Unlocking Mumbai's cultural potential

Our city has both heritage and culture in abundance. How do we best use this legacy for the benefit of all of us?

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - April 03, 2016 08:21 am IST

Most people think of Mumbai as the financial nerve centre of India. Few think of it as cultural destination in the way one thinks of London or New York. Recently London overtook Paris in the tourism sweepstakes. London’s enterprising Mayor decided to find out what had tilted in London’s favour. And believe it or not 70% of people said they come because they want to see London’s extraordinary museums. My museum friends in London tell me this wonderful news has prompted Prime Minister David Cameron, who had cut the culture budget severely, to reinstate some part of it. I think it is time that Mumbai should consider what we can do to bite off more of the global tourism pie.

We know that tourism is considered more beneficial to the economy than manufacturing and that it provides more jobs than manufacturing. Cities across the world are spending billions of dollars to build extraordinary museum complexes and art collections as well as cultural centres to lure tourists. They are sprucing up their heritage neighbourhoods as tourists do not want to see the same monotonous mall architecture they can see anywhere else in the world. London has been in the forefront of this effort, encouraging what in cultural parlance is called the creative industries which drive urban economies: fashion, food, design and lifestyle, performing arts, media, theatre, TV and film, and IT.

But cultural industries need a healthy ecosystem to deliver quality. And heritage and museums are essential ingredients for that ephemeral thing called inspiration.

Talk to any designer or artist, film maker or architect, restaurateur, even a businessman, and they will tell you how important having a rich cultural menu on offer in the city is to their overall sense of wellbeing. For mothers and schools with restless children cultural exploration is essential for cognitive development.

Let us look at what Mumbai has on offer and how much of it is really leveraged by our city patriarchs.

When it was built in the 19th century, Bombay was one of the earliest urban experiments. It had grand avenues and gracious buildings, most of which have been lost over time. The city’s urban heritage, which is of extraordinary global value, is being rapidly torn down to feed a builder-led development model.

The pretext is housing for all. But housing without adequate mass transit systems, sewage disposal systems, water and electricity will mean more traffic jams, more pollution, water scarcity and electricity rationing. We will pay more for less service.

Instead if one revives heritage areas and encourages creative industries to locate there, you create the basis for a tourism and urban economic boom. Mumbai’s Fort area, Byculla, urban villages like Kotachiwadi and the remaining village areas of Bandra, areas like Gamdevi, they all have the potential to become attractive cultural destinations. This is already in evidence with the number of heritage walks that have recently taken off; INTACH conducts walks every Saturday and they are sold out 15 minutes after we announce them. The success of the Kala Ghoda festival and the new Ballard Estate festival bear witness to the interest of both citizen and tourist in our heritage.

Mumbai also has some wonderful forts. The Worli fort, with a Koliwada village attached, visible from the Sea Link, could be a perfect destination for a tourist to spend a lazy afternoon. It would bring jobs to the villagers who could be encouraged to clean up their streets and provide tea and biscuits to visitors. Local guides could be trained. A small shopping area could be created that sits well with the local architecture. We have the Mahim and Sewri forts too, and no one in Mumbai has probably ever visited these. It requires just a little action and investment and it will transform these derelict monuments into must-visit destinations.

And of course we need more museums. But truly world class museums not some ‘nam ke vaste‘ token that no one ever visits or hears about. The CSMVS and the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum are today considered the best museums in India. Unfortunately the NGMA that started out in the 90s with so much potential is struggling without a director. My own view is that the Old Sailor’s Home which is now the Police Headquarters should be refurbished into a gallery to show more contemporary art and design. The waiting period for the Jehangir Art Gallery is years, which just shows the demand for such places. Of course the police will protest but this is the city’s prime tourist district and we need to rethink how to deploy its assets to optimum use. We have Mani Bhavan, Gandhiji’s residence that is charming. The BEST has a wonderful museum that no one ever visits. The RBI too has an excellent gallery of coins. The Films Division has a museum on Peddar road which has recently been revamped. But all these are not adequately publicised and need professional management and outreach.

There are many other potential museums in the pipeline: the postal services are thinking of one, so is the Port Trust. The railways have a small museum at CST and they are considering expanding this. A textile museum that recounts the rich textile trade that laid the foundation for Bombay’s wealth is being planned in one of the old mills, along with a maritime museum. Mumbai played a critical role during the freedom movement and I have long advocated that we should have a museum near August Kranti Maidan that acknowledges our freedom fighters. In fact Mumbai has been in the forefront of the nation’s development in many areas but it has forgotten to record this rich history for posterity.

The music gharanas, the literary luminaries, Marathi, Gujarathi and Urdu theatre, the great artists who resided in the city deserve to be acknowledged. Their residences can be converted into museums as has been done in many cities the world over.

And we must not forget Bollywood, our greatest cultural export. Imagine a Madame Tussauds of Bollywood stars. It would be mobbed all the time.

The author is an art historian and cultural activist. She is Vice Chairman of INTACH, Managing Trustee and Honorary Director of the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and a member of the International council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. She has served on the National Gallery of Modern Art Advisory Board and the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and been a member of the Central Advisory Board for Museums, a Senior Expert Advisor to UNESCO, Chair of the CII Task Force on Museums and Heritage, a speaker at the World Economic Forum at Davos, and a jury member of The Rockefeller Foundation for the Creative Arts Residency at Bellagio, Italy. Ms Mehta has received several awards for her contribution to art and heritage preservation.

For the complete list of stories in the Fixing Mumbai series, > click here
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