Nita Ambani Cultural Centre is more about money than culture

Nita Ambani Cultural Centre

The new Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai as of now is all about money, money, money, opulence, display of wealth and the personality cult.

Last evening I was there looking at a Pichai art work in the foyer when an attendant in a hushed, polite voice told me – Ambani sir is coming.

After some time Mukesh Ambani came and walked along. Looked much more dignified than wife Nita who followed a while later in an all white dress with high heels.

There was a long row of very well dressed attendants, young and smart on both sides of the foyer. Clearly, they were all drawn from fairly well to do families, at least one I noticed was a college student. So the whole class character of the attendants is also changed. One sees here for the first time a sort of wealthy people in Mumbai you would never find at a performance of anything like Sound of Music. They were here just because they can afford the hugely expensive tickets. People like that no longer want to see ordinary people anywhere near them. Ordinary people are to be exploited, left outside and must remain invisible.

There is an interesting oil painting of Mahatma Gandhi, not in the exhibition hall but outside, done by a noted Bangladeshi painter Shahabuddin Ahmed which seems extremely relevant. It shows Gandhi as an utterly broken man, very disturbed, almost mutilated. This is how Gandhi would have felt had he been around to see the vulgarisation of life and taste. The painting seems such an ironical commentary on the absolute brazen, naked, almost arrogant display of affluence all around. On the other side by the same artist is a painting of Rabindranath Tagore. The man from Shantiniketan would have been outraged as well especially considering his deep understanding of culture. He remains our guiding star on many issues.

Given the tremendous media clout of the Ambanis it is not surprising there is hardly any honest, serious , critical look of this complex except in a recent issue of Frontline which says in some respects it looks like an airport.

One would say that in sense the whole edifice is a monument to the automobile culture, the most stark symbol of the upper class ethos. There is more car parking here for some five thousand, yes five thousand cars, which is more than the capacity of car parking at both the airports in Mumbai. It is spread over five floors, three of them underground. Already there are complaints of horrendous traffic jams after events here as so many cars come out at the end of the mega events. Such vulgar allotment of huge space spread over several acres of built land is completely unjustified in the light of the urban transport policy as well as the claims of the metro rail’s seemingly blind promoters that there would be much less need for cars . A high rise car parking tower next to the culture centre is lying empty, almost unused. Let the parking authority come out with facts. Besides, this is MMRDA land given to Ambanis on lease at a concessional rate and there have been several violations over the years.

Some comparison of the Ambani centre with the NCPA would be inevitable. NCPA was created mainly by the Tata group with some support from other capitalists. But the centre was named National Centre for the Performing Arts, no family name, no personal ego boosting.

We know almost nothing about the inputs put up in terms of art and culture in the Ambani centre We hear of no name other than the Ambanis. As for the NCPA, on the other hand, the initial advisory group included such stalwarts as Vilayat Khan, Ravi Shankar, Yehudi Menuhin,P.L. Deshpande and Satyajit Ray, what a formidable list that is.

It was inaugurated by Mrs Indira Gandhi in 1980. J.R.D. Tata and Jamshed Bhabha were the main creators. J.R.D. for all his other high accomplishments did not have much of appreciation for non elite culture. I still remember a snide reference he made about the experimental theatre. But this is a very minor point.

The first director of NCPA was V.K. Narayana Menon a man with a very formidable background, he was a retired director general of All India Radio, was a big figure in BBC in London, was a prolific writer, critic, with very sound knowledge of dance. There is a very interesting photograph of his of 1942 sitting along with E.M. Foster, the novelist, T.S. Eliot, the eminent poet, Venu Chitale, secretary of George Orwell and a highly talented person herself. Orwell is among those standing.

He was always a suit in NCPA and a bit aloof. In retrospect, one thinks much more highly of him now than one did then.

He was followed later as director by P.L. Deshpande and Vijaya Mehta and the team included some very highly talented people like Ashok D. Ranade, the renowned classical music expert and Kumud Mehta who was a guiding light for the experimental theatre, she grew up in the progressive movement and the freedom struggle.

Menon’s friendship with Menuhin was to prove providential for India. The world famous artist was specially invited to perform in India in aid of drought relief and Menuhin reached in Delhi in 1952 and at the residence of Menon he renewed his acquaintance with the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar whom he had met as early as 1932 in Europe. It was in this house too they had a meeting with some of the musicians who were already famous and the violinist was charmed by the variety and spiritual overtones of Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic. He probably met the young DV Paluskar, who had suddenly burst into the music scene with his concert at the Harivallabh Samaroh at Jullundur, and was charmed by the mellifluous voice of this gifted musician. Menon recalled how they went about planning and executing the project for which the Maharashtra Government was generous enough in giving eight acres of prime land, of which five acres had been reclaimed from the sea. The estimated cost of the land was Rs. 20 crores and this was given on a 99-year lease for a token fee of Rs. 1 a year! They chose as architect Philip Johnson who had designed the Lincoln Centre and who had been familiar with the demands of the modern theatre and its ambience, says an aticle in the magazine Open. When he was approached he was only too willing to do something in this part of the world. He made more than a dozen trips to examine the locale and the building material and the local area sources. Thus he took care to see that everything that went into its making has been indigenous. The stone for the structure was quarried from Malad area.

About some of the unique features of the auditorium Menon explained that the acoustics consultant was Prof. Cyrill Harris, who was professor of Architecture and Engineering at Columbia University and he had suggested a fan-shaped theatre with number of rows reduced to 17 from the normal 32and the stage projected almost into the audience. And the electronic amplification of sound eliminated by the construction of elongated three-sided forms of high density plaster which extended in concentric circles over the entire ceiling and along the walls of the auditorium.

In those days many of us thought the NCPA was elitist and in some respects it still is. But compared to the Ambani edificie, it wins hands down.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist, culture critic and author of a book on public transport

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