Best of Mumbai 2011: Culture

December 12, 2011 8:07 am by

"Winged Pilgrims" by Sheba Chhachhi at Volte Gallery.

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Mehboob Studios
When the organisers of the Anish Kapoor exhibition, which opened in November 2010, convinced the owners of Mehboob Studios to allow them to use the space for the art show, they ended up doing the residents of Mumbai a great service. Not only did the studios help finally bring Kapoor’s works to the city of his birth, this year, Mehboob hosted an array of cultural events as diverse as the Mahindra Blues Festival and Fully Booked: The Times of India Literary Carnival. The venue, which also hosts the monthly Live From The Console series of gigs, comes with ready-made advantages that are rare to find in Mumbai: great space, great acoustics and great ventilation.

Sheba Chhachhi at Volte Gallery and Bhau Daji Lad Museum
Sheba Chhachhi’s works, shown in quick succession first at her solo at Volte gallery and then later at the Bhau Daji Lad museum, proved to be the antidote to a year of fractured thinking and half-baked ideas. Her magical moving-image light boxes, with their stories unfolding at near glacial pace, demanded of the viewer singular attention and some measure of patience. There were references to the Yamuna, avian flu, environmental degradation, Persian miniatures, ancient Asian mythologies and lastly, our own inexplicable tendency to inflict harm. You didn’t have to glean all of the sumptuous visual parables to get the ominous message—the fate of the world may well unravel within our lifetime.

Simi Selects India’s Most Desirable
In terms of sheer insipidity, Arjun Rampal’s Love 2 Hate U would probably win this category. But insipidity usually invokes indifference; and nothing came quite close to the Freudian delight we derived from hating each deliciously cringe worthy episode of Simi Selects India’s Most Desirable. Host Simi Garewal, she of the immobile forehead and asker of daft questions, unveiled her list of “desirables” that seemed to be dictated by whom she could get just weeks after the end of that other talk show whose name she dareth not mention (though we gladly will: Koffee With Karan). Bollywood’s “hidden” talents, Google-savvy fortune tellers, a dance-crazy teen audience, all were just grist for the mill, while Simi unleashed her true inner-crazy in the form of Kiki “cuckoo” Garewal. TV audiences haven’t been the same since.

Peter Cat Recording Co.
It was a great year for new Indian indie music talent. Bombay Bassment, whom we wrote about in the last week of 2010, spent much of this year delivering on their initial promise; they gigged tirelessly, putting up impressive performances each time, and proving that there’s more to Indian hip hop than just a bunch of wannabe gangsta MCs. New Delhi-based composer, guitarist and producer Sahej Bakshi aka Dualist Inquiry caught our attention with his distinct electronica-meets-rock sound, while another composer-guitarist from the capital, Keshav Dhar, who records under the name Skyharbor, and Mumbai’s Goddess Gagged demonstrated that Indian metal could be as musically complex as it is mosh friendly. But the Peter Cat Recording Co. is the one new band whose album we’ve been playing all year. With carnival-esque songs, coupled with sardonic lyrics, their quirky, unique tunes on Sinema, which drew inspiration from Beirut to Frank Sinatra, were unlike anything we’d heard from an Indian indie act ever before.

Bloodywood by Pentagram
Last year, we decided to not include this category in our year-end special because there simply weren’t enough great albums to choose from; this year, however, there were at least half-a-dozen contenders. Of these, we’ve had three albums on our playlists all through 2011—Peter Cat Recording Co.’s ground-breaking debut Sinema (see Best New Indian Indie Band), Indian Ocean’s 16/330 Khajoor Road and Pentagram’s Bloodywood. The seven tracks on 16/330 Khajoor Road were released in the form of free monthly single downloads from July 2010 to January 2011; it was a collection of tunes the band had composed for various film projects (some released, some shelved and some still upcoming) that carried their distinct folk-fusion sound. Thanks to the New Delhi band’s frequent visits to our city in 2010, by the time they played the Hard Rock Cafe this past March, most of the album’s tracks had already become live favourites. Our album of the year, however, is fittingly a very “Bombay” album. Pentagram’s Bloodywood was much like the city it was dedicated to: aggressive but eclectic. Inspired by everything from the dumbing down of an increasingly celebrity-obsessed media (“Mental Zero”) to the noise pollution that jars our lives 24/7 (“Nocturne”), it was Pentagram’s (and arguably all of Indian rock’s) most sharply written and composed album till date.

