Imagining Mumbai

by Dan Gordon:

“I’ve traveled to New York, and Paris, and Berlin, and London, and Shanghai, and Kyoto, and Tokyo. But… the city of Bombay remains my favorite with all its problems and struggle,” Atul Dodiya reflected. He spoke from his art studio in a lower class neighborhood of Mumbai, the city he calls his muse. “It ultimately makes me aware of life itself.”

For many in the city, life is a contest to survive. Wealthy elites are the exclusive consumers of contemporary art, including Dodiya’s, but they seem incapable or at least unwilling to transform Mumbai into a city of high culture accessible to all. Against tremendous odds, Dodiya is on a quest to bring contemporary art back to those who inspire it—the poor and working classes of the city.

He has a mission. All he needs is a plan.

Atul Dodiya stands in his Mumbai studio. (Courtesy Atul Dodiya)

Navigating the streets of Mumbai, one is assaulted by the noise of auto-rickshaws and beggars’ requests, visually bombarded by colorful saris and austere suits, and tricked into smelling the sewage along with the fresh cooking. To the overwhelmed foreigner, making sense of the place is difficult.

Reductive binaries—rich/poor, east/west, ancient/modern—often serve to encapsulate the city’s spirit, and Dodiya could not resist using one himself, identifying two elements that compose Mumbai: diversity and development. In terms of the first, Mumbai is a microcosm of India—in Dodiya’s vocabulary, “a palimpsest of a kind of diverse and coexisting culture.” The city’s many languages (and Dodiya speaks several himself) are an aural testament to Mumbai’s diversity, signifying the deeper cultural traditions—food, music, and worldview—that swim below the babble of sounds.

Explosive and uneven development in Mumbai has produced a social geography perhaps even more perplexing than the linguistic landscape. The 20.5 million inhabitants of the city (compared to New York City’s 8 million) live in incongruous extremes of wealth and poverty. In South Mumbai, the wealthiest section of the city, glass and steel skyscrapers cut jagged edges in the sky. Antilia, one of the most expensive homes in the world, boasts three helipads, an ice room with artificial snow flurries, and six floors of parking for party guests. From the penthouse, one can easily see the Mumbai slums below: cramped, one-story dwellings.

Ignoring the city’s polarities is impossible: “You are in the twenty-first century, and you go into another lane, and you feel like it’s the middle ages,” Dodiya recalled. “It’s that kind of a ‘what!’ difference.”

His artistic response integrates these worlds, so that his art tells the many stories of the metropolis. The Mumbai that Dodiya loves is enigmatic in its multiplicity of contradictions. “I go up to a certain thing in one style, take a somersault, and go to look at something else, and come back,” the artist explained. “Each show is so different from each other it’s almost like five artists working in one body.”

There is no one Mumbai for Dodiya, only a city stunning in its many faces.Diverse and developing, Mumbai is also cosmopolitan. As a globalizing Mumbai extends beyond India’s borders, Dodiya’s work grasps for material beyond Indian artistic tropes. His work is a watershed of references. Visual quotations of other artists in his oeuvre lend diversity to his subject and style: Medieval European tapestries, seventh-century Chinese calligraphy, and American contemporary art all stream into his work. A child of Mumbai, once a colonial port city, Dodiya fittingly claimed, “Nothing is foreign to me.”

Through his art, Dodiya becomes the translator of ideas between India and the world, and he also functions as an ambassador between the social and cultural worlds within India itself. His awareness of Mumbai’s social, economic, and cultural transformations places him in an ideal position to expand access to art. As someone with upper-class resources who lives in a mixed income neighborhood and has knowledge of the lives of the lower classes, Dodiya has the opportunity to solve the problem of limited viewership in a way that few others do.

Despite their conceptual complexity and subtleties, Dodiya’s works have sold well, with some pieces fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars on the market.

With such high prices, it comes as no surprise that only the wealthy can access his creations.

“Art is always going to be elitist,” Shireen Ghandy declared. As director of Chemould Prescott Road, one of Mumbai’s oldest galleries, Ghandy is a fixture in the top levels of Mumbai’s evolving art world. She recalled how her mother “discovered” Dodiya, and affectionately declared that Dodiya is “my artist.” She counts famous Indian artists among her close friends and has expanded her father’s gallery into a successful commercial enterprise. In contrast to Dodiya, she is not concerned that her galleries entertain an exclusive audience.

Ghandy spoke on her cell phone from an exhibition in Paris that had attracted the tens of thousands of viewers. “[I]n France… you grow up with the museum culture and you grow up with the art around you,” she observed. “In India, you don’t have that privilege. You don’t even have a museum to go to on a Sunday afternoon.” To some extent, western countries have democratized the art world, supporting museums and conservatories in almost every major city. The same is not true in India.

Even if there were museums, making them easily accessible to the lower classes would pose another challenge. Most galleries are located in South Mumbai, where the poor and working classes tend not to live. Mortimer Chatterjee started a gallery in South Mumbai with his wife in 2003, situated a few miles south of Chemould Prescott. “Viewership in Bombay is problematic,” he said. “The local audience itself is fairly small. It’s quite a passive group, which means that galleries often struggle to get footfall beyond opening nights.”

Opening the galleries to a wider viewership might alleviate that problem. Wealth unites the business tycoons, connoisseurs, artists, and the occasional tourist who frequent the Mumbai galleries. Money endows their social constellation with the leisure to enjoy art and the means to reach the galleries. The poor and lower classes, many of whom cannot afford the time or money to travel to South Mumbai, are stranded in the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs of the city.

Dodiya believes that “art comes from life and from people” and trusts that any audience could grasp his work, if they could access it. “Understanding is not the issue, but to see and feel… something,” he said. “Sometimes a common, simple man notices something that art critics do not notice.”

Much of Indian contemporary art, like Dodiya’s, references the unglamorous aspects of Mumbai life. Dodiya’s most recent exhibition, Bako Exists. Imagine., presents a Gujarati poem composed about Bako, a young boy who meets Mahatma Gandhi in his sleep and talks with him about school, prayer, and dreams, among other things. Included in each painting are an excerpted text of the poem and an abstract image of a human form. It is a representation of humanity asleep, in which distinctions of wealth and power dissolve.

Dodiya takes responsibility for the problems of viewership. “I would blame the artists and gallerists,” he declared. A follower of Gandhi, he believes that one man alone can change the world. “It’s me,” he said. “I should be going.” As of now, he shares art with those who live in his neighborhood, but not far beyond it. He wants to see more spaces in the suburbs for art, more public lectures, and more artists engaging the less affluent neighborhoods, rather than hosting cocktail parties in

South Bombay.

Since the government has made the alleviation of poverty one of its top priorities, there is virtually no money available for establishing new museums, preventing the poor and middle class from accessing contemporary art. Without more initiatives, Mumbai will have difficulty bringing contemporary and traditional visual arts to middle and lower-class city dwellers.

Despite the challenges of limited viewership, galleries in Mumbai will continue to flourish. Artists will continue to create and patrons to buy. The fate of the non-elite’s ability to view that art is less certain. Dodiya’s grassroots resourcefulness is a hopeful sign in the Mumbai art world. In his honesty and exuberance, Dodiya dreams of what seems like a quixotic fantasy: bringing sophisticated culture to those who fight to put food on the table. His greatest resources are his verve and boldness. In Mumbai, the city of dreams, that is sometimes enough.

Dan Gordon is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at