Alt/ Urban: Bombay Gets an Art Attack
Mumbai’s recent ‘beautification’ drive is like vandalism with spray paint. The city desperately needs the restraining hand of an empowered Urban Arts Commission
It’s open season these days for every vertical surface in Mumbai. If relatively blank, unperforated and upright, it is available for ‘beautification’. More cans of oil paint seem to be expended on the city streets than ever before. Walls are tabula rasa for signification, whether through government slogans, quasi-cultural depictions or moralistic imagery (like those unwanted WhatsApp forwards).
It’s not that this hasn’t been done before. Fifty years ago, one would, quite frequently, encounter family-planning slogans painted on walls. The inverted red triangle and ‘Hum do, Hamare do’ was ubiquitous, you could not miss it. This was followed by messages on health and hygiene: how to avoid smallpox, tuberculosis and malaria. And of course, come election time, walls were territorialised by political parties. This reached breaking point in the early 1990s, forcing the Election Commission—then under the venerable T.N. Seshan—to intervene, passing strictures requiring candidates to clean up walls defaced by slogans. Parties found it easier to turn to other media rather than incur the expense of whitewashing walls.
This normalcy lasted until the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Flagged off in 2014, building façades, compound walls and flyover columns were emblazoned with circles resembling Gandhi’s spectacles and exhortations from the Prime Minister. The concept of figurative painting on public surfaces seemed to become synonymous with the concept of clean. Today, with the ongoing G20 presidency as muse, the mural as a thing of ‘beauty’ is in overdrive. None of this seems monitored, let alone curated. What passes for ‘art’, whether done by professionally trained artists or schoolchildren, looks like paint jobs carried out by the square foot.
This is problematic at least on four levels—urban coherence, preservation of memory, the value heritage and a general sensibility about public art.
Historically, defacing a wall has been considered vandalism, and the tag for that is graffiti, not mural. Carried out as a subversive act, graffiti often filled vacuums and spoke volumes against/to the State. What we see today is the State rushing in to leave no surface unblemished. When painting a mural on a blank wall became an urban art form, its chief objective was the element of surprise. You encountered this work unexpectedly, when you turned a corner, and you were overwhelmed by the scale of the painting, often several storeys tall. Such works created memorable urban experiences. The first time we saw Dadasaheb Phalke examining a length of film in a mural painted on an otherwise mediocre MTNL façade in Bandra Reclamation, it was a delight.
The murals depicting iconic Bollywood scenes worked in the narrow streets of Bandra West. But if every wall is painted, there can be neither surprise nor delight. In my last column, I talked about good manners in urban form. It is hardly polite if running kilometres of walls have been painted with anything and everything under the sun. A thousand foot long mural depicting ‘Mumbainess’ on a PWD-sponsored wall called the ‘Wall of Progress’ is simply angling for bragging rights. To use a food analogy, an urban mural works like a pickle—an explosion on the tongue, to be dipped into from time to time. A meal consisting entirely of pickles can only leave a bad taste in the mouth. There are several stretches of road in Mumbai where this happens. It is a disservice to those walking or driving along these streets.
When architecture is painted over with figural depictions, the buildings themselves are dematerialised, and in-your-face visuals take over. That is why sensitive artists choose the most banal spaces in a city to insert their creations in. What then explains one of Mumbai’s biggest murals splashed across the entire façade of Mumbai Central building?
Completed in 1930 and designed by Claude Batley, the train station’s monumental façade has an imposing window facing a long causeway that every visitor experiences before entering the building. The window brings light flooding into the vast concourse—much like Grand Central Station in New York— highlighting its industrial interiors. The window is the central figure, specifically because of the blank façade that grounds it. Batley used imagery from ancient Buddhist architecture, shaping it like a chaitya window. On either side, there are rosettes and attached pilasters detailed with Indian motifs and jalis. Today, the entire façade has been covered with brightly coloured Art Deco motifs, completely obscuring the original building. One of the city’s iconic façades has been dematerialised, indeed vandalised, by ignoring its original architectural intent, aesthetic choices and style. Mumbai Central is not an Art Deco building. Nor is it a common canvas to paint upon.
Buildings and infrastructure, like flyovers, are made of specific materials. Construction techniques have, over the years, been perfected. Stone (or exposed brick) walls are usually made of dressed (shaped) pieces laid in various formations, held together by mortar joints or grouting purposefully finished to highlight the shape of the stone. The beauty of a masonry façade is its exposed surface. Concrete is cast. The design is built into the shuttering itself like a mould and removed to expose its shape once set. Several flyovers in Mumbai have some very fine RCC finishes.
The aesthetics of masonry in making a wall, or using RCC to raise a column are inherent and recognisable. Both are intended to be enjoyed for what they are, exposed and unfinished—not covered up with an additional layer of oil paint. No further ‘beautification’ is expected. In complete contradiction of this principle, masonry walls are being painted over, as are the columns and soffits (bottoms) of flyovers.
No example is more egregious than the stretch of P. D’Mello road, from GPO signal to the start of the freeway, where both sides of the road are sites for murals running nonstop, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The western edge of this road has a stretch of warehouses built in very fine stone masonry that has lasted for years, handling both encroachment and overgrown vegetation with aplomb. These are heritage-worthy buildings that should be preserved as a precinct of early port industrialisation. In this stretch, not one vertical has been left alone. Most inexcusable, however, is the short stretch of the old Fort George—the last relic of city defences completed in 1769 with solid blocks of masonry and crenellations. On the other side of this wall are housed the offices of the Archaeological Survey of India.
This wall was more or less unmolested for more than 250 years, until a few months ago. Now this too has been partially painted over. The respect for precedent is currently at its lowest in the city.
The problem is that, even if good sense finally prevails, it will be painful to undo. Covering a masonry or RCC surface with oil or acrylic paint is reversible, but requires the use of steam and high-powered jets of water to remove all-over painting. Some stones like basalt can take the harsh treatment, some like Porbandar stone cannot as its fine surface layer will be destroyed. A very good example of restoration is the long-running and relatively tedious removal of layers and layers of oil paint from the surface of Flora Fountain. I wonder what it will take for those who grant these permissions to realise that only plastered surfaces should be painted over, all the rest should be left alone.
This rash of ‘beautification’ in Mumbai seems to be infecting other cities as well. I shudder to think that one day it will reach the Capitol Complex of Chandigarh, the epitome of RCC expression.
A city like ours has no shortage of vertical surfaces, but should they all be considered fair game for naïve, even puerile art? None of this work is curated, despite Mumbai having the best artists, the best curators and theoreticians, and the finest galleries. These last seem to exist in a rarefied bubble when it comes to the public realm. The streets of the city have been left at large for repeated depictions of the sea link, the new metro stations, cliched Mumbai iconography, historical personages, and of course the omnipresent Swachh Bharat. The city needs a formal, active and empowered Urban Arts Commission, one that the state government and the BMC will defer to. ‘Beautification’ should be defined and a sensitivity to the urban fabric, the city’s history and its memory needs to be preserved.
MUSTANSIR DALVI is a poet and professor at Sir JJ College of Architecture, Mumbai.