As cities suffer the fallouts of rapid urbanisation, soaring real-estate prices and deteriorating infrastructure, art enthusiasts have begun exploring alternative art spaces and practices to keep the cultural heritage alive.
In March 2019, parts of South Delhi woke up to colourful murals and art splashed walls, a result of the handiwork of international and home-grown artists. This public art museum of sorts was organised by Start India Foundation who has been making art accesible by transforming public spacees into art galleries.
Two years ago, their ‘Sassoon Dock Art Project’ in Mumbai reintroduced city-dwellers to a part of the city that had receded into oblivion in their collective consciousness, and shone the spotlight on the Koli fishing community, Mumbai’s original inhabitants. Though the elements have dimmed the vividness of the street art that coloured the warehouses in the area, Sassoon Docks continues to stay fresh in our memories, very much a part of the city’s present. This is a good example of how art projects that reclaim parts of the city, can have a lasting impact on cityscapes and its citizens— long after the project comes to a close.
Thanks to organisations such as St+art India Foundation, which is famous for holding street art-centred projects across metros like Delhi, Hyderabad, Bengaluru and others, even the most traffic-clogged, people-packed cities have begun witnessing unique art initiatives like this, because, in the recent past, there has been a spurt in activities dedicated to bolstering the cultural landscape of cities. These initiatives are built on the realisation that the arts — be it visual, performance or fine — need not be confined to conventional art institutions such as museums, theatres and galleries, but that it can thrive outside of them, in spaces more experimental and projects more novel. Thus, one sees the mushrooming of alternative performance spaces, projects using art to revamp crumbling cityscapes or experimentative offerings that marry multiple art forms to create never-before-seen performances, all in a bid to not only breath new life into the arts, but also to reclaim the city.
State of art
While the desire to experiment has been the catalyst behind many of these initiatives, there are other key factors that has led to their birth — the dwindling, and deterioration of existing infrastructure for the arts, and the growing disconnect between these establishments and the requirements of the new generation of artists. Hina Siddiqui, who is a theatre professional and program co-ordinator at ‘Gyaan Adab’, a five-year-old alternate performance space in Pune, focused on bringing the community closer by fostering and promoting new creative work, be it in literature, art, dance or theatre, explains how conventional performance venues in Pune, and in several other cities, have failed artists in the recent past. “A majority of the larger cultural venues are run by the government and they aren’t maintained well; they are dead spaces and it takes a lot of work to make them feel alive again. Additionally, big spaces are expensive to maintain, stage productions or exhibit. Also, they give preferential treatment to certain kinds of arts and artists, which makes some of these spaces inaccessible for a lot of artists. The impulse to keep making art has led to the rise of alternate performance spaces,” she says.
In Bengaluru, artists are battling twin evils of soaring real estate prices and a snowballing traffic problem. Anuradha HR, artistic director of ‘Untitled Arts Foundation’, an alternative theatre space and artist residency that opened its doors to thespians in 2017, says that while on one hand, the rental price of some government spaces has almost doubled over the last couple of years, on the other, the ones that are affordable are inundated with requests, which makes it extremely difficult for artists to bag a venue, especially if they are upcoming ones. “Local groups used to rehearse in college classrooms, but slowly, all these spaces have started closing off because of the real estate value going up. A college would rather rent out their classrooms and earn money rather than giving it to a theatre group for free,” she ventures.
Michaela Talwar, creative producer and art curator at ‘Harkat Studios’, a three-and-a-half year-old art studio-cum-co-working-cum alternate performance venue in Mumbai, mentions how conventional venues fail to offer artists support in the form of audience gathering, publicity and even logistics at times. Additionally, many of these venues continue to welcome only conventional, single art form performances, leaving several experimental groups without a platform.
As a result, most cities face a severe shortage of experimental venues. “For instance, Delhi desperately needs malleable spaces – large open canvases for artists to dream and experiment with, spaces that don’t confine you within constructs. Over the last several years, Delhi’s theatre-artists have lost control of the space they work in. We are hustled in at 10 am for tech and asked to present a show at 7 pm. This system has set us up for failure. Also, the weekend only model of cultural programming in India has led to the death of the arts.
It has limited audiences and constrained artistic possibilities because the efforts of creating something radical are too high for just a weekend,” says Nikhil Mehta, founder and artistic director of the Delhi-based performance art initiative, Black Box Okhla, which held its first performance in 2017.
