Best Of Mumbai 2013: Culture

December 23, 2013 7:20 am by
Shilpa Gupta's installation on Carter Road in Bandra

Shilpa Gupta’s installation on Carter Road in Bandra. Photo courtesy the artist and Creative India Foundation.

SEE ALSO: The Best in Food & NightlifeThe Best in ShoppingThe Worst of 2013

Shilpa Gupta on Carter Road; Reena Kallat at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum
A duo of acclaimed female contemporary artists, Shilpa Gupta and Reena Saini Kallat, both knuckled down and wrestled with Mumbai/Bombay’s shifting shape in their respective installations. Gupta took to the beach near Carter Road in Bandra to mount a neon strip of words that flashed the line “I live under your sky too” in English, Urdu and Hindi, a nod to the neighbourhood’s diversity and a call for harmony in these feudal times. At the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, Kallat strung up the city’s old Colonial street names as a web across its facade, using very appropriately the instrument of choice of bureaucratic babus – the rubber stamp.

Citizen Artist: Forms of Address and Aesthetic Bind | Phantomata at Chemould Prescott Road
The works in Chemould Prescott Road’s second and third shows in their series to celebrate the gallery’s 50th anniversary were cherry picked by curator Geeta Kapur to showcase the best of contemporary art – rattling, over-sized, mesmeric and subversive, they poked and prodded India’s many issues with unnerving incisiveness. An honourary mention goes to French artist Camille Henrot, whose video work The Strife of Love in a Dream at Jhaveri Contemporary, unravelled like a snake ready to strike, building up in momentum and winding down like the highs and lows of a drugged out, party-mad twenty-something. Trippy, hypnotic, unnerving, Henrot’s video was about more than just snake obsessions through the years; it was about humanity’s collective addiction to symbols, rituals and dreams.

The Last Harvest at the National Gallery of Modern Art
Though the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya had the powerful exhibition of paintings by the now-forgotten Mohan Samat, and the J.J. School of Art brought together a vast number of Krishna Reddy prints, it was the The Last Harvest, a showing of works by Rabindranath Tagore at the National Gallery of Modern Art that recaliberated our viewing lens. Tagore, our national poet and literary exemplar, was once upon a time an incessant doodler, self-taught, and with nary a hang up of what might constitute fine art. At this gathering of about 100 works, one of the largest since his death, fluidly curated by historian R. Siva Kumar, the viewer was given a peek into a less assured Tagore, as a 60-something artist, who used his innate sense of linguistic artistry to permeate his at-times fantastical works. There were animals invented, idyllic landscapes, portraits and drawings that showed him to have an astonishing grasp of what it meant to endow a visual expression with the same raw beauty as its written equivalent.

The Competent Authority by Shovon Chowdhury
Shovon Chowdhury’s satire on modern India is one of the cruelest and funniest books that our country’s publishing scene has seen in years and the novel deserves an award just for injecting humour into the usually super-serious world of Indian English literature. Set in a post-nuclear future, there are elements like telekinesis and time travel that make The Competent Authority seem like a fantasy. But within a few chapters, you’ll realise that the inspiration for almost everything in the novel lies in current affairs. From Narendra Modi and dynastic politics to corrupt policemen, slippery gurus and deranged bureaucrats, the India of The Competent Authority has everything that we see around us. Unlike real-life events however, Chowdhury manages to make this terrible madness entertaining rather than depressing, and makes us laugh out loud while he’s doing it. January O’ Really

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur
Author Gaiutra Bahadur’s great grandmother, Sheojari, was a “coolie woman”, or an indentured labourer. In 1903, she travelled from India to Guiana and like most women like her, little by way of historical record exists about her journey. More than a century later, Bahadur painstakingly and imaginatively reconstructed Sheojari’s story. Bahadur does a remarkable job of putting together the jigsaw puzzle of what life was like for women like her great grandmother by drawing upon less conventional sources like photographs, postcards, newspaper headlines and so on. What emerges is a remarkable narrative of survival that spans continents and turns silences into testimonies of indomitable character. JR

The Lunchbox.

The Lunchbox.

The Lunchbox
This has been a great year for Indian indie cinema with such assured debut feature films as Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, Gyan Correa’s The Good Road and Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox. Our pick of the litter is The Lunchbox, a charming festival pleaser about the serendipitous friendship between Saajan Fernandes, an aging widower (Irrfan Khan), and Ila a frustrated housewife (Nimrat Kaur). They get acquainted after a dabba meant for Ila’s husband mistakenly lands on Saajan’s desk and become more than friends over a series of missives exchanged by way of the lunchbox. For Mumbaikars, the film is especially appealing because it celebrates and quietly comments on people and things that have come to exemplify the city – the dabbawalla, packed local buses and trains, the familial atmosphere of housing colonies – without treating them as clichés. The most successful Hindi indie film of 2013, its distribution rights in North America were snapped up by Sony Pictures, an encouraging sign for indie filmmakers who struggle to produce non-mainstream cinema.

