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Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

DEEP FRIED FISH AND FILM STUDIOS IN MUMBAI

  • In the garden of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya
    In the garden of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya
  • Abir Karmakar, Displacement. At the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke.
    Abir Karmakar, Displacement. At the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke.
  • Polish yoga pic from the exhibition Prince Polonia
    Polish yoga pic from the exhibition Prince Polonia

Some cities ‘force upon you’ a certain architectural narration when you arrive. Famous ‘arrival stories’ include the classical boat ride to New York where you pass the Statue of Liberty and the way tourists find themselves at the steps of the profane Santa Lucia train station before entering ‘magical’ Venice.

 

The thing in Mumbai is that you have to take yourself out to the end of the 7 islands, which in the 19th century merged into one. It is not a horn. On the map it looks maybe a bit like an amoeba. But you know you are traveling out, quite to its edge, through a 24/7 anthill with 18 million inhabitants.

 

It was the morning of November 23 and the hotel pick-up brought me from the airport to the center. My eyes enjoyed the peacefully blue Arabian Sea which was lit up by the bright hot sun, and the surprising amount of skyscrapers which surrounded it.

 

I stayed close to Mumbai Central and I spent the first afternoon walking, taking myself slowly down from the central station area, through the Muhammad Ali street and the Thieves Market, ending up at the long row of huge colonial remains of British architectural appropriation, which in evening light looked somewhat incredible, both beautiful and politically disturbing. It was hard to make it in the traffic, but slowly I learned it by imitating the locals, through all the enchantingly lighted marketplaces and the enormous human chaos to see the Gateway of India, and the row of the incredibly fancy buildings at the Southern seafront. What a combination of luxury, poverty, trash, grandeur and decadence.

 

I have never been anywhere where artistic traces of British colonialism, the English orientalist daydreams of Islamic and Indian architecture, would be so visible. Walking later on through a cricket field closer to the harbor I had to remind myself that I was not in England, but in Maharashtra. After a moment I met a woman who was selling street food with her cow, and this type of fast-paced cultural turbulence makes the city quite an experience. During my stay I learned that many of my friends talk about hybrid culture, a culture which is both Indian and 'something else'.

 

I saw some great galleries and art spaces – without forgetting the great exhibitions - in Mumbai city. One place where curator Abhinit Kanna took me to is the Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke, where I saw the absolutely stunning exhibition by Abir Karmakar. For Displacement (pic 2) Karmakar had painted photorealistic walls full of everyday crap like old telephones and dirty jackets. It wasn’t depressive everyday analysis, nor was it a celebration of photorealistic painting technique. It was a super analytic inquiry into the world seen.

 

It was great to get first-hand comments on the cultural scene of the city, and Abhinit made me fall in love with egg sandwiches, which paradoxically of course is not a Mumbai thing, but something very American, which was served in a pleasant hipster café, Kala Ghoda, in the art district.

 

In the Clark House Initiative there was a great exhibition about Polish–Indian commerce and state cooperation from the Cold War Period. Prince Polonia, originally shown in Warsaw, was curated by Max Cegielski and Janek Simon, and it included partly unforeseen and partly just interesting material about smuggling, Polish construction projects in India, Polish media representations of India and interviews with people who had been building these surprisingly strong relations at the time. The highlight of the show was a film showing an Indian businessman who spoke perfect Polish and who sang a Polish song, on a street where every shop still had relationships to Poland. There was a lot of absurd material around, like old Polish yoga pics, and I really think this exhibition would be fun to get to Finland, which has maybe got over its own hangover of being between East and West, but where people still get the point in the exhibition of this kind of material. The exhibition had a strong research accent. It was a supreme example of how contemporary arts can be used to study the world.

 

I suppose I met the international avant-garde cream of Mumbai in the gallery, and I had a couple of fun discussions with the crowd before I went eating to the other side of the road for ‘just 5 minutes’ and fell asleep. When the waiter woke me up, I realized it was time to take a rickshaw car to the hotel, I had been quite many days traveling without rest.

