A spellbinding art show at a dying Mumbai drive-in theater
For someone who routinely took this road route through the late 1980s and a lot of the 1990s, it was always gratifying to see Amitabh Bachchan or Anil Kapoor rise unexpectedly out of the swampy mess of the creek.
In the evenings when the screen of the drive-in theater sparked up, it could be tracked across much of the bend. For less than a few minutes -- unless you were lucky enough to catch a traffic snarl -- the screen became an unlikely pole star on the horizon.
If you are a regular traveler along this road, you may have noticed that the drive-in has long since pulled down its screen. Its shambling edifice lingered around for a while, but now that too has been razed.
Mumbai’s only drive-in theatre is gone. Kaput. No stilted obituary. No nothing.
Without sounding too presumptuous, it could be wagered that the majority is unaware that this has come to pass. And then, of course, there are those who will draw a blank when the subject comes up, because they never knew of the drive-in’s temporal address in the first place.
Let this write-up not be mistaken for an obit. Or a vignetted nostalgia piece.
The drive-in was never loved; it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry of its own! Perhaps that's due to the Godzilla size mosquitoes that came visiting from the creek, which covets the boundary of the drive-in. Or perhaps it didn’t take off because, for the longest time, only those with wheels were welcome at the drive-in.
Well, it’s gone now, which is just as well because in its going, it got itself a most enchanting swan song.
By the time you read this piece, the theater will have been transformed into detritus. But on March 6, the drive-in had a memorable one-night stand when GallerySKE, unquestionably one of the country’s most progressive galleries, took over the long defunct site. Maker Maxity, owners of this prime property, invited the Bangalore-based gallery to make a provisional and intriguing exhibition space out of the drive-in.
On display were works by artists from the GallerySKE coterie -- Abhishek Hazra, Anup Mathew Thomas, Avinash Veeraraghavan, Bharti Kher, Krishnaraj Chonat, Navin Thomas, Sreshta Rit Premnath, Sudarshan Shetty, Sakshi Gupta and Srinivasa Prasad -- plus a surprise visitor in Dayanita Singh.
Also present, though not part of the GallerySKE line-up, was the California-based Project Bandaloop. A troupe of aerial dancers and performers, Bandaloop enthralled all with their daring vertigo-inducing acts, dancing in pairs while dangling over the edge of the edifice.
Inside, scuffed red carpets, mildewed furniture and the fragrance of incense became a near-perfect setting for what could be a retelling of Abrar Alvi’s 1962 film "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam". Art infiltrated the architecture, the film posters, the shrines, the guttering candles and made a neat jam session of it all.
Not every work on display was breathtaking. So what? As artists, curators, critics and gallerists, some we win, some we don’t. And of course, ol’ Murphy's law struck in places by way of the technical snafus it triggered. Luckily it retreated before long.
There was a lot of amiable laughter and smile among those congressed at the drive-in. But thanks to the video installations near the bar and the entrance, there was also some haunted double-edged laughter booming about the place. Hazra’s "Laughing in Sine Curve" (2008), mapped math, emotion and art to make a laughing matter eerie. The video successfully unnerved at least a few patrons waiting for their drinks, and Veeraraghavan’s laugh-cry transmitted through the video "Hurricane" (2008) caught you off guard at the entrance.
Recently when Veeraraghavan Buzzed in a bunch of Vimeo links for his works we found our puppy Iggy, who we’ve never known to have a predilection for the arts, was most taken up by first the sounds, and then the visuals of "Hurricane" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (2010). Her paws on the keyboard she practically nosedived into the laptop’s screen.
A four-legged variant of the unpredictable Stendhal Syndrome? A psychosomatic illness, Stendhal is known to visit those who are exposed to high concentrations of art. Which calls to mind Sudarshan Shetty.
Catching up with some of Shetty’s works was undoubtedly the highlight of the evening. 365 wine glasses + tables + hammers + neon lights + mechanical doodahs = Sudarshan Shetty’s "party is elsewhere" (2005) installation. And what a wicked work it is. The tension as the hammers came down one after another, on the two tables packed with empty glasses, was too tempting for this writer.
All evening a glass-shattering half-delinquent act was contemplated by me. Finally the phantom of "Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam" returned and a glass, of what seemed like really expensive red wine, was dropped to the floor. Dropped like Waheeda Rehman would have a kerchief. Stendhal Syndrome to Shetty Syndrome. The alliteration works like a charm.
Another erudite work by Shetty, "Untitled" (2003) had a phalanx of scissors in a bathtub full of water, snipping away at the liquid garment.
Elsewhere, holed up in dusty cabinets, was a suite of videos (2006) by Bharti Kher. The register of the videos -- "Flutter Boy", "Monkey Boy" and "Screen Boy" -- could not have been more apart from Shetty’s work. The titles of the videos may not sound as sumptuous as the title of Kher’s solo, "Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons because you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup" (2006), but the animations were quirkily endearing. The videos recalled animated shorts, such as the very popular "Ek Titli Anek Titliyan", produced by Films Division of India in the late 1980s.
All antennae up, all frequencies abuzz.
This delightful Alice-in-Wonderland offsite art project was a private initiative and not a moribund display of governmental bureaucracy and soft power. We hope more kindred spirits from the private sector take a hint; this city could do with some offspaces.
Writer Gitanjali Dang is an independent critic and curator based in Mumbai.