehrotra’s Sachin installation in progress.Upadhyay’s piece certainly achieves that. The giant head has figures of asuras, depicting the terrorists who attacked Mumbai in 2008, besides circular panels of events and incidents that are part of the city’s history. One panel depicts a burning Taj hotel under siege. Another panel, drawn on the baby’s chin, depicts a vada pav with a giant chilli sticking out of it, yet another portrays the sea link, and one shows the proximity of high-rises with slums. And while the face “reflects the impressions that the city leaves upon its residents”, as the artist puts it, the piece is unable to escape cliché, even as it uses the grotesque to great effect.

Goenka’s argument is that the pieces need to be accessible to the common man, who doesn’t understand art the way a collector would. He intends to commission more public installations. “We wanted to create works that would be iconic. All the commissioned pieces approach the idea of Mumbai in very different ways.”

Mehta says the brief given to the artists stipulated that the works must engage with the city. “They are not just representations, but also bring up other issues, such as that of urbanization and what affects the city.”

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