Angelique Kidjo at the Tata Theatre, National Centre for the Performing Arts
At the NCPA, you can tell how well a gig has gone down if the seated audience stands up and dances during the last couple of songs. At Angelique Kidjo’s concert at the venue in March, it took just a few minutes for the crowd to leap to its feet. Kidjo subsequently invited her fans to join her on stage, and even boogied with a lucky few. And that was just one of the things that made her second show in Mumbai (she had performed at Blue Frog the night before) the most memorable gig we’ve seen all year. Kidjo stunned us all not only with the power of her voice but with an unbridled energy that belied her 51 years of age. She strutted and jumped (in a pair of high heeled boots, no less), and chatted with the audience with a child-like enthusiasm that made every minute of her two-performance compelling viewing. Like a true showwoman, she also packed the gig with hits aplenty, from “Malaika” to “Move On Up”, and “Agolo” to “Tumba” and of course, her cover of “Dil Mein Chuppa Ke” from the 1950s Hindi film Aan.

Live From The Console
While Grime Riot Disco deserves an honorary mention for giving the city’s hipsters a home outside (their now sadly-shuttered) home (read: Zenzi), we think that in terms of concept, scale and execution, Live From The Console was arguably the best thing to happen to Mumbai’s indie music scene all year. Jointly organised by Day One (the indie division of Sony Music India) and Oranjuice Entertainment, Live From The Console showed us that if you add great sound and light production to a great venue (see Best New Venue) and couple it with affordable drinks (Rs150 for a pint of beer), 400 people will more than happily spend their Saturday night watching three upcoming Indian acts, month after month. As a result, groups like Medusa (now renamed Sky Rabbit), The Mavyns and the Bay Beat Collective played to a new audience, and won a whole bunch of new fans.

Delhi Belly
It was a mixed year for Hindi film music. Just when Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy seemed like they were getting their groove back with Patiala House, they served up a set of stale tunes on Game; and if Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara had some of their freshest songs in years, their tracks for Don 2 were shockingly unimaginative. Their friends, Vishal and Shekhar proved more adept at recreating the sound of the late 1970s and early 1980s for Bbuddah Hoga Terra Baap and The Dirty Picture than at forging contemporary hits for Ra.One, which was in essence a one-song wonder. Even the ever-dependable Amit Trivedi and Vishal Bhardwaj released OSTs, No One Killed Jessica and 7 Khoon Maaf respectively, that failed to match up to their stellar work in 2010. It was only A. R. Rahman who managed to regain some lost form on Rockstar, but if it was new, exciting sounds you were looking for, you had to tune into relatively unknown composers like Sachin-Jigar and their clutter-breaking score for Shor In The City and to jingle specialist Ram Sampath for Delhi Belly. The latter is our pick of the year, because not only was there more to the soundtrack than “Bhaag D. K. Bose” (even if the rest of the tunes weren’t as good), but also because the songs actually sounded better when you heard them in the film. And in this era of item numbers, that’s a rare achievement.

Delhi Belly
Delhi Belly was a raunchy, witty and irreverent post-modern satire that playfully deconstructed standard Bollywood genres and cliches. Writer Akshat Verma’s intentionally crude dialogue wonderfully complimented the zippy, entertaining plot, as director Abhinay Deo played with the rules of Hindi movies. Instead of copping out by using mega stars, Deo took relatively less popular actors like Imran Khan, Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapur, and provided them with a chance to shine. Vijay Raaz gave the performance of the year as the villain.

Pyaar Ka Punchnama
A film about three young men who fall in love with conniving women, Pyaar Ka Punchnama offered non-stop, bust-your-gut funny material during the first hour, with some truly outstanding, real-world drama in the second. The characterisations were just too darn compelling, with Divyendu Sharma stealing the show as the hapless Liquid. Kartik Tiwari’s now-famous, six-minute long, rapid-fire, single-take monologue on nagging women was worth the price of admission alone.

I Am
An ensemble drama starring Juhi Chawla, Manisha Koirala, Rahul Bose, Nandita Das, Purab Kohli, Abhimanyu Singh and Sanjay Suri, I Am was possibly the finest cinematic study of modern Indian relationships to come along in quite some time. Director Onir’s handling of the material was incendiary. In the stories of Abhimanyu (Sanjay Suri) and Omar (Rahul Bose), Onir weaved a haunting relevance to the current social and political climate surrounding gay relationships. Nandita Das delivered a stunning performance as a woman who, betrayed by her husband, turns to single motherhood via in-vitro fertilisation, and ends up being consumed by curiosity over the sperm donor, played by Purab Kohli.

