Move over Mumbai. New Delhi is now also the capital of art and culture.
Political power centres — whether edifices, offices or national capitals — often lack a sense of fun. Sleaze and sex: yes; dark humour: yes. But that sense of freedom in the air, a whiff of abandon: no. It’s commerce that inspires that spirit.
Till some years ago, Mumbai was the city of the free and the reckless; it was brushed with stardust, glamour and consumed by an indefatigable party spirit. Delhi was its stuffy cousin, fixated on ministerial movements — in South Block and on the roads, living on government-sponsored culture and bowing to the VIP siren.
But Mumbai’s party glass is now half-full as the city gets a new party pooper or bogeyman du jour every few months. The Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, run by the brothers Thackeray, are of course, regulars. Other politicians take violent offence at imagined slights to their gods or demigods like Babasaheb Ambedkar and Sachin Tendulkar. There are morally proactive citizens who like to shut down art exhibitions that they are convinced will lead Mumbaikars to instant perdition.
And then we have the lethal combination of the Mumbai police and Home Minister R.R. Patil. From closing down dancing bars to busting “rave” parties, they do their bit for the city, too. Mumbai’s latest crusader is Vasant Dhoble, Assistant Commissioner of Police with the Social Service branch, and a man who likes to carry a hockey stick. Over the last month or so, he has taken to raiding restaurants and pubs, hockey stick in hand to discipline the recalcitrant, rounding up citizens on charges that would be ridiculous if they weren’t so outrageous.
At one suburban restaurant, he picked up 11 women because he decided that they were prostitutes. Why? Because, he argued, they did not pay an entry fee while men had to (a common practice across the world). This, in a city that prides itself on the freedom its women enjoy. (Two of the women have moved the Bombay High Court, seeking compensation of Rs. 1 crore each for wrongful detention and defamation.)
He raided another restaurant, Café Zoe, on the grounds that it was playing music without a licence — fair enough if true. But he also fined it for overcrowding, citing an obscure law that prohibits the assembly of more than 166 people per 1,000 sq feet. This, in a city whose local trains carry a “superdense crush load” of 14 to 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor space.
The city’s civic administration got into the act, too. On June 30, it was the turn of the city’s most celebrated restaurateurs, Rahul and Malini Akerkar. The city’s Municipal Corporation, notorious for its inefficiency and selective action, demolished a part of their Indigo Deli outlet in Bandra on the grounds that it had illegal extensions. Again, fair enough if true. But what of the thousands of similar offenders, of whom there is no shortage in the city of the Adarsh scam, illegal hutments and routine violations of building laws?
Dhoble himself has been on the wrong side of the law. In 1994 he was sentenced to seven years in prison for his involvement in a custodial death and suspended in 1989 for accepting a bribe. He was also recently caught on video wielding his hockey stick.
His bosses have backed him all the way, though and — here’s the rub — so have some citizen groups. Many of Mumbai’s restaurants, pubs and lounges sit smack in the middle of residential localities and Dhoble finds supporters in residents who have to put up with late night revellers, the inevitable drunks, incessant honking, cars parked in front of their gates, cigarettes and condoms littering their streets, and noise pollution well past the legal deadline.
In a notoriously space-scrunched city that is India’s biggest urban planning disaster, such clashes are inevitable. The only option available is a precarious existence — for all.
Restaurateurs, owners of pubs and bars and Mumbai’s party animals are now caught between a hockey stick and the unfriendly neighbour. “Certainly, the direction of the past two months has been a setback. People are going out less; they’re entertaining more at home. Habits are changing,” says a sombre A.D. Singh, Managing Director of one of the city’s most popular restaurants, Olive Bar & Kitchen.
Put plainly, Mumbai is scared to party these days. Even before Dhoble got into action, the city that never sleeps had to contend with an official closing time of 1.30 a.m. in bars and restaurants outside five-star hotels, with the last order served at 12.30 a.m. Then, the Mumbai police’s campaign to curb drunk-driving has been much lauded but has also applied the brakes.
Those who decide to play safe and entertain or drink at home have to contend with an even bigger danger: the Bombay Prohibition Act. This archaic law, drawn up way back in 1949, requires Mumbaikars to hold a liquor licence to drink or keep alcohol in the house. Late last month, the Mumbai Excise Department detained documentary filmmaker Priti Chandriani for possessing liquor at home without a licence. Chandriani, who was detained and released on bail, stocked the liquor for her hobby: making liqueur chocolates.
Event organisers are now playing extra safe. A couple of weeks ago, at an art show, guests were handed their wine glasses and a one-day liquor permit with their name on it, just in case.
Is it surprising then, that Mumbai’s leisure and entertainment industry, which routinely has to negotiate all manner of laws, regulations and unofficial payments, is holding its breath, wondering what’s next. There’s an eerie wariness in the air.
Quite unlike Delhi, where restaurants, bars and partygoers are making merry. A.D. Singh, who opened an Olive outlet in the city in 2003, says cautiously, “The laws of the Delhi government are more proactive towards the industry.” He points out that Delhi has seen turbulence, too, with a number of establishments sealed between 2006 and 2009, on the orders of the monitoring committee appointed by the Supreme Court. “The industry definitely suffered at the time. But after 2009, with the preparations for the Commonwealth Games, it was kick-started again. For instance, they allowed 24-hour permits, which continue,” he says.