 

Sumeshwar Sharma and Zasha Colah, who have been the founding figures of the Clark House Initiative, were in a Helsinki residency a couple of years ago, and Eva Neklyaeva (who I ran a gallery with in the early 2000s) brought us together so that Sumesh in the end gave a whole day of teaching for my students in ViCCA. I really liked his laid-back, critical and playful character and way of lecturing – I think he is a bold thinker – so it was now fun to see the space he presented way back.

 

Museums, like the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (ex Prince of Wales Museum), The National Gallery and the Jehangir Art Gallery were all pleasing places to visit, although I also know I missed many interesting spaces. In the National Gallery there was a pleasing retrospective by Sakti Burman, who’s Bengali-based paintings where Gods enter modern everyday situations somehow triggered by appetite for the mystical absurdism of everyday life. In the Chhatrpati I spent a long time trying to get my eyes to digest the forms of old craft from painting to sculpture, and I just love the way they somehow are hard to get formally speaking. (Viva cultural differences.)

 

I had the luck to arrive to Mumbai with the same plane as Nitin Sod from the Fashion Institute of Technology, and I so had a good start by receiving a broad variety of great recommendations for both eating and gazing at art already at Bengaluru airport. We spent time together in Bengaluru making design studio visits just some days before, and I was a bit late asking for a visit to the institute, but hopefully this could happen next time, as I got the feeling that their curriculums shared some resonance with ours.

 

The universities and colleges I visited during my Indian trip were all and all anyway very impressive. One day I took the long taxi ride from the center to (Bollywood) film town, were Yussuf Mehta, father of our ex ViCCA MA program assistant Ali Akbar Mehta, is professor. (We met earlier this year when he visited Helsinki, as Ali and his wife Vidha are practically our neighbors.) The film town was really just a bunch of huge architectural cubes spread out here and there, and one could just imagine how they were from time to time filled with fantastic sceneries. Whistling Woods where Mehta is professor at, had an impressive school building, a variety of different types of studios and it was interesting to see an educational unit which was so in the heart of making film. When I was there a film crew was just filming outside of the house!

 

Together with Fatima, Yussuf’s wife and their son Raza, we took ourselves to see some fun young independent theater. Studio Tamaasha’s The Drum Roll was fun to see, with quite traditional acting but a witty and fresh narrative, a collection of stories about how hard it is to find the right people and to get along with them. I got the feeling that Indian youngsters have as much trouble with finding the right one as their Finnish peers. And there were some really talented young actors on the stage.

 

We finished the evening at Gajalee, which, if I understood right, is a seafood classic in the city. I will never forget the deep fried Bombils of the restaurant. They totally broke my culinary heart. Food in Mumbai is all and all just great. It is like in Rome or Tuscany, everything is good. I enjoyed many classics, like the street food stands on Muhammad Ali Street and the breakfast café Leopold, where my friend, Aniruddha Gupté took me for breakfast one morning. Aniruddha also took me around with the train system and we went to take a look at a huge pop up art exhibition in the harbor, The Sassoon Dock Art Project, where I saw some really impressive art works from all over South and South East Asia. One thing differs from my own scene: many works very really huge in size. In the harbor area we also strolled to see fishermen and their families preparing and selling fish.

 

When I was busy I ate hotel food, and I was happy to find for example great pulaos on the menu, something I have become used to prepare and eat following our lovely Afgani godson, who is from a small town close to Kabul, and came to Finland as a refugee two years ago. When I arrived to India we flew over Afganistan, and as I sent him the picture of Finnair’s graphic communications, he said “next time Afganistan”. I would be happy if the world would change so that work travels to Afganistan would be a commonplace.

 

I came back home with a lot of tea and books and I got the feeling that this huge city could offer a lot more. Next time I think I have to stay there for a week or two. I prepared already a list of foods that I missed, the spearhead being grilled goat brain, which the place where I planned to eat it ran out of just the last evening when I was prepared for the adventure. Anyway, I am cooking a lot of Indian food at home now.

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