Imagine taking the bus on south Mumbai’s buzzing street from, say, Mantralaya to the Worli sea-face or Nariman Point. Nothing extraordinary, you would say. But what if the bus shelters were to turn into alternative art spaces? And all you needed to do to “own” a piece of art—by artists such as Al-Qawi Nanavati, Baiju Parthan, Bose Krishnamachari, Brinda Miller, Sooni Taraporevala, T.V. Santhosh and Vikram Bawa—was to scan a QR code on the bus shelters?
You would then be able to access the artwork in the comfort of your home, get all the information about the particular artist and use the artwork as desktop wallpaper or a static image on your smart TV.
Well, this is just what the Mumbai Billboard-Bus Shelter Project, a collaborative public art effort of the municipal corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), the urban heritage committee of the Rotary Club of Bombay (RCB) and Priyasri Art Gallery, is attempting. Mumbaikars are being treated to 15 billboards at 15 bus shelters that have been turned into alternative art spaces, featuring the works of 15 established and young artists whose lives and careers have been shaped by the city of Mumbai.
Its centrality to the life of artists won recognition on 31 October, when Mumbai got the prestigious Unesco “Creative City” tag in the film category. The organisers of the initiative seized the opportunity to bring art out of the white-cube gallery space and make it accessible to everyone. The Brihanmumbai municipal corporation that owns the bus shelters came on board for the unusual tribute, allowing these spaces to be used for a month.
Priyasri Patodia, founder of the Priyasri Art Gallery in Worli, says: “History proves that art and culture have aided in restoring the peace and stability of society. Mumbaikars have persevered through various trials, including the current pandemic. True to their optimistic nature, they have never given up fighting for peace, harmony and joy.”
The project hopes to reinforce the Mumbaikar’s “never give-up spirit” and infuse new life into the city’s creative spirit. “The entire aim behind our efforts was to connect with the audience. Every artist needs feedback on their work, and viewership brings feedback. With the shutting down of galleries during the pandemic, we decided to bring art to virtual spaces. Getting art to a public domain is just an extension of this,” says Patodia, adding that the project will spread awareness of the honour bestowed on the city while acknowledging the universal poetic spirit.
The organisers selected artists whose lives and struggles resonate with the life of a Mumbaikar. For instance, architect Tanya Singh’s artwork, from one of her ongoing projects in Bengaluru, comprises differently shaped doors. “We have extracted the actual façade, which has doors of different shapes. Each door signifies the opportunities that exist, even in the darkest times. The door you choose, or the path you take, forms your life’s story,” says Singh.
Bose Krishnamachari tries to capture the city’s fast-paced life, full of contrasts. GHOST Transmemoir, the work that’s part of the project, is one of a series that seeks to convey the essence and energy of Mumbai, the way each moment transforms and seamlessly merges into another, creating a host of colourful experiences that encompass celebrities and commoners. He sees Mumbai as a container for opposites: “I believe that life in a metropolis does not extinguish, but continually transforms. Life and death coexist with little or no space and turn into a representation of a ‘grey life’. In a city like Mumbai, things transform every moment. At the same place and time, different people are leading different lives, having different experiences. Life in this city of dreams is all about dreaming big.”
Al-Qawi Nanavati’s piece is from an ongoing project, an inquiry into human loss. “The project comprises letters I have written to my late mother about the things I see around me. This letter is from my diary, where I reminisce about those whom our city has lost. In many ways, the letter is a prayer for them and for the city to return to the way it used to be. It felt apt, considering the times we find ourselves in,” she says.
The Mumbai Billboard-Bus Shelter Project challenges the Mumbaikar standing in the circle of an air-locked space, viewing the floating artwork divorced from the context of its making. It’s a far cry from the first billboards, created in the 1830s in Europe to advertise circus acts. Today, non-profits in the US even host series of “open-air exhibitions” on billboards to help emerging and under-represented artists build a profile, take art to city streets and make it as accessible as the billboards we view every day.
That effort has now come to Mumbai. “I strived to display reproduced artworks of artists whose lives have been shaped by the city of Mumbai,” says Patodia. “It is a tribute to every Mumbaikar.”
Medha Dutta Yadav is a Delhi-based journalist.
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