Bridging the gap
Noticing this gap in desire and delivery, alternative performance venues have willed themselves to plug the widening gap between artists and their spaces. Anuradha tells us how the ‘Untitled Arts Foundation’s’ financial demands are such that they don’t burn a hole in artists’ pockets. Not only does the venue not charge a rental fee for performances, it also charges a miniscule sum — Rs 120 per hour — for renting out the space for rehearsals. “We take a commission on the number of tickets sold. Though the artists do have to get their own equipment, it’s better than paying rent and not having an audience. Here, at least you have a show,” she says. The artistic director also shares how the space is incredibly supportive of all kinds of talent, even if the group isn’t an established one. “In us, artists find patrons that are offering the space without questions, without looking at plays through their bias and perspectives and therefore, championing only certain kinds of narratives and theatre. Nor do we choose to give the space out only to the ‘best’ groups,” she adds. Michaela mentions how the ‘Harkat Studios’ team gives performers the publicity boost they require, along with the affordable venue. “We provide a service that goes far beyond what a theatre provides. As an artist, you sometimes have a premiere show, but no poster, because your show is new. We make the poster and social media creatives free of cost using our professional team of designers. Apart from social media outreach, we also do PR if a show is outstanding,” she discloses. Along with this, the curator also highlights how the alternative venue is championing experimentation within the arts. “We deliberately and consciously mix art forms, especially performance and the visual arts, and always give priority to groups that usually don’t fit into a conventional space. This helps the audience see something they’ve never seen before,” adds Michaela.
Very often, even artists prefer smaller venues where they can do multiple shows at different venues over a couple of weeks and thus, reach out to a wider audience. “Alternative spaces usually have a data base of people we can reach out to, plus, our venue is well-equipped with sound, lights and a green room, so artists don’t have to worry about logistics,” adds Natasha Iype, founder of ‘Courtyard Koota’, an intimate, multi-cultural performance venue that sprung up in Kengeri, a suburb in Bengaluru. She explains how intimate spaces facilitate a greater connection between the audience and the artists, and therefore, the art form itself. “Engaging with the audience is something you don’t get to do on a big stage. Whereas, in an intimate setting, you can tailor your performance to factor in audience engagement, or even experiment with the manner of presentation,” says Natasha.
But change isn’t only creeping into venues for the performing arts, as artists are looking for imaginative ways to take the visual arts to the masses as well. Ranjit Dahiya, who is famous for his ‘Bollywood Art Project’ (BAP), a street art project that enlivened walls in the suburb of Bandra in Mumbai, narrates how street art fosters conversations between the artist and the common man, an interaction that is made difficult in conventional, closed set-ups like galleries. “In closed spaces, a curator visits, views the artwork and writes a review. But when you’re painting on the street, your work can be accessed and critiqued by anybody.
The common man becomes that judge and feedback reaches you in real time,” he points out. Ranjit shares a humorous interaction he once had with a man who had a penchant for knocking back one too many. “When I was painting an Amitabh Bachchan mural, I came across a man who used to be perpetually drunk. He must have seen the film, ‘Deewar’, a hundred times as he would look at the mural and tell me, “That anger is missing from his (Amitabh’s) eyes!”
Of city and mindscapes
The burgeoning of such experimental venues and ventures have had a two fold impact on cities – we see a shape-shifting cityscape as well as a shift in thinking among its inhabitants. The Dhan Mill compound area in Delhi, which boasts a good mix of quirky shops, eateries as well as experimental art spaces, is a good example of how city spaces are being transformed to accommodate the arts. Rishab Jain, Business Head at Dhan Mill Compound, talks about how the area, which used to house a mill in the 80s, has been transformed into a retail-focussed space rather than a commercial one. “We’ve curated the space such that there’s a mix of theatres, art studios and academies, production studios, gyms, interesting shops and more. It was consciously done to bring in the right mix of people. Also, the reason why we have so many art spaces is because our decision to bring in a player isn’t only based on financial aspects, but also on the value they can add to this space. Big players will always have the money to open shop here, but we don’t want that to happen,” he reveals.
Such alternative art initiatives are also making art forms increasingly pliable, by situating them within unique structural confines. Nikhil’s rebellious Black Box theatre, which famously lacks fixed seating and a designated performance space, germinated inside an industrial estate, in what was once a factory. “A portion of the factory was renovated for our use. The factory’s unique architecture inspires environmental experiences that are impossible to create at traditional performance venues. Black Box Okhla is a completely flexible venue. Theatre-makers can choose the kind of audience-performance interaction that best fits their storytelling. No two shows will ever look the same here,” avers Nikhil.
It’s also interesting to see how alternative art initiatives are repurposing and reimagining contemporary cityscapes, not just structurally, but also in the minds of its inhabitants. Artist Annushka Hardikar, who collaborated with Alefiya Kachwalla over the last four months to come up with ‘A Fresh Coat’, a street art project conducted across 17 ‘peths’ or localities in the heart of Pune, informs us how the project aims to reinvigorate the area, and the people’s love for it.
“With the expansion of the city, people don’t visit these areas of the city anymore. Also, these old parts of the city, which once were thriving with retail and whosesale markets, are now considered to be chaotic and unhygienic. But there is culture in the stories of the people living here. The idea was to preserve through contemporary design, to bridge the gap between the old parts of the city and the new. We wanted to make the space attractive so that people would want to visit it. But we also wanted to remind the locals about the cultural significance of this space,” she shares.
Ranjit too has encountered people who have fallen in love all over again with their vicinities, thanks to the unexpected cropping up of an artwork. He remembers how a 60-year-old woman became extremely happy on seeing his mural of Anarkali. “She was very happy and told me that ‘Anarkali’ was the first movie she had watched with her husband. These murals have also begun to function like landmarks in the area, because it’s easy to spot ‘the building with Amitabh Bachchan’s painting’,” he concludes.