Cultured corners

mohini chaudhuri | Updated on September 12, 2014 Published on June 06, 2014

Open spaces. The Easel Gallery in Mumbai   -  Paul Noronha

House of Tales

The Warehouse

Mumbai gets creative with a set of new, reimagined spaces

In October last year, Mumbai-based Neha Sheth breathed life into a rotting godown her family owned in the city’s Kala Ghoda area. After flirting with the idea of turning it into an eatery, she decided to use the 1,700sqft area to host art and cultural events instead. Not that there was a dearth of them in South Mumbai. Sheth’s friendly neighbours are institutions like the Jehangir Art Gallery, National Gallery of Modern Art and the Chatterjee and Lal gallery, among others. Yet she chased away the rats, disposed the furniture and gutted the base, only to replace it with marble flooring. The pillars were retained to preserve the underground vibe of its former avatar. The beauty of House of Tales, says Sheth, is that it can be anything you want it to be. Construct a makeshift stage, lay out a few mattresses, and it turns into a theatre venue. For celebrity chef Ritu Dalmia’s pop-up kitchen, it was transformed into a replica of her Delhi restaurant, Diva, for three days. “We recreated it entirely, right down to the orange-and-brown chairs,” she says.

Last week, Nidhi, Dhruv and Deep Jhavar unveiled a similar initiative in Juhu called Easel. The two-storeyed contemporary space debuted as an art gallery featuring reputed artists such as Ajay De, Anjum Motiwala and Brinda Miller. The trio are also looking to add fashion, film and food-related events to their roster. Apart from Easel, the week that went by also saw the launch of two other hubs — The Warehouse in Mahalakshmi and Andheri Base.

For a while now, restaurants and cafés in Mumbai have tried to satiate the city’s artistic appetite by doubling as venues for plays, stand-up comedy and music gigs. Last year, Bandra’s Big Bang Café dialled down the decibels to stage Quasar Thakore Padamsee’s play Nostalgia Brand Chewing Gum. Bar and lounge Chevel in Kala Ghoda and The Little Door in Andheri often throw open their doors for new bands on the block. But now a handful of places have taken it upon themselves to focus solely on culture.

Rohita Kilachand, a former Teach for India educator, has been nursing the idea of The Warehouse for nearly two years. What makes her project stand out is its exciting tap-dancing, hula-hooping and copper-enamelling workshops, which are hard to come by elsewhere in the city. “There are two types of learning — one, doing it with your hands and the other, audio visual, where you learn from other people’s journeys. I wanted both for my space. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not artistically inclined. The point is to learn. You never know what you get out of it,” says Kilachand.

Andheri Base is a bigger, more ambitious version of its sibling Bandra Base, an initiative by filmmaker Subhash Ghai. Both spaces are managed by musician D Wood and Meghna Ghai Puri (Ghai’s daughter). While Bandra Base’s charm lies in its no-fuss, intimate gatherings, its location in a residential area can be a bit of a downer. “Now we are near Hard Rock Café in Andheri, so I’m sure they’ll be making more noise than us,” says Wood, who performs regularly with his band at both venues. His current agenda is to scout for talent in the neighbourhood: “Young, upcoming artistes need a platform to polish their art. This could be a stepping stone for them.” Thanks to the association with Mukta Arts, Ghai’s production company, Wood admits they managed to bypass many obstacles, including Mumbai’s cut-throat rents. Having their own space also meant more creative licence to feature acts they believed in. “Commercial ventures like Blue Frog have large overheads. They’re under all kinds of pressure to deliver, so they have to be careful about their programming,” he says.

For the Jhavars, too, finding a home for Easel was stress-free. Since their primary business is real estate, they dedicated an unused property to this passion project. The challenge however, was to convert a building under lock-and-key for 15 years into a canvas worthy of displaying high-end paintings and sculptures.

Unlike the others, Kilachand says she checked out a number of venues before stumbling upon an old furniture shop in central Mumbai. She now has an exorbitant rent to cough up for The Warehouse, and the modestly priced classes (up to ₹3,000) alone might not generate sufficient revenue. “There’s very little money in cultural activities. I hope to sustain this for as long as I can. I’m open to renting it out for photo shoots and college events. But I’ll avoid private parties,” she says.

Sheth is clear that House of Tales is a for-profit gallery. She does, however, alter the fee for small-scale gatherings: “Right now I’m a little confused about how we should position ourselves. Do we take bookings for everything, or give the space an identity by being a little choosy?” In comparison, the revenue model of Andheri Base is simple — the ticket prices for paid events must be cheaper than a bottle of beer. “People want things for free. They don’t think twice before spending on five-six beers, but when it comes to cultural events, it’s a different matter. So I didn’t want the ticket prices to discourage them from coming here,” says Wood.

That such projects are burgeoning in different corners of the city is encouraging. But is it enough? “Not really,” says Wood, “This is an artist-unfriendly city. For a city this large, it is shocking how little cultural activity there is. In a place like Amsterdam, with a much smaller population, you’ll find hundreds of community-based initiatives.” Kilachand and Sheth, both raised in the city, are more forgiving — they’ve noticed an exponential rise in cultural events from when they were growing up. One can only hope their initiatives mark the shape of things to come.

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Published on June 06, 2014
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