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga
The expectations were high from the Booker Prize-winning Aravind Adiga, and he delivered. Adiga set his novel in the grotty suburb of Vakola. An old housing society is wooed by a builder who wants to demolish the building and Masterji, a long-time resident, wants no part of the Shanghai dream. It’s a duel to the finish between an ambitious builder and a retired teacher. Last Man in Tower stands out for being one of the few books about the city that dismisses vintage Mumbai and is in love with the present, made up as it is of shiny towers, potholed roads and desperately unscrupulous people.

River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
In the second part of the Ibis trilogy, Amitav Ghosh took his readers into the Chinese port of Canton, a place where people from all around the world come to profit from China’s love for opium. River of Smoke is mostly about a Parsi trader called Bahram Modi, who is a meek house-husband in Bombay and something of a party animal in Canton. We meet Modi at a time when the fortunes of opium traders are threatened by an unfriendly Chinese administration; consider it a history lesson that won’t put you to sleep.

Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka
Cricket, alcoholic journalists, underworld dons, fist fights, a man in a trench coat, conspiracy, a hero forced to flee—there was all this and more in Shehan Karunatilaka’s brilliant debut novel, Chinaman. In its pages is a crash course in the history of Sri Lankan cricket, told by the delightfully curmudgeonly narrator who is a cricket writer investigating the greatest story of his career. Chinaman is often hilarious, full of googlies and absolutely unputdownable.

The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
It might seem like we have a thing for cricket but we don’t. We can’t remember the last time we actually watched an entire match. Despite this absence of enthusiasm for the sport, our favourite debut novels of 2011 were about cricket writers. That and the fact that both are excellent reads are all that Chinaman and Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care have in common. Bhattacharya’s lyrical novel is set in the Caribbean island of Guyana and hovers between fiction and travelogue. His writing has been likened to that of V. S. Naipaul.

Lovers of non-fiction have rarely had it this good, particularly if they wanted to read about South Asia. This year saw some outstandingly well-researched books. Some courted controversies, like Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of M. K. Gandhi. One inspired a theatrical work—Naresh Fernandes’s Taj Mahal Foxtrot was the basis for Love and All That Jazz, a “fashion Broadway” musical directed by Rohan Sippy. In a year that had so many excellent non-fiction titles, it’s difficult to pick favourites. The following titles are among the most memorable and thought-provoking ones we read this year.

The Convert by Deborah Baker
Deborah Baker’s biography of Jewish woman from New York who travelled to Pakistan in the 1960s and converted to Islam is fascinating. The story of Maryam Jameelah is, at times, horrifying. There’s nothing predictable about Jameelah, who lives in Lahore and has not been back to the U.S. since she came to Pakistan in 1962.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee
Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee won the Pulitzer for this “biography” of cancer. Reaching far back into classical Greek literature and fast-forwarding into the 21st century, The Emperor of All Maladies is quite obviously the result of years of research. In Mukherjee’s writing, cancer emerges as a dark supervillain who is both awe-inspiring and downright frightening.

Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro
In Beautiful Thing, we enter the world of bar dancers with Sonia Faleiro and meet Leela, a precocious bar dancer who becomes Faleiro’s friend. The novel travels into Mumbai neighbourhoods most of us wouldn’t venture into (at least not openly or voluntarily) and shows us that it’s a desperately cruel world in there. Leela’s is a heartbreaking story, but Faleiro doesn’t let Beautiful Thing slip into the mire of maudlin stereotypes. Instead, Leela shines, as brightly as the disco ball on the cover.

The INK Conference
After TED held its annual conference in Mysore in 2009, it opened the floodgates for a host of imitators and wannabes, including a series of chinwags that went by names that were as obvious (ThinkFest) as they were perplexing (“literary carnival“). From the franchised-out TEDx to the more modestly titled “INK salons“, only one came close to mimicking the high-powered intellectual and networking acrobatics of the original TED. And as far as we can tell, INK is like TED in all ways but one: its name (INK stands for “Innovation and Knowledge”), which makes it a shoo-in for pretender to the crown. Held in association with the TED chaps, the first INK took place at the hill city of Lavasa last December, where the organisers managed to cloister brainiacs like James Cameron, Deepak Chopra and Philippe Starck with a motley cross-section of journalists, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who had come to make the most of the physical proximity to genius afforded by the Rs1 lakh registration fee. Like their TED brethren, INK fellows espouse a can-do, feel-good mantra about changing the world, making it almost compulsory to jump on the bandwagon should you have been chosen to be part of the audience. For those who didn’t buy into the hype, there was always the free “salon” version, where local do-gooders shared the lessons learned while creating their start-ups.