Dhoom 3
It was a bumper year for Bollywood, with what seemed like 17 million different movies crossing that mythical Rs100 crore box-office collection figure. Of course, as we’ve learnt painfully over time, numbers do not a good movie make. We had love stories glorifying just about everyone from alcoholics (Aashiqui 2) and stalkers (Raanjhanaa) to gangsters (Ram-Leela). But in the end, the only two contenders that were ever truly worthy of this title were Messrs Roshan and Khan in their respective action movie threequels. Krrish 3 had a lot going for it. It had mutants, songs that would’ve sounded outdated in the 1990s, and people coming back from the dead. But, despite its best efforts, Dhoom 3’s zero hour entry into the race pretty much ended all its chances. There really is no competing with a movie that thinks it can get away with copycatting not one but pretty much every Christopher Nolan film made to date. Sahil Rizwan

Jag Changa by The Raghu Dixit Project
A committee needs to be formed, a referendum needs to be held, but the issue needs to be settled once and for all: what exactly is the difference between an album and an EP in the Indian indie world? City-based electronica artist Sandunes called the seven song, 25-minute Ever Bridge an LP while Chennai alternative rock band The F16’s chose to categorise their seven song, 26-minute Kaleidoscope as an EP (though it should be noted that both had minute-long intro tunes, so they really had just six-and-a-half songs). For the purposes of this round-up (and to introduce a modicum of sense into this madness), we shall consider a minimum of eight tracks for a release to qualify as an album. Now that that’s settled, here’s why our Indian indie album of 2013 is The Raghu Dixit Project’s sophomore effort Jag Changa. From the punchy percussions of the musical call to arms that is album opener “Parasiva” to rousing live favourites like “Lokada Kaalaji” and from the infectious euphoria of the title track to the cellphones-in-the-air contemplativeness of ballads like “Sajana”, Jag Changa was a taut and varied set that proved to be well worth the wait.

An honourable mention goes to Tough On Tobacco’s Big Big Joke, an album on which the ‘comedy rock’ act wisely left the jokes off the songs and focused the humour on the packaging instead. The result was one of the most hilarious album covers ever and a collection of songs that showed frontman and vocalist Sidd Coutto at his finest, displaying a maturity in his songwriting only hinted at on his previous projects, both solo and in other configurations. Take just the opening tune, “Do You What You Gotta Do”, about the wisdom of depending on no one but yourself, a philosophy that applied to the making of the group’s much-delayed second album itself.

Where by Sky Rabbit
Showing that sometimes less can be more, this was the toughest category in which to pick a winner. This year offered up the effortless charms of Kaleidoscope by The F16’s, which drew comparisons to such present-day alternative rock icons as the Arctic Monkeys and Vampire Weekend but was really as unique an effort as the misplaced apostrophe in the band’s name; the irresistible dubstep wallop of Koocha Monster by Delhi-based electronica star Nucleya; and one of the most assured pop-rock debuts from a band in that niche Indian indie sub-genre in the form of Spud In The Box’s Attention Please. Ultimately, it was the winners of 2012’s best Indian indie album, Sky Rabbit who treated us to an EP that fine-tuned an already pretty perfect formula, and showcased a band that decided to depend less on samples in favour of a “more rock” electro-rock sound to emerge richer for it.

Nischay Parekh
“I’ve got a New York state of mind in Indian standard time,” sings Kolkata and Boston-based singer-songwriter Nischay Parekh on “Philosophize”, a track that comes bang in the middle of his debut album Ocean. It’s a fitting self- description of an artist who cuts a distinct figure in the Indian indie soundscape, and we’re not just talking about his sartorial preferences for suspenders and bow ties. Aided by veteran producer Miti Adhikari’s guidance, Parekh’s Ocean is a rarity in the scene – an introductory release of fresh and fully-formed musical ideas that brim with both universal subjects (romantic relationships, coming of age) and novel perspectives (and a fair share of animal themes). Where else could you hear a track about past-life regression that you could dance to called “Panda”?

“The P-Man Explodes” The Lightyears Explode featuring Rohit ‘P-Man’ Pereira 
There are enough Indian indie music videos being made these days for us to be able to feature at least one in almost each of our regular round-ups of What We’re Listening To Right Now. Many of them don’t do justice to the songs they showcase while a handful make an average tune look and sound better than it does. Rare still however is the video that has an actual concept, storyline and art direction that entices multiple viewings. One such clip was The Lightyears Explode’s collaboration with Rohit ‘P-Man’ Pereira, “The P-Man Explodes”, in which their manager Himanshu Vaswani demands that they meet the P-Man and get some lessons in swag. Directed by Tanvi Gandhi, the video is a mini movie, a comedy flick that delivers laughs from the start to the end, with some pretty cool effects thrown in for good measure.

Mutemath at Blue Frog
December 3, 2013 will probably go down in many Mumbai-based music fans’ personal histories as the day they saw one of the best gigs of their lives. Whether you were a longtime fan of American alternative rock band Mutemath or just went along to see what the fuss was about (tickets were reportedly sold out days in advance), you got a concert that gave you a career-spanning greatest hits set, vocalist Paul Meany performing the most epic crowd surf ever witnessed at Blue Frog (in addition to balancing himself on his keyboard mid-air) and a collective experience that was propulsive, immersive and simply unforgettable.

Hard Rock Cafe Andheri
In a year where a number of new restaurants and bars decided to host gigs notwithstanding the lack of a proper stage or sound set-up (Cheval, The Irish House in Kala Ghoda), we were pleasantly surprised to find that the folks behind Hard Rock Cafe seemed to have learned from their mistakes when they opened a second city outpost in Andheri. By placing the stage front and centre and setting up the bar at a height from the stage (rather than the other way around like it is at their Worli flagship) as well as equipping the room with better acoustics, the Andheri HRC gave Mumbai another much-needed music venue that musicians won’t grudgingly play. Sure, it gets uncomfortable on a crowded night but that’s true for almost any popular spot. Now if only they could do something about the super-dim street lighting on the lane leading up to the bar.