Srila Chatterjee, one of the founding partners of Blue Frog, a very popular live music performance club, oversees its five-year-old midtown Mumbai venue and the newer one in Delhi, which opened in December last year. She observes, “I think Delhi has gone past the kind of clampdown that we’re seeing in Mumbai, to the thinking that we can have the party brigade and the nightclub brigade and still adhere to the moral standards we want to maintain.”
Easier in Delhi
She also admits that setting up the Delhi outlet was less troublesome. “Everything from the licensing down was easier,” she says. As one entrepreneur put it: “Corruption is everywhere. But in Delhi, once you pay for everything, you can do your work smoothly. In Mumbai, the payments simply don’t end.”
Over the last few decades, brazen corruption, indefensible realty prices and an alarming deterioration in civic services and quality of life have seen corporates, manufacturing and service industries move steadily out of Mumbai. The city has gradually lost its clout in many areas, not least in the creative sphere.
Santosh Desai, author and social commentator, observes, “There has been a power shift for some time now. There’s been a movement away from Mumbai, while cultural life in Delhi has gained ground.” That’s because, he notes, “There is a political context to culture in Mumbai and cultural issues become politically contentious. In Delhi, the political class does not impose itself culturally because no political party there expresses itself in cultural terms and thus, has no political stake in the matter.”
A striking example came in September 2010, when Aditya Thackeray, college-going son of Uddhav and grandson of Bal Thackeray, protested at the inclusion of Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey in the Mumbai University syllabus because the book used the word ghati (Mumbai slang for a Maharashtrian, especially one from the Western Ghats). The Vice-Chancellor caved in and the book was withdrawn despite protests. That it was published in 1991 didn’t seem to matter.
Artists have to contend with the cultural and moral police as well. One admittedly provocatively-titled exhibition, Tits 'n Clits 'n Elephant Dick, was shut down because it was considered “obscene”. But it is the city’s notoriously priced real estate that is the real spoiler. Bose Krishnamachari, artist and curator who has lived in Mumbai for 27 years now, says: “The big plus point in Delhi is that artists can afford a large studio. In Mumbai barely three or four artists can do so.” He adds, “The Delhi art scene is definitely more vibrant. Both cities are equal in terms of exhibition space but in Delhi, there’s a lot of support, especially at the diplomatic level since there are many consulates and embassies that have get-togethers for artistic and creative people.”
“You just have to check the newspapers’ listings pages,” points out Chatterjee. “In Delhi, people have so many options every single day. Not only is the quality of events better in Delhi, it’s amazing how much of it is free.” She is caustic about the lack of support for the arts in Mumbai: “People who have the wealth seem to be more interested in the IPL and Bollywood.”
Not everyone is pessimistic, though. Observes Parmesh Shahani, author and Head, Godrej India Culture Lab, “The focus on Dhoble’s antics takes attention away from the other party that’s started — the party of intellectual and cultural ideas.”
He lists his reasons: “There are local area festivals like the Kalaghoda and Bandra festivals. Several new intellectual initiatives are enriching our city life, including the Godrej Culture Lab that I head. Jnanapravha (a centre that promotes “critical thinking in the arts” and community engagement) is blooming; Studio X (“an incubator of ideas” that is part of a global network) and Gateway House (a foreign policy think tank) have active calendars. The Wall Project (a street art initiative) has brightened up our streets. There are book launches every second day, private readings in book lovers’ homes, poetry slams, open mic nights and heritage walks. I believe Mumbai is, in fact, going through a cultural renaissance right now.”
What nobody can deny, though is that Mumbai is ridiculously star-struck. “In Mumbai, everything becomes a Bollywood award night,” remarks Desai. “When the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited Mumbai, a party was hosted for him by an industrialist and the guest list was essentially glamour-driven, when it could have included more people engaged in public life.” (Desai is referring to the star-studded party thrown by Mukesh and Nita Ambani for Ban Ki-Moon in April this year.) “Can you imagine a similar event in Delhi populated with such a guest list?” he argues. “When a Henry Kissinger or Madeline Albright visits Delhi, the guest list and the conversations have a different timbre.”
Says Chatterjee, “I’m constantly surprised by the interesting people I meet and engaging conversations I can have in Delhi. In Mumbai, you end up meeting the same people all the time.” Desai chips in: “Delhi can be intellectually ponderous and often given to pomposity. Its intellectuals can hold a strictly India International Centre view of the world, but their concerns are broader than Mumbai’s and they contain a variety and heterogeneity that is invigorating.”
That heterogeneity cuts across everything from salon conversations to culture to cuisine. “I don’t know of a single restaurant in Mumbai that serves the cuisine of Nepal or Bhutan,” notes Chatterjee. “Delhi is far more cosmopolitan; I think the new New Delhi is India’s only international city.”
A view endorsed by one of the high priests of Bollywood. Film-maker Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, who grew up in Delhi, a city that is the backdrop for his movies, Rang De Basanti and Delhi 6, says, “Delhi is a melting pot of many cultures and influences. It used to be a north Indian city but not any more. If you had to pick a world city in India today, it would have to be Delhi — whether you’re talking culture, art, music or food.”
When Bollywood has spoken, Mumbai had better believe it.