The website of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre claims that the Grand Theatre is technologically most advanced in India, is magical and meticulously designed. But what is the reality? Many in the audience have complained of serious problems. After spending thousands of rupees for one seat, you find that the bar in front of your seat makes it hard to see the performance, some complain that you have to bend forward or even stand.
Many live to eat and theatre is just a time pass event for them but even eating at the venue is not easy, many complain there are long queues for food. There have been technical glitches, performances have been interrupted. Does the media dare complain ? There are serious problems of all types. The toilets are extremely posh but utterly inadequate so there are long queues, one can miss a part of the show after the interval as a result. Reaching the venue or leaving it by car can itself be painful because of long queues. The car parking space is so huge, it takes a long time just to walk to the car after the performance.
I have talked with a number of people. It seems there are serious problems of design at all levels. The place is more like a mall. It may be all right to have everything there in one building in a mall. But putting an art gallery, a Grand Theatre, and the smaller the Studio Theatre and Cube theatre, and the huge area now being used for fashion clothing exhibition seems to be a big problem. There is more. All this façade of culture, if one can call, it is further dwarfed by the corporate conference halls on the upper floors. There is confusion at every level, how to go from one place to another. In the pursuit of grandeur, the basics have been ignored, messed up. A theatre practitioner told me even the green room is missing in one of the theatres. Can you mess up a theatre more. There is only one wing for the actors to enter and exit, only one gate for the audience to enter and exit. Unbelievable but that is how it is. And yet we have a huge naïve section which still believes what a grand venue we have.
The ostentation and design make it a very uncomfortable, though it is huge, it can be a suffocating place.In NCPA, the space is used far more imaginatively. The Little Theatre, which came up first, the experimental theatre and the big Tata , Bhabha theatre are all in separate spaces, not under one roof.
The quality of a good section of the audience in the Grand is extremely poor, many are there just for the sake of money, no taste, so they keep looking at the mobile phone during performance, disturbing others. A good performance needs a knowledgeable, responsive audience.
By the very nature of its design, high ticket prices, one can hardly expect any serious theatre to be staged here, at present it looks to be a site for only big expensively mounted, spectacles.
In both NCPA and Ambani centre there is little respect for Nature. In the Ambani centre there are huge fake flowers, some of them roses and some people take selfies there which shows how we are removed from nature. NCPA with all is money cannot manage a good lawn, it has a fake green artificial turf which is so incongruous for a cultural centre.
The NCPA though at the southern end of Mumbai is much more accessible than the Ambani centre. From the Churchgate suburban train terminus one can have good long walk on Marine Driver and there you are at NCPA. It also has a good sea view. In contrast, the Ambani centre has nothing around it related to culture or nature. On one side is the Trident five star hotel, a multi storeyed empty car park, empty because the rich don’t want to pay , on the other side is a huge complex of the diamond market with numerous buildings and then there is the Merril Lynch tower and beyond is the American consulate. Compared to other areas in the city, the area is well maintained in terms of cleanliness but it is culturally sterile.
The Ambani centre is a showpiece which can appeal to those who have only money and no culure and Bollywood types. It has little potential in is present shape to emerge as a cultural centre because culture involves debate, introspection, raising questions, challenging the status quo and so on. Will the Ambani business interests ever allow a free exchange of views ?. The NCPA sometimes organises good lectures. Comparatively it has much more freedom in these matters. What kind of lectures can we expect in the Ambani centre beyond those which help its corporate interests ? The same applies to theatre and films here, everything will be pre censored.
In my 54 years of watching cultural life in Mumbai, I have never seen such a large number of people as here who seem to have no culture at all beyond shopping and malls and eating, consuming, aping Western fashions and so on.
There are a large number of traditional pichwai cloth paintings of the life of Krishna hung on the walls of the foyer in the Ambani centre. During more than three hours in the area I did not see anyone taking any interest whatsoever in these works of art from Gujarat.
No wonder no one was looking at a bronze statue of Gandhiji at the entrance of the theatre where higher end tickets range from Rs 20,000 to Rs. 40,000 per show of the musical Sound of Music.
The work is by Deviprasad Roy Chowdhury. One of his most famous is the sculpture Triumph of Labour depicting workers which is installed at Marina Breach in Chennai, it is a big landmark there. Of one thing we can be sure. The Ambani centre will never display anything paying tribute to the contribution of Labour.
In the long , winding walk through the textile fashion section, the shining , monotonous, repetitious designs can get on your never after some time and the music in the early sections distinctly belongs to the horror film genre. The main idea seems to be to promote the so called big names, the page three crowd. This hugely expensively mounted show virtually negates the enormously rich tradition of our textiles. And the claim by the rich that their patronage is essential should be disputed. Humans have been creative on their own right from the era of cave paintings since thousands of years. Culture, art have been part of people’s daily lives for ages as can be seen from the way the houses have been painted, that includes the Warli paintings nearer home. What we need is democratisation of art and craft, the patronage will come from good social organisations, not commercial ones.The Ambanis now want to profit from people’s art work by selling it through a chain of big shops, starting with Hyderabad in a few weeks from now.
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist, culture critic and author of a book on public transport and walking