All I wanted to do was smoke a heavy minted cigarette after viewing the hedonistic, hungering, blinding, bursting fashion exhibit at the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre (NMACC). To do that, I had to step out of that hulking, polished edifice full of sharp edges with “Welcome” written in as many Indian scripts, nestled in the heart of Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex, one of the world’s most expensive business hubs, on to the neat, tree-lined street and into the shadows of the tall and chunky glass structures on all sides.
There were no cigarette thelas nearby—unusual for Mumbai, I thought. The security guards warned me that I would have to walk far to find one, perhaps at the edge of this tony suburb. A cigarette stall, a paan shop, such spaces do not make sense here; they are a geographic aberration, an aesthetic puncture. I bummed a cigarette from a stoned man who lolled near the gate, who told me there was this guy who rode around on a bicycle selling cigarettes, but he was usually parked a few roads away, near a construction site.
It was all slightly farcical. All I had wanted was a cigarette. But everything has its place. And NMACC has a radical clarity of place—it wants to be in Mumbai but to feel un-Mumbai. It feels like an airport terminal, a friend said. It means to promote culture, but at a distance from civilisation. This is not unusual. The Tatas, for example, set up the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) on literally the edge of Mumbai, at Nariman Point. To enter culture, it seems you must exit civilisation.
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Over a recent week I spent more than eight hours inside NMACC. To first experience “The Great Indian Musical: Civilization to Nation”—hollow; then browse through the “India in Fashion” exhibit—sensual; then the “Sangam/Confluence” exhibit—muddled. In the coming weeks I will spend still more hours watching Odissi, Kathak, Bharatanatyam in the Black Box here.
The opening gala
A dense line-up of expensive and exciting artists inaugurated the NMACC, which opened in April with Feroz Abbas Khan’s “The Great Indian Musical: Civilization to Nation” . With over 350 artists on stage, the musical is the stuff of logistical nightmares and directorial wet dreams—over 1,100 costumes, some of the biggest names in choreography, music, and costume design, an orchestra flown in from Budapest, in a theatre that can host a 2,000-strong audience.
For the inauguration, the Ambanis flew in Hollywood celebrities and supermodels—Zendaya, Tom Holland, Penelope Cruz, Gigi Hadid—and lassoed in all of Bollywood. Even Rajinikanth made an appearance.
“VT station in couture” is how someone described opening night. Designer wear reigned—Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla, Elie Saab, Falguni Shane Peacock, Rahul Mishra. Photographs were clicked and shared with the immediacy of gossip and tragic news. I spent the evening in boxers with a friend as we doom-searched, triangulating paparazzi accounts on Instagram, ho-humming our way. Could they not afford softer lights?
NMACC’s opening gala, modelled after the Oscars or Cannes, became a Gujarati-chic bacchanal. The tailored and rouged people were helicoptered in to inaugurate a cultural centre. But they became the culture instead.
NMACC aims to become the cultural compass of Mumbai, nay, of India, and culture thrives on patronage, whatever the source. Two questions arise: if the source of patronage is shaded in the penumbra of capitalism, extraction, and violence, is the cost worth paying for culture? Second, what after all is the culture this space will produce?
If “The Great Indian Musical: Civilization to Nation” is a bellwether, then it is clear that culture here will be inseparable from spectacle. Spectacle, as in what French philosopher Guy Debord described as the shift from “having” to “appearing”. The musical was a patchwork of ideas from India—Buddhism, Kathak, Garba, Gandhi—expressed through a blinding choreography of fluttering cloth, all flowing, glittery, mirrored. Designed to stun you into thoughtlessness. Bludgeon you into submission.
There was an orchestra invited from abroad but deadened by Ajay Atul’s music, they looked bored. The point was their appearance, not their music. It was a grotesque display of wealth, pockmarked by platitudes on Indian culture, its vastness, diversity, infinity, this, that. What came through was the grating insecurity of needing to market Indian “culture”.
Not once was I provoked. Not once did I chuckle. Not once was I comforted. This lack of wit, of vim, leaked into the art exhibit titled “Sangam/Confluence” , which brimmed with full-bodied artworks that can only be appreciated by themselves, an appreciation that is dulled with every curatorial note and every quote pasted on the walls. Where was the wicked humour, the graceless, troubled beauty?
A postured offering
The artists talked of their processes like explaining a poem, and I leant back on a quote, something about trusting art and never the artist. The whole experience was a postured offering. Anselm Kiefer’s work, wracked by sand and the textures of brick kilns, from floor to ceiling, edge to edge, dwarfed over Shantibai’s miniatures; Bharti Kher’s dull invocation of the bindi as an art practice felt both like a symptom, and a struggle, of cultural alienation, and the forced desire to perform Indianness.
“It is pathetic, these invocations of Indianness, this search for India’s “essence”, this inability to speak of art as art, this slobbering desire to interpret things, trying to find meaning to replace the aesthetic experience with aesthetic judgment. ”
It is pathetic, these invocations of Indianness, this search for India’s “essence”, this inability to speak of art as art, this slobbering desire to interpret things, trying to find meaning to replace the aesthetic experience with aesthetic judgment.
It is only at the fashion exhibit where the textures of the saris erupt and crumble your sense of space and time that you feel truly at ease. Where you forgive the slips of pretension in the audio guide, the odd decision to further light up the Bollywood costumes with brazen, ugly moving spots as though their shimmer was not drama enough.
Throw money at an exhibition but do not burden it with meaning, do not put pressure on its capacity to be profound. Let it be. Just shock me with beauty, make me sigh, pull me by my collar, make me smell your pits, lick the textures, scratch my nails over the surface, come closer to the artwork till my nose touches it and the staff gets uneasy by this intimacy.
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If, as film and literary critic A.O. Scott rather idealistically says, “it is the job of art to free our minds and the task of a criticism to figure out what to do with that freedom,” we are going to be smashed against a harsh possibility—of an art disinterested in “freeing the mind” and more interested in deadening it into submission. There goes art then and there goes criticism, and there is no Scott-ian freedom to figure out what to do with. We are wide-eyed zombies.
Then, looking at the full auditorium, I think: Who cares about freedom here? Isn’t culture as spectacle still culture? If it can bring 2,000 people under a roof to clap for the intricately choreographed bodies, perhaps that is enough. Why must I impose my lofty ideas of culture? The Ambanis are content with a patch of land where they can park their wealth as benevolence. Stop prying, I tell myself, as I look at the nth artefact from the “Ambanis Private Collection”, straight from Antilla. It is Yayoi Kusuma’s metallic clouds on either side of a statue of Krishna with a Pichwai drape that falls from the high ceiling. Crowds gather to take selfies with the drape.
And this, perhaps, is what it takes to participate in patronised culture. To be grateful and conflicted, to be suspicious and sensualised, to see money, to see its flashy contributions, and feel its creeping grip. To participate in patronised culture is to forever remember how fraught the very desire for culture is.
Prathyush Parasuraman is a writer and critic who writes across publications, both print and online. He also authors